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Vision dear of peace and love

27 March 2015

John Inge praises a Christian contribution to the urban debate

The Spiritual City: Theology, spirituality, and the urban
Philip Sheldrake
Wiley Blackwell £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

CITY-DWELLERS, the author of this book writes, "undertake the vocation of living together in a way that reflects the love and beauty of God's inner life. Every city is a potential embodiment of God's presence in which the inhabitants confront the daily challenge of promoting justice against injustice, beauty against ugliness, and love versus social indifference."

That is Philip Sheldrake's glorious vision, articulated towards the end of a wonderful book. He has reflected on the importance of place in human experience as much as anyone, and he now, with great wisdom, brings the fruit of that reflection to bear upon the question what constitutes a "good city".

The history of Western civilisation is, as the etymology of the word implies, a history of cities. Sheldrake gives us a wealth of insights from Christian thinking on cities through the centuries, demonstrating how, in medieval times, spirituality was at their heart, as were their great cathedrals. He then reflects on the contemporary city by examining recent scholarship from disciplines other than theology, which regrets prevailing influences on the development of the city in the past century, that have "all too often undermined place identity in pursuit of values driven largely by economic considerations".

He draws on the work of great thinkers such as the French Jesuit Michel de Certeau, who is very critical of the influential approach to European regeneration espoused by le Corbusier and others, with its "tendency to erase the past and a tendency to subordinate the reality of people's lives to abstract concepts of place". Sheldrake asks us to consider how crucial to the welfare of the city are "the art of community" and a commitment to reconciliation and hospitality, before proposing "urban virtues" centred on human solidarity. His proposal of what might constitute a "good city" from a Christian perspective is summed up in the quotation with which I began this review. It is convincing, I think, in seeking to relate city-making to "a vision of the human spirit and what enhances it".

This book is a must-read for anyone concerned about the future of cities - and that ought to be pretty much everyone, given that well over half the world's population now lives in cites, up from 29 per cent in 1950. In any event, Revelation makes it clear that if we don't live in one now, we shall, God willing.

Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.

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