Blessed are the Poor? Urban poverty and the Church
SCM Press £19.99
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WHERE are the poor in Britain today? Who or what has impoverished them? What does and can the Church do to celebrate their gifts? How can they be a blessing to the world? Laurie Green, native East Ender, parish priest, and now retired bishop, uses a question mark after the beatitude in his book’s title to issue a challenge.
Green, who claims to be at home in both working- and middle-class cultures, admits the book is more likely to be read by those from the latter. This does not stop him from tilting at much of the middle ground in political and church life.
Green argues that the excluded and marginalised are to be found on poor housing estates. He looks at the lost world of working-class culture, and the aspiration and education that accompanied it, the consequences of a diminished manufacturing base and government policies on benefits.
Much of the post-war dream
— social housing, the welfare state, and the NHS — has been lost or compromised. Worse still, those at the bottom of the heap are demonised, or even blame themselves, for their circumstances. Two ringing phrases capture this: “There is enough to fulfil everyone’s need, but not to fulfil our greed,” and “there have been factors in operation that turned the promised new Jerusalem into the last place you would choose to live.”
Green champions the call of Pope Francis that the Church should be poor and for the poor. He draws on conversations he has had with residents of estates — essential to the process of working with them — and testimony of those who live and work among them.
From this, Green charts a meditative weaving of theology, particularly around the Lord’s Prayer, in which, over two chapters, he blends insight with anecdotes and opinions of estate-dwellers and churches. Both chapters conclude with a bracing table in which he contrasts Positive Kingdom Values and Opposing Attitudes. He draws on his own earlier works, particularly Doing Theology, which sought to democratise the process of reflecting on life, culture, faith, and scripture.
Society, politics, and the Church need to respond — more than that, to change — or the widening gap will become uncrossable. Some of Green’s illustrations can seem sentimental, a nostalgia for a passed world and ethos. Inevitably, some will contend that his repeated assertions about the dubious results of top-down intervention and trickle-down improvements are simply one viewpoint.
Green is passionate for the Church to alter to meet new circumstances, not the least being recognition of the loss of a Christendom culture. It must adapt and free itself of trappings that stop it engaging in effective mission.
The book mixes the prophetic with the personal: the author draws on many conversations in which he, as either listener or speaker, features. In all this, Green warns that residents of poor estates need to be listened to, engaged with, and valued for who they are and what they can do — not what the institutions want of them — so that effective, life-enhancing, and radical change can, indeed, allow the poor to be blessed.
The Revd Kevin Scully is the Rector of St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green, in east London.