THE city of Sunderland, in the north-east of England, might seem a surprising location for a theology conference: it is a city as famous now for the Brexit-related furore surrounding its Nissan factory as for the exploits of its proud but ailing football club.
And yet Sunderland boasts an impressive spiritual pedigree. The beautiful seventh-century church St Peter’s, Monkwearmouth, once part of the double monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, was home to the Venerable Bede, the only English Doctor of the Church, whose most famous work, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, is read to this day by undergraduate theology students.
Spiritual life in Sunderland did not end in the Middle Ages, and, today, a focal point can be found in Sunderland Minster, where a special welcome is given to refugees and asylum-seekers, and a specially constructed yurt sits ready for the minster’s regular Taizé-style services.
But poverty affects Sunderland and its neighbours in the north-east disproportionately: in some areas of Sunderland, childhood poverty stands at nearly half the population, making it a natural home for liberation theology, which originated in the peasant experience of (and resistance to) the poverty and oppression that many were experiencing under various Latin-American regimes of the mid-20th century.
As popular unrest and political turmoil unfold in Latin America once more, the decision to begin the 2019 Liberation Theology Gathering with a screening of the 2004 film Machuca seemed apt. Machuca gives a child’s-eye view of the 1973 military coup in Chile, which overthrew the Allende government and installed the military junta of General Augusto Pinochet. Liberation theology, which forms an essential undercurrent within the film, reacts to the ebbs and flows of the human social condition through the lens of a “preferential option for the poor”.
This phrase continues to resonate in many parts of the world, but, in Britain, can seem paternalistic — even rude. Liam Purcell, of Church Action on Poverty, acknowledged this in the session “Church on the Margins”. Being “Church on the margins” in a British context, he suggested, involves not only being attentive to the cultural baggage of a word such as “poor”, but also learning from each other through reflective practice and the sharing of experience.
I was reminded, when discussing this point later, of my own experience growing up as a working-class Christian. There was — at least where I was raised — a pride that understandably baulked at the idea of being labelled “poor”, and even more so at the idea that one might require charity. To their credit, many at the conference recognised this: some pointed out that — while the Church often identifies, and responds very effectively to, immediate need — it can struggle to challenge its own predominantly middle-class culture, and the privileges that that affords.
THE Church is not alone in this. Criticism of the dominance of middle-class narratives in social and protest movements has become a burning issue in 2019, and perhaps none have borne the brunt of these more than Extinction Rebellion. Some of the criticism aimed at the group has concerned their goal of using mass arrest as a tactic. Many have pointed out that this can have the effect of ignoring the experiences of BAME people, in particular.
Some of those who attended the Liberation Theology Gathering had some level of involvement with Extinction Rebellion: in the session “Rebel for Life”, a Methodist minister, Jo Rand, reflected on her arrest at the recent protests in London, and the potential repercussions that she might face. She concluded that, as a Methodist minister, she was in a relatively privileged position: she would be unlikely to lose her job, but she might get a small fine.
For her, this privilege translated into a sense of duty to God and to those who could not afford to do the same, notably those young people who often lack the agency required to challenge the status quo, yet will inherit the worst effects of the climate crisis.
Among the young people making their voices heard at the gathering was Ms Rand’s teenage daughter, one of many #FridaysForFuture climate strikers, who gave an account of her schoolmates’ reactions to her mother’s arrest — complete with embellishments that included blowing up a bridge!
Extinction Rebellion also featured prominently in a “liberating Bible study” from Christian Aid’s Sue Richardson, from Sunderland. Guiding discussion and reflection on the symbolism of the two clay-jar metaphors in Jeremiah 19.1-4, 10-11, and 2 Corinthians 4.7-12, Ms Richardson asked whether — and to what extent — the climate crisis might be the result of addiction. Most people, she concluded, would make lifestyle changes when warned by a doctor of a life-threatening condition, unless they were in the throes of addiction.
LIKE Ms Rand, some speakers and others in attendance had experienced legal consequences of activism motivated by personal faith and prayerful reflection. The conference’s founder, the Revd Chris Howson, who has faced arrest six times (mostly for his work as a peace activist), quoted the black theologian Robert Beckford as his inspiration: “If you are not in trouble with the law, you are probably not doing theology.”
This view was shared by the Peace Pledge Union campaigns manager and Christian pacifist, Symon Hill. Like Mr Howson, Mr Hill has been arrested several times, most recently for taking non-violent direct action against the 2019 Defence and Security Equipment International arms fair. In his session “Opposing Militarism”, Mr Hill gave a theological reflection on the societal influence of militarism, and an account of his recent arrest. For him, such action was necessary to counter a militaristic narrative that can lead to the justification of arms sales and often one-sided conflicts.
He stands trial in early December, but remains resolute in his commitment to non-violent direct action.
Many participants noted that the activism that was a key element of liberation theology could be draining, and that this necessitated a deep grounding in prayerful reflection. It was fitting, then, that the final act of the gathering should be a Taizé-style service. The contemplative nature of Taizé worship was suited to the intimate setting of the yurt, and provided welcome space in which to reflect on the many challenges posed during the weekend.
The urgency of many of the topics discussed during the conference was balanced, in the yurt, by a sense of calm. The readings, which were given by young people, and the exchanging of the Peace, were a pertinent reminder of the egalitarian nature of the gospel, the interconnectedness of all things, and the fragility of creation.
Adam Spiers is an educator and freelance journalist.