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Faith: Lessons that we can learn from the poor

02 February 2018

Robert Wickham reflects on the zeal for mission among those who live in poverty, and the need for their stories to be told


A bronze plaque at the Chapel of the Beatitudes in Berchtesgaden, Upper Bavaria

A bronze plaque at the Chapel of the Beatitudes in Berchtesgaden, Upper Bavaria

TWO years ago, I moved from living in Hackney, where 40 per cent of children were growing up in poverty, to live in Hampstead, where the figure is five per cent; so I have seen at first hand the disparity of poverty and wealth within London. It makes me uncomfortable each time I say that I believe in the “apostolic and Catholic Church”, as I know that I am not divorced from this disparity. We all have our parts to play, and I wonder how we might do this, as we share humanity with our brothers and sisters.

In overseeing the work of the commissioning of Ambassadors in the diocese of London, I regularly reflect on the life experiences of those thousands of people whom we are commissioning. What does it mean to be confident Christians who are able to speak and live the Christian faith in a variety of different settings? Similarly, if we take seriously the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6.20-26, aka the Beatitudes), how do we make sure that the poor are, indeed, our teachers, influencing our outward focus as a Church? We are sending people into a variety of environments about which most of us, I suspect, know very little. Each setting is unique, and it would be wrong for me to pretend otherwise.


I WAS challenged during a recent visit to Mozambique, where I was surrounded by extreme poverty, but the desire for mission and church growth was palpable. I came across one cleric who had commissioned 200 catechists, and now oversaw 54 church-plants, because his zeal for mission was unstoppable. He said that he had nothing to lose, and the people he served had everything to gain; so he was daily on the lookout for new leaders, new relationships, and new opportunities.

So why is it that sometimes, in London, we feel threatened by one new church-plant just up the road, for fear that this might “steal our people” — yet, on average, just 1.7 per cent of the population attend our churches?

In Mozambique, the worship was joyful, in a spirit of sharing and fellowship. It seemed to me that many Christians really did love each other in a way that I rarely see in any deanery synod or clergy chapter. I witnessed both lay people and clergy offering all that they had to God’s service, living something of the life of Acts 2; and people were flourishing together, en Christo, in the midst of extreme poverty. I was reminded of the importance of the prayer of Charles de Foucauld: “I surrender all, I give all.”


CLOSER to home, I recently attended an open Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting, where I was surrounded by a different sort of poverty: a fragility and brokenness that were terrifying, yet beautiful. The storytelling and the testimonies reminded me of Mozambique, and of a few of the confirmation services I have led in London, where truthful testimonies have been encouraged.

The AA testimonies were deeply honest and soul-searching, revealing a profound desire for grace and forgiveness with all the cries and laments of the Psalmist. It was as if Jesus was dancing in the room, and the reality of the cross was laid bare, as was the beauty of powerlessness and humility. People were open about their vulnerability, and much stronger as a result, and this was reflected in their relationships.

At risk of sounding like an episcopal version of “Common People”, by the band Pulp, I suggest that there is a real challenge here for a Church, which is, in leadership, too white, too male, and too middle-class. If “the poor” (with all the complexities of what this term might mean) are our teachers, how is the Church learning from them? And how are we listening to their cries, which are given air space only in times of trial, terror, or tragedy, when their experiences momentarily become news?


IN THE diocese of London, we have been encouraging the “blessing of the backpacks”. I have never got out of the rhythm of thinking that September is back-to-school month; so we bless the new year, and new beginnings. We have been encouraging people to come to church on a specific Sunday — perhaps even for Harvest — when we have asked God to bless their backpacks, filled with those things that we need to flourish and thrive from day to day. For some, this may be a new pair of shoes; for others, their mobile phone, or tablet, or laptop; for yet others, a new PE kit or pencil case.

The Church commissions everyday people to go about their everyday lives, with the tools that they will need in those everyday lives. This is at the heart of “Setting God’s People Free”, and part of Renewal and Reform. People are sent out into their workplaces, schools, and day centres with a renewed sense that this is the place for us to be confident, both in mission and in building relationships. While this is potentially an exciting development, I wonder how we are properly preparing people for this ministry; for this needs to be more than mere rhetoric.

I wonder also how many of those doing the commissioning (me included) really grasp the realities of the lives of those individuals whom we send out, and the places that we are sending them out to. How do I experience for myself their homes and workplaces, how do I immerse myself in the realities of another’s life, and how might I frame the relational building and teaching styles of the Church to reflect this — to make it as easy and accessible as possible? Indeed, whom am I excluding, because of my lack of immersion, and my unwitting caving in to my unconscious bias?


I LOVE the good news in Luke 10, when Jesus sends out the disciples. He has been with them, taught them, healed them, and loved them, and now he sends them out — a bit like the blessing of the backpacks. As we commission, and as we pronounce a dismissal, we are also sending people out to love and serve the Lord. Yet Luke 10 makes sense when we realise that those who are sent out come back rejoicing. They tell their stories, and we see a real glimpse here of how the poor, vulnerable, broken, and fragile have taught; and how the relating of these experiences shapes the life of the Kingdom of God.

Then, of course, we see Jesus himself rejoicing because the poor have been our teachers. Jesus exclaims: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”

Perhaps we need to pray that this gospel comes alive in our own time; perhaps we need to find new ways in which the poor can teach, and that their stories will be told loudly; and then we might, just might, like Jesus, find a renewed sense of hope and joy.


The Rt Revd Robert Wickham is the Bishop of Edmonton, in the diocese of London.

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