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Archbishop’s commission on housing will seek to be ‘radical but receivable’

10 April 2019


The Archbishop of Canterbury in the commission’s launch video

The Archbishop of Canterbury in the commission’s launch video

THE Archbishop of Canterbury expressed the hope that his Commission on Housing, Church and Community would be “imaginative, thoughtful, and radical” when he spoke at its launch on Tuesday.

“This isn’t a time for safe, nice words: it’s a time for a radical look at what enables people to live in communities, to build relationships.”

The commission would not be afraid to be controversial, the adviser on financing social housing, Charlie Arbuthnot, who is to chair it said. But he wanted its findings to be “receivable”.

The Area Bishop of Kensington, in London diocese, Dr Graham Tomlin, will be the vice-chair. They hoped to “begin to see how the Christian faith can inform some of these big issues in housing in our nation”, he said.

The commission will last for approximately 18 months, and examine how the Church can develop its own housing policy as well as influence the national debate.

The other members of the commission are Christine Whitehead, Emeritus Professor of Housing Economics at the London School of Economics; Sir Robert Devereux, a former Permanent Secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions; the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees; Cym D’Souza, of Arawak Walton Housing Association; Gill Payne, of the National Housing Federation; the Revd Lynne Cullens, of the National Estate Churches Network; Dr Stephen Backhouse, of the Westminster Theological Centre; and the Revd Chris Beales, of Durham University.

In February, the General Synod carried a private member’s motion from Andrew Gray of Norwich diocese, which called on the Church of England to form a battle plan for tackling homelessness (Synod, 1 March).

Speaking at the launch of the commission, Mr Arbuthnot said that there were three ways in which the Church could make a unique contribution to the debate on housing: it could offer a distinctive narrative, outside politics; it had a presence in every community; and it had assets and could think about how they were used.

“What if through this we could re-empower and reimagine Church?” he asked. “What if the Church and housing associations partnered with a vision for community?”

If you looked back a generation, he said, “your house is your home,” but now “my home is my castle, but also my value.”

He believed very strongly, he said, that “the goal of this commission is not to be right, but to be right in a way that’s receivable. We will be controversial — I don’t think you can avoid that. You can’t solve major issues without suggesting controversial things.

“So, if we’re going to provide anything of value, somebody, somewhere, is going to find it really controversial. I’m not trying to find controversy, but I’m totally unfazed by being controversial if that’s where we need to go. I think our challenge is to take those controversial views and then argue them and present them in a way that makes people think ‘Oh, that makes sense.’”

Dr Tomlin said: “We are very conscious that we don’t want to speak to government without speaking to ourselves first. As the Church, we recognise that we’re a major landowner. I think we’ll have an ongoing conversation with the Church Commissioners throughout this process, working with them to work out how we, as a Church, can be responsible, both to the needs of the Church Commissioners as a charity, and . . . to encourage and reimagine ways we can use our resources, in ways that are the most positive for the building of affordable housing, for enabling community life to happen.

“There is a twin focus to the commission: it is both speaking to ourselves, to the Church, ‘How do we use our resources well, in a creative and imaginative way?’, but also to the wider society; and we hope to come up with some ideas, some proposals, that may begin to change housing policy on a more broader, macro-level as well.”

Speaking by videolink from the Spencer Dallington Estate, near Northampton, Archbishop Welby said: “The Church has often been at the centre of communities. Because we’re in every community, we need to reflect on what we learn from that, to contribute to ways forward in housing, and see how the Church can make a physical and spiritual contribution to building communities. It is not just about building flats or houses: it is about building communities.”

He was in conversation with the Rector of Dallington and St James’s, Northampton, the Revd Sue Faulkner, and Dave Gray, an estate resident, who also spoke of the importance of community.

Mr Arbuthnot said: “If you go back a generation, your house is your home,” but now “my home is my castle, but also my value.”

Dr Tomlin, speaking after the launch, agreed: “I think what we need in this debate is a much clearer vision of what housing is for, and what it is, because I think we’ve drifted into a situation where housing is seen as a financial asset rather than a place for home, for shelter, for nurture, for community. So often, our housing policy has been driven by financial and economic needs rather than by a vision for what housing, a home, is for. I think that’s radical.

“I think that’s part of our task: to articulate a Christian vision of housing. That vision will include that we’re not just about building houses: we’re about building communities. It’s not about what we build: it’s about how we build — how we build houses that enable community to happen.

”My hope is that by articulating that, we’ll be able to shed some light on the housing crisis, which has been going on for decades, which might actually begin to unlock some of the tricky long-term problems.”

Archbishop Welby, in a video launched with the commission, said they were putting people with direct experience at the heart of this work. “The Grenfell Tower tragedy showed us the profound importance of hearing people’s concerns about housing. We will be listening closely to the voices of those struggling with housing problems.

“We’ll also be learning from churches, and those with experience of tackling these issues. As well as understanding the challenges, we hope to draw out the lessons of exciting and innovative approaches to building homes and communities where people can have, as Jesus puts it, ‘life in all its fullness’.

“In all of this, as the Church, we have one primary motivation: in the words of St Paul, the love of Christ compels us. The example of Jesus draws us on and leads us not just to speak of God’s love, but to demonstrate it by reaching out in compassion to those who are in greatest need.”

An exploratory report, Building Community: Church responses to the housing crisis, was published on Tuesday. It reports work that churches and dioceses are already doing to help to address housing problems.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s book Reimagining Britain, published last year, included a chapter on housing (Comment, 9 March 2018). Last year the Bishop of Burnley announced that the Church was “back” on housing estates (News, 26 September 2018); and campaigners from St George-in-the-East, in east London, won their battle to have social housing built on land next to a railway line in Shadwell, close to the church (News, 9 March 2018).

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