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No cavalry is coming over the hill

20 June 2014

Creating a more equal society is up to each person and each church, says Paul Hackwood

Church Urban Fund

Change happening: St Andrew's Community Foodbank, in Liverpool

Change happening: St Andrew's Community Foodbank, in Liverpool

LIFE EXPECTANCY for the poor in the UK is 20 years shorter than for the rest of the country. Such devastating variations in life-chances are one of the litmus tests for what constitutes a just society. And yet one of the growing threats to unlocking more just relationships is the overwhelming feeling among so many that there is nothing that can be done; worse still, that any change will come from elsewhere - from "them".

Yet I believe that there is concrete hope that we can offer: it is represented by the churches that are responding to the needs of their communities with services such as foodbanks, lunch clubs, and night shelters. So how can "we" reimagine our belief in the human capacity to make a difference in tough times?

Since 2008, we have faced an economic crisis. Ever since, policy-makers have been trying to make sense of a world in which their options to raise taxes are constrained, and where repaying the interest on breathtaking amounts of public debt gobbles up huge resources, despite huge cuts from public services. No matter who wins the next General Election, the money is not coming back.

YET, collectively, if we read some church statements and many secular poverty-lobby press releases, we continue to hang on to the idea that we have few real choices: either, we think, the invisible hand of the market determines us, and will sort it all out in the end; or we cling to a conviction that we are somehow bound to an all-powerful State, which legislates endlessly for the good life, but never quite delivers it. In this world-view, some kind of magical solution will emerge, if only we can keep calm and carry on.

One path is underpinned by a set of purist assumptions about the ability of markets to structure our relationships with each other, and thus to create a good society. For some, the crisis of 2008 seems only to have refined this view.

In practice, however, it seems to lead us, at best, to a generalised unhappiness and the feeling that "There must be more to life than this." At worst, it creates for some, a life that is "nasty, brutish and short", as they are left out on long hours and low wages, or in atomised alienation in neighbourhoods that are set aside from the mainstream.

The second future possibility is the emergence of a State that is strangled by its own commitments and the stagnation that comes from an economy that is unable to payfor the assumptions of an earlier age. In this scenario, we end up living with promises made by successive Governments that cannot be afforded: a State that simply runs out of money.

Having promised ourselves all sorts of goodies, from pensions to health-care and education, the poor lose out again, as the legitimacy and ability of the State to deliver is chipped - and chopped - away .

THIS is where the Christian community has something distinctive to offer in shaping the argument and the practice about what change might look like. For example, in Middlesbrough, the Church Urban Fund (CUF) has supported a project that brings together young men with a history of offending: it provides them with positive role-models to begin to reshape their lives. In Derby, we have pump-primed an Innovation Centre to unlock the under-used property, time, and talents of the Church to address social needs, in collaboration with local universities and civic associations.

Our research suggests that access to more than half of all community activities and support are now gained through church provision, as churches and clergy remain key sources of civic leadership and action. It is not in grand words such as regenerating or revitalising that change now comes about, but in concrete deeds. The transformation of hearts and minds necessary for real change is unlocked by a deeper engagement, so revealing the deeper foundations in which our common life is rooted.

To put this more practically, Thomas Piketty, in his Capital inthe Twenty-First Century (Harvard, 2014), argues that what we do next arises from the choices that we make rather than the inevitable forces that we might wish would let us off the hook.

AT CUF, we have been re-inventing our mission for these complex times. Through a network of ventures with dioceses, we offer new ways of both supporting churches in the practical activity they engage in with communities, and providing them with the tools that they need to speak out with real traction about what is happening locally.

We believe that this is where change will come about, because this is where we can begin again to recognise the value of our relationship with our neighbour, and the responsibility that we owe to each other.

We want to help the Church raise a fresh voice about how we want to live together: a society where all are included, where people are valued for who they are, and where everyone has the chance to shape their own and their community's future.

Our experience is that, whereas, in many communities, contributions can be engulfed by a harsh negativity, churches can be a real antidote. We need to ask ourselves what sort of society we want to live in, and then go out and show what it looks like, arguing for how much fuller it could be.

Flourishing, for us, goes to the heart of the Christian vision. But it is also a concrete word that reflects how people can belong, take part, feel welcomed, and seize a future.

It is the moment when the "they" of impersonal forces becomes an "us" by which all our relationships make sense, and so empower us to make a difference. And in a society where the poor can expect to live 20 fewer years than everyone else, it is a capacity that has never been more urgently needed.

Canon Paul Hackwood is Executive Chair of the Church Urban Fund. A new report, Good Neighbours: How churches help communities flourish, commissioned by CUF from Theos, is published next month.

Material for Poverty Sunday (22 June) is available at www.cuf.org.uk.

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