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Nothing wrong with blowing a trumpet

02 November 2012

Christians should publicise their achievements, especially in social action, argues Angus Ritchie

We certainly have an almost supernatural gift as the Church of England for presenting ourselves in the worst possible light in the public eye.

The Archbishop of Canterbury

THIS comment by Dr Williams could have been provoked by many aspects of the Church's life. In fact, it was made in a sermon about Christian social action. Over the past year, we have seen just how badly the Church communicates with the outside world about this. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the events in and around St Paul's Cathedral, the Occupy camp and its eviction reinforced the impression of an "institutional Church" that was out of touch and in the pockets of vested interests ( Features, 12 October).

This Sunday, 4 November, marks the start of Living Wage Week. It is the next stage in a growing campaign, and will probably attract much favourable media coverage. Boris Johnson will announce the new London Living Wage figure; Ed Miliband will announce the national rate. The campaign has transcended party divisions and gained support in surprising quarters. As well as trade unions, many leading companies now argue that there is a sound business case for paying a Living Wage.

Amid the media coverage, one detail may well be overlooked. From the very start, churches have been central. Without them, there would be no Living Wage. The campaign was born at a meeting of community leaders, mostly from religious institutions. All were members of the East London Communities Organisation (TELCO), our local chapter of Citizens UK.

It was a group of Roman Catholic nuns who secured the first meeting between TELCO and the chairman of a large bank. When polite letter-writing yielded no response from HSBC, the nuns paralysed its Oxford Street branch by paying in thousands of pounds' worth of votive-candle donations, coin by coin, and carrying placards demanding a meeting with Sir John Bond.

As a result, Sir John came to an Anglican church in east London to hear testimony from people living on poverty pay. That meeting led to the campaign's first victory: HSBC made a commitment to pay all staff and contract workers the Living Wage.

Christians have been at the heart of many subsequent successes - actions that have put about £100 million more into the pockets of more than 10,000 low-income families in London alone.

THE Occupy camp led many commentators to berate the conservatism and general uselessness of the "institutional Church". It is this very institution, however, that has made the Living Wage possible. Believing can be an individual activity, but it is in a religious institution that people spend time each week, building a community, sustaining relationships, and placing the story of their lives in a larger narrative of meaning and hope.

Politicians have now taken up the cause of the Living Wage. This is, of course, to be welcomed. But it is important to tell the story of the campaign's genesis, at a time when effective action for justice is needed on so many other fronts. Unless we understand what generated this success, we are unlikely to take the actions that will achieve other much-needed changes - such as Citizens UK's current campaigns for affordable housing and against exploitative lending.

The question remains: why does the Church find it so hard to tell the story of these kinds of success?

First, it may seem too much like blowing our own trumpet. In the end, however, the story is not about us: it is about the gospel's transforming power, and the fact that gospel transformation happens when believers meet, and when they worship and act together.

Second, such communication may seem too risky. Christians may feel so bruised by the negative media stories that they fight shy of engagement with the press. Experience suggests that this is a serious mistake. It cedes the airwaves and column inches to those who want to portray the faith as divisive and reactionary.

Third, some of the most exciting stories involve co-operation with those outside the Church. (The Living Wage campaign is a case in point, as was the Jubilee 2000 campaign to cancel debt in developing countries.) This makes it a more complex story to tell, and also makes it harder to communicate the part played by the Church.

Yet, in an increasingly pluralistic society, we need to get much better at communicating that the Church is committed to the gospel as a public truth, and is capable of working with others to achieve lasting social transformation.

Living Wage Week provides excellent opportunities for such communication. Congregations can engage with their local media to tell the story of what has been accomplished, and the part that churches have played in it. (And for those churches that have not yet played a part, there are many ways in which they can begin to do so.)

The national Church can also show its support, when the issue is debated at the General Synod in November. Encouragingly, the private member's motion - which both supports the principle of the Living Wage and calls on all Church of England institutions to pay it - has more signatories than any other. It is important that the Synod celebrates the Christian origins of the campaign, and offers its un- ambiguous endorsement. This is one way, among others, in which the Church can present itself in a better light.

Canon Angus Ritchie is Director of the Contextual Theology Centre in east London.

The Centre website (www. theology-centre.org) has resources for Living Wage Week, and for community conversations on the wider financial crisis.

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