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A shift to the margins is needed

by
26 June 2020

Inequality: The Church must grapple with pre-existing social, economic, and racial disparities exposed by the pandemic, says Sharon Prentis

elisa cunningham

BRITAIN is in the grip of an alarming realisation. Not only are we living in an unequal society, but years of austerity have steadily increased the numbers of those who find themselves perilously close to calamity. Predictions are that the economic impact, post-pandemic, will be greater than the 2008 financial crisis. Covid-19 has uncovered and exacerbated longstanding social inequalities.

Although there are varied and complex reasons for where we are today, the continuing widening gap of inequalities had somehow slipped from our collective social consciousness. We cannot escape the reality that we live in a divided society, where those who work in low-valued occupations, precarious job situations, and the gig economy are further disadvantaged by the prospect of a long period of uncertainty.

While the virus does not discriminate, its impact does. The data evidence suggests that low-income households, older people, and people of Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) heritage, are adversely affected (News, 15 May). Stories of food scarcities, period poverty, unscrupulous landlords, bad housing, and reduced incomes have highlighted the deepening chasm between those who have the means to live well and those who struggle.

The majority of those in lockdown have successfully navigated the demands of the “new normal”. Households with little or no access to information technology, however, found themselves further disadvantaged as we became increasingly reliant on online communication for education, shopping, and social connection.

 

IN THE first weeks of the pandemic, the numbers of claimants applying for income support rose to 2.1 million: an overall increase of 69.1 per cent in one month. As it took hold, regional differences were becoming increasingly apparent. Data showed that, while London became less of an infection hotspot, transmission rates, particularly in the Midlands and the North, fell less steeply.

In terms of disability, a recent Office for National Statistics survey indicated that more disabled adults (45.1 per cent) reported being very worried, compared with non-disabled (30.2 per cent) adults. Concerns about the effect of Covid-19 on well-being and access to groceries topped the list.

Most affected by food insecurity are families with young children, low-paid workers, and older people on minimal pension incomes. During April, the Trussell Trust reported an 89-per-cent increase in demand for food parcels. More worryingly, the number of families with young children receiving them had doubled from the same period last year.

Amid the burgeoning economic turmoil and growing job uncertainty, mounting personal debt is also adding to already precarious finances and escalating anxiety. Many have increased their reliance on credit cards, overdrafts and payday loans to make ends meet. As a result, debt charities have seen a substantial rise in the numbers of people borrowing money to buy even the basics.

The BAME community has experienced disproportionate death rates from Covid-19. Even before the publication of the Disparities Review, and the killing of George Floyd, minority-ethnic people in the UK were aware, from the daily parade of black and brown faces on the TV, of an increased vulnerability to this infection. This was not simply because of genetics or co-morbidities, but because of structural racism.

A recent survey by ITN of BAME medics and health-care workers found that many felt that “systemic discrimination” on the frontline may be a factor in the high number of their colleagues who have died after contracting the virus (94 per cent of doctors who have died are from BAME backgrounds). Many had voiced concerns that they were not being given adequate personal protective equipment, were over-represented on the frontline owing to the politics of the labour market, and tended to be employed in areas in which no one else wanted to work. The communal grief, lament, and righteous indignation is justified.

 

STRUCTURAL inequality not only limits life opportunities, it limits life. Yet throughout the lockdown period, and despite not being able to worship in the usual way, churches have become significant players in the mutual-aid networks that have proliferated. From organising food drops to collecting medicines, churches around the country are partnering with their communities to tackle issues of poverty and disadvantage.

For example, a survey conducted before lockdown in Birmingham, found that 91 per cent of C of E churches were engaged in community activity. Indications are that most have continued under the current restrictions. St James’s, Mere Green, in the first week of the lockdown, started an initiative called Hope for Sutton. By the end of April, its efforts had expanded to support 610 vulnerable families, delivering more than 2800 free meals to the community. This is just one example of work being carried out nationally; so, how can the Church envisage the part that it is to play?

 

IN THE current situation, key questions for the Church are: What does it mean to stand in solidarity with those experiencing inequality? How do we question and act in prophetic ways that reflect God’s righteousness, mercy, and justice for all, and to understand that “The cries of the victims are the voice of God” (“Vox victimarum vox Dei”), as Matthew L. Lamb wrote in his book Solidarity with Victims: Toward a theology of social transformation (Crossroad, 1982).

In Birmingham, through activities such as our Poverty Truth Commission, we have learned that people with influence need to go beyond the data that usually form the basis of decisions, to spend time listening to people with “lived experience”, inviting them to become a partner through social action, and collaborate with deconstructing narratives of power and exclusion.

The call for an equitable and just society has never been so loud. This will mean considering how resources, including ministers and leaders, are distributed in the Church, recognising that regional disparities in filling vacancies are reflected in a north-south divide, and that initiatives to support indigenous leadership are difficult to sustain.

The fact is that our tendency towards homogeneity in our churches — the lack of diversity in race, class, age, ability, or any other characteristic — diminishes us all, and itself becomes a source of disparity. Intentional listening and unconscious bias training (UBT) can help. While UBT itself will not be the answer to inequality, it will enable a deeper understanding of personal and organisational ways that marginalise and exclude others.

An outward orientation towards the margins is required. Pope Francis recently wrote: “The gospel of the marginalised is where our credibility is found and revealed. . . total openness to serving others is our hallmark; it alone is our title of honour.” In years to come, when people look for the Church, will they find it among the poor? If not, why not?

As we emerge from this pandemic, there are several challenges ahead. The economic and social impact of the past few months will continue to unravel for years to come. Social programmes that have been developed or expanded by churches during the pandemic will either have to be sustained, adapt to the changing context, or cease to exist. Advocacy for those left behind, however, will always be essential.

There is an urgent need for us to stand up to structural inequality, speak out against racism, and, at the same time, critically deconstruct narratives of privilege and power. This is not just an internal matter: it affects profoundly the Church’s ability to minister to everyone equally with integrity. We must not be a divided, inequitable Church, but one for all people.

 

Priorities

  • Act Justly: a recognition of the increasing inequalities within society and an engagement in social justice.

  • Love Mercy: an intentional orientation towards the marginalised and the poor.

  • Walk Humbly: a serious consideration of the growing geographical, economic, cultural, and racial inequalities that exist within our own churches.



The Revd Dr Sharon Prentis is the Intercultural Mission Enabler and Dean of Black, Asian and Minority-Ethnic Affairs in Birmingham diocese, and Honorary Research Fellow at the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion, University of Birmingham.

Read the articles in our special post-pandemic issue here.

Hear more from the writers of the post-pandemic issue and submit your own questions at an online seminar on Thursday 9 July, 5.00-7.00 p.m. Information and tickets here.

 

Further reading

“Interrupting the Church’s Flow: Engaging Graham Ward and Romand Coles in a radically receptive political theology in the urban margins” by A. Barrett (research.vu.nl/ws/portalfiles/portal/42786037/complete+dissertation.pdf, 2019).

Disunity in Christ: Discovering the hidden forces that keep us apart by Christena Cleveland (IVP, 2013).

Healing Our Broken Humanity: Practices for revitalizing the Church and renewing the world by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Graham Hill (IVP, 2018).

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