A SKETCH by the late comedian Victoria Wood features a stern-faced newsreader who says sincerely: “We’d like to apologise to our viewers in the north. . . It must be awful for you.”
Research undertaken by Professor Iain Buchan and and his team at Manchester University suggests that this awfulness is no laughing matter. The research report, North-South disparities in English mortality 1965–2015: longitudinal population, published recently in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, said that people in the north of England were 20 per cent more likely to die under the age of 75, and that, in 2015, there were 49 per cent more deaths among 35-to-44-year-olds compared with the south. It also found that this north-south divide had been increasing since the mid-1990s.
The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, has emphasised the systemic character of this enduring regional inequality (News, 11 August). This implicates us all, northern and southern, rich and poor. Systemic problems are, by their nature, multi-layered and reinforced by chronic vicious circles. Furthermore, the persistence of systemic problems makes efforts at intervention, even by government, seem puny and tokenistic.
Just as this eye-opening research made the headlines, the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, declared the Church of England “complicit in the abandonment of the poor”, and cited perturbing statistics that highlight the Church’s bias to the comfortable (News, 11 August).
The Bishops’ criticisms are driven by the same impulse that lay behind Faith in the City, the 1985 report of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas, which chastised the Church of England for its neglect of poor neighbourhoods, and ferreted out another systemic reality: that, in hard times, the burden is carried disproportionately by the poor.
THERE is, however, no need for another commission and another report to help the Church to respond to the unholy dynamics exposed by Professor Buchan. From both history and contemporary work, there are examples of how churches can engage with systemic misery.
From history, we have the processes associated with early Methodism, which equipped those stunted by wretchedness to struggle against their circumstances. The call to embrace holiness was not about seducing the oppressed to accommodate themselves to privation, as many Marxist-inspired historians have suggested. The call to holiness, combined with the solidarity of the band and the class (regular meetings of rigorous and mutual examination, testimony, and confession), fortified people to achieve the intentional behaviour that enabled them to overcome circumstances. Today, a similar process is offered by the myriad local Alcoholics Anonymous and other addiction meetings, which often meet in church halls.
The Church of Scotland has harnessed the power of coaching, to help people grapple with chronic adverse circumstances. Individuals, groups, ministers, congregations, and others from the wider neighbourhood have been invited to work with trained and experienced coaches to identify and work for their yearned-for best intentions. This has enabled people from hard-bitten housing schemes to bend adversity and sustain their intentionality. The Church of Scotland has also initiated the Poverty Truth Commission, bringing together Scotland’s key decision-makers with people living at the sharp end of poverty, so that those affected by decisions are at the very heart of decision-making.
Poverty Truth Commissions have been launched in various English cities, often supported by the Church Urban Fund. This simple replication, however, misses the vital underpinning of coaching. This omission matters, because systemic grief and grievance cannot be transformed simply by speaking truth to power. Prior work in relation to sense of purpose, motivation, and confidence is necessary — and this is where faith matters.
Making a faith commitment makes an impact on people’s attitude to their circumstances, and, when people’s attitudes change, so, too, do the micro-actions in which they engage. This may sound puny, but in desperate circumstances it may be all that people have. As Viktor Frankl noted, the last of human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude to one’s circumstances.
To highlight the importance of grappling with circumstances is to enter treacherous political terrain. Suggesting that people should struggle against their circumstances quickly gets derided as insensitive to the impact of relentless long-term deprivation, as well as naïve about the benefits that accrue to both the rich and the non-poor from the workings of the status quo. To cave in to this criticism, however, risks selling short the distinctive contribution of faith and the unique part that the Church plays.
BISHOP North would be gladdened that the Church of Scotland, besides investing in coaching, provides additional full-time staff for each and every priority (poor) parish. The people appointed, however, are not clergy, but youth workers, community animators, administrators, artists, and poets, as well as trained and experienced coaches.
In responding to systemic issues, it is necessary to venture fresh approaches; in particular, the Church of England will have to let go of its preoccupation with ordained ministry. Priests are important, but if the Church is to avoid being on the wrong side of the divide — to echo the veteran journalist Jon Snow’s judgement of the media after his encounter with survivors of Grenfell Tower — the narrow imagination of investing so much in ordained ministry needs to be named and confronted.
Professor Buchan, a specialist in public health, likewise acknowledges that the reality of two Englands, north and south, divided by resources and life expectancy, has been resistant to conventional public-health interventions. He, too, calls for a fresh and imaginative approach.
It would be tragic indeed if the Church failed to offer its essential contribution because it has absorbed the materialist assumption that systemic grief and grievance can be addressed only by rebalancing the wider economy and by the abandonment of current benefit policies. These two things are important, but churches have more to offer: in particular, the offer of faith, which changes more than we can conceive. Interestingly, this is something that more and more research programmes now acknowledge.
Ann Morisy lives in south London. She directed the Commission on Urban Life and Faith which produced the report Faithful Cities, the follow-up to Faith in the City.