IF ST MATTHEW’s Gospel had the only account of the nativity, it would be the natural starting point for Christian reflection on housing: Jesus, the carpenter’s son, was born in the house of his parents in Bethlehem, later settling in Nazareth. He was not born with “nowhere to lay his head”. That came later and was freely chosen. In turn, we might be “resident aliens” whose true home is to come, but we should be in no doubt about the need for roots and a roof over our heads.
This collection of essays acknowledges the importance of rootedness and security, having its origins in a symposium convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury to reflect on the contemporary housing crisis. That crisis is partly captured by statistics: one million families on waiting lists, and 320,000 classed as homeless. But the reflections go wider, asking what insights the Christian faith has that can help us to understand better how the built environment contributes towards or thwarts human flourishing.
The authors are an eclectic mix of academics (some associated with St Mellitus College), clergy, practitioners, and activists from the Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, Methodist, and Anglican traditions. It is unfortunate timing that the book was largely written before the pandemic; for that has fundamentally changed the relationship between work and home for many. As people house-hunt in future, they will not only research local schools: they will also ensure that one room can become “the office”, at least for part of the week. Lockdown and working from home have made us rethink home and work life, and also realise how much we value good neighbours and supportive communities.
Despite the subtitle, the book is not “a theology of housing”, though there are helpful chapters that point us towards what such a theology (or theologies) might look like. Some draw on Roman Catholic social teaching, but Malcolm Brown writes about the possibility of a specifically Anglican theology of housing. Such a theology would be grounded in the sense of place that the tradition of the parish and the parish church gives. Those structures — for the moment — remain, and mean that the Church of England is the only denomination that has a Christian presence in almost every community.
When my part of the world was endangered by widespread flooding in 2019, it was a parish church in Fishlake that became a focus for mutual aid, using its nave as a general store for all the community. In so doing, it was being true to the Anglican tradition and resisting those forces that lead to a destructive individualism and reminding everyone that we feel most at home where we are also prepared to live as good neighbours.
A British cabinet minister once famously said that the homeless were “the people you step over when you come out of the opera”. In fact, those whom we encounter on the street are only some of the homeless: others may be in hostels or emergency shelters, sofa-surfing, or in various ways less visible. There is no universally agreed definition of homelessness. All we can say is that it is a universal phenomenon.
Street Homelessness and Catholic Theological Ethics is a collection of short essays by thirty-two Roman Catholic theologians, practitioners, and social scientists who gathered in Rome for a symposium on the subject in 2017. They divide into two parts: “Accompanying the Homeless” and “Working to End Homelessness”.
In the first part, there is an attempt to articulate the “voice” of the homeless and to set out the many ways in which people become homeless in different parts of the world: the stateless migrant, the violated Indian woman, the African elder, the returning veteran, LBGT youth, the American drug-user.
In the second part, the writers explore various strategies for understanding and dealing with homelessness, and the theological and ethical foundations for Christian reflection and action.
As far as the latter goes, Roman Catholics have much to draw upon. The starting point is what Cardinal Peter Turkson calls “the incontrovertible belief in the dignity of every human person”: a dignity conferred on each person at their creation by God. This dignity is the basis of all human rights, of which the right to housing is one. This is a theme that has figured large in the teaching and practice of Pope Francis.
The right to a house is about far more than a roof over one’s head. It is the place where a person lives out his or her life.
As we have watched the growth of rough-sleeping in Britain over the past decade, it would be easy to think that the problems were insurmountable. If we leave this solely to the voluntary sector, that may well be true. But in her essay, Dame Louise Casey, a former civil servant, reminds us that we saw a similar increase in the 1990s and the Labour government chose to use its powers to reduce and prevent homelessness, with considerable success.
The voluntary sector has its part to play, but homelessness will only be eradicated, both here and around the world, when we have determined state action, national and local, underpinned by a clear commitment to the idea of human dignity and all that follows from that.
The Revd Dr Alan Billings is the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire and the author of Lost Church (SPCK, 2013).
Coming Home: A theology of housing
Malcolm Brown and Graham Tomlin, editors
Church Times Bookshop £13.50
Street Homelessness and Catholic Theological Ethics
James F. Keenan and Mark McGreevy, editors