THE Church's response to the riots of last summer was the
subject of a debate on Sunday afternoon, based on the report
Testing the Bridges: Understanding the role of the Church
amidst riots, disturbances and disorder.
"We live in an age when the public understanding of religious
belief is often woeful," the Bishop of Bath &
Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Price, said at the start of the
debate. "Religion is perceived as irrational and therefore socially
useless, if not undesirable. What we have tried to highlight in the
report is the way that the things Christians believe shape the way
they act, and how their actions demonstrably support the good of
"Last August proved that serving the common good is what a lot
of Christians do, almost instinctively, even in hard, dangerous,
and frightening circumstances." Christians were not the only ones
who were influential on the streets, he said, but being a member of
a faith community seemed to have been "a major factor".
Addressing a possible cause of the disorder, he said: "It is
perfectly possible to empathise with the Chancellor of the
Exchequer and those responsible for policy, recognising the immense
pressure they are under from the financial markets and credit
reference agencies, and at the same time to sound a clear warning
note about the social consequences of austerity measures which hit
the most vulnerable hardest and leave the very rich unscathed."
He said that he would not be "sentimental" about those who "took
to the streets last August and destroyed property, ruined other
people's lives, and walked off with looted trophies. Riots embody
appalling evil and criminality, and those who get drawn in often
display great wickedness."
He continued: "The tragedy of our times is that we have a large
population of young people who are desperate to escape from the
constrained lives to which they seem to be condemned. Where hope
has been killed off, and with no prospect of escape, is it
surprising that their energies erupt in anti-social and violent
actions? In a consumer society, is it surprising that lusting after
high-status goods is seen as a way to find meaning?"
He said: "If similar outbreaks of disorder happen this summer,
or next, or the summer after, we will be asking ourselves why we
did not learn more quickly and thoroughly from the churches which
were caught up in last year's events."
The Revd Jacqueline Stober (Liverpool) spoke of
her desire for a "more relevant" part for the Church to play in
responding to unrest. During the riots, she had had a
high-visibility jacket, wore her collar and cloak, and had imagined
herself "going back and forth across barricades, reducing
tensions". A policewoman had told her that she might make cups of
tea for elderly people at the church. Yet nuns, for instance, were
"picking out children in the crowd, calling them by name, and
sending them home".
Ian Fletcher (Bradford) commended the report,
but argued that it should have referred back more to the events of
the past, such as the Bradford riots in 1995 and 2001. Riots had a
"lasting effect" on neighbourhoods. Although the riots of 2011 had
not spread to Bradford, there was a "nervousness" because of this
"knowledge from the past".
After riots, people faced criminal charges and prison sentences:
there were "all sorts of pastoral issues still to be dealt with".
He attributed the calm in Bradford last year to the work that the
Church had done after the riots of previous years, and the
influence of the Team Rector, George Moffat, in Manningham, for
whom people still expressed thanks. Some of those imprisoned after
those riots were now working with young people "to give them
guidance into being good citizens". The paper needed to look to the
past to enable lessons to be learned from it.
Prebendary Philippa Boardman (London), a priest
in a parish where looting took place, asked where the Church should
go from here. "How do we help young people to find purpose in their
lives, and build personal resilience? How do we help young people
find a sense of their own value and self-worth?" She appealed for
thought to be put into how Christian youth work could be kept going
"so that young people can find their value and purpose in Christ
and in his Church".
The Archdeacon of Walsall, the Ven. Christopher
Sims (Lichfield), said that a cleric who had sat in a police patrol
car during the riots told him how fearful and powerless the police
had felt. Archdeacon Sims also asked whether the media had
"overstepped the mark between thorough coverage and obsession. In
our area, the scenes of the riots were played over and over again,"
and might have "been instrumental in the riots' spreading around
Simon Baynes (St Albans) spoke of his diocesan
Penal Affairs Group, which was set up four years ago. "It has built
up an unstoppable momentum, driven by people who care." He said the
objective was to "weave a Christian thread into the justice
narrative", adding: "to be really effective we need similar groups
in every diocese."
The Revd Michael Booker (Ely), in his maiden
speech, said that the report Testing the Bridges was an
"endorsement of local church, parish-based ministry. Local clergy
living and known in their parishes, locally rooted congregations,
and relationships with schools were clearly of immense value, and
withstood the test of the strain put upon them."
But could the Church be present in every community if some of
those communities were not geographical, but "mobile, networked,
and inter-related"? Alluding to the Fresh Expressions report, he
said that if the Church wanted to be rooted in every community, it
must include expressions that "won't stand still but which move
with young people and their mobile phones as they move across
parish, deanery, and even diocesan boundaries".
The Bishop of Ripon & Leeds, the Rt Revd
John Packer, who chairs the Urban Bishops' Panel, urged the
national church institutions to acknowledge the importance of
ministry in urban areas. In Leeds, he said, it was recognised that
the presence of youth workers on the streets helped to prevent
minor disturbances' developing into riots; and the Church needed to
do all it could to strengthen this provision at a time when secular
agencies were cutting theirs.
The Revd Philip North (London) briefly told the
stories of three former members of his youth group. One, James,
had, a few months before, been "dragged off" a bus and "pinned to
the ground" by police officers. When they realised that he was an
actor and writer, not a drug-dealer, he was charged with resisting
Lucy, a 15-year-old of South American origin, when asked what
she wanted to do in ten years' time, described having a house in
Essex with a helicopter and other riches. She was "a girl who has
bought into the consumerist lifestyle".
Finally, Julio, aged 20, and filmed throwing empty drinks cans
into police lines, had received a prison sentence of two years and
two months, though he had no previous convictions - "brutal
Regarding the report, Mr North wondered if he was alone in
finding in it a feeling of "Didn't we do well?" "We haven't done
well, because we are part of a culture in which these terrible
events can take place." The Church needed to address the issues
that riots gave rise to, as illustrated in the stories of the three
young people mentioned. Policing was still perceived as deeply
divisive and racist; the story of Lucy showed the "fatal
combination" of social inequality and a culture that "measures
success in terms of material acquisition"; and the story of Julio
showed the "ambivalent attitudes" society had to growing up. "We
worship children, yet are terrified of adolescents." Young people
had been presented as "feral youths on the verge of destroying
civilised society". He urged the Church to confront the issues
"honestly and with vigour".
The Revd Andrew Howard (York) welcomed the
report "warmly", and referred to several of the issues raised,
including relationships with ecumenical colleagues and those of
other faith backgrounds, and support for those who ministered in
areas of potential rioting. He asked whether public-order awareness
training was part of ministerial training. In times of social
unrest, the Church could be a "beacon of hope and unity".
The Synod took note of the report.
Gavin Oldham (Oxford) then moved a following
motion calling on the Government to work with the voluntary sector
to "harness the energy and creativity of unemployed young people by
offering non-exploitative work experience" in light of the
"exploitation which has occurred in some unpaid work schemes within
the 'for profit' sector".
After a very brief debate, a procedural motion was used to
adjourn the item until a later group of sessions.