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Why should the Church care about housing?

by
10 February 2021

Graham Tomlin explains the rationale behind the forthcoming report of the Archbishops’ Housing Commission

Alamy

Council maisonettes in Basildon, Essex, due for demolition, but still occupied in March 2019

Council maisonettes in Basildon, Essex, due for demolition, but still occupied in March 2019

DURING the restrictions brought on us by the Covid-19 pandemic, we have become more aware of the importance of our homes.

Forced to spend more time in them owing to lockdown, working at home, unable to travel, and with a reduced capacity to socialise, we have all probably thought about our homes — what we like about them and what we would like to change — more than ever before.

Most social issues affect some more than others. Housing affects everyone, because everyone needs a home. Shelter is one of our most basic human needs, and to deny someone a good home is to strike at their very soul.

As the Syrian architect Marwa Al-Sabouni put it, to lose a home is like “losing your shadow in the world, your proof of being here, under the shared light of the sun”. If housing is that important to people, it must matter to God, and, if it matters to God, it must matter to his Church.

 

SINCE April 2019, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Housing, Church and Community has been talking, thinking, visiting, exploring, and discerning a Christian vision for housing in our nation (News, 12 April 2019).

We have been listening to those living in areas of housing poverty and deprivation, thinking about what good housing policy would look like, how we should use our own land as a Church, what local congregations and individuals can do — and, underpinning all that, reading the Bible with the lens of housing and homes, exploring what a Christian vision of housing would look like.

The central conviction of this Commission has been that we need to build not just more houses, but stronger communities. Yet the question of the kind of houses we build goes a long way to determining whether we have good, strong communities, or whether we grow more isolated or estranged from one another.

The key question is this: how can we bear witness to the goodness of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ through the homes that we build and live in?

 

THE Bible is, in many ways, a story about home. It begins with members of the human race being given a good home, a garden in which to live in harmony with their Creator. It continues with their being dislocated from that home because of their abuse of the gift of home and the Giver, becoming homeless in the process.

It continues with the long story of redemption and a return home, through the history of Israel, leading up to the coming of Christ the Saviour, the establishment of the Church, and the promise of a new creation where God will make his home with us.

As we have re-read this story with the voices of those struggling with stories of inadequate housing in our ears, we have developed five core values, based in this narrative. These are five factors or criteria that, we believe, make for good housing.

 

FIRST, good housing is sustainable: it is a fundamental human calling to protect and to cultivate the created world in which we have been placed (Genesis 2.15). The doctrine of Creation requires that good housing not gradually undermine the planet on which we live and that we are called to protect and to cultivate. It works in harmony with its local environment, and, over the long term, sustains the balance of the natural world in which it is placed.

Second, good housing is safe: the story of the fallenness of the world reminds us that, left to its own devices, a broken world will lead to broken people, families, relationships, and landscapes. Housing policy will, therefore, require specific intervention to avoid some of the injustices and decay that will result from a careless approach to housing quality. It will make a priority of safety, so that houses are places in which we can live with security and privacy from unwanted intrusion, damage, and violence.

Third, good housing is stable: the incarnation tells us how God made his home with us, in a particular place and a particular time. God put down roots in the world: in Bethlehem, in Nazareth. Good housing policy creates stable communities, where, if they wish to act in a neighbourly way, people are able to put down roots and build lives, families, and neighbourhoods, free from the threat of dislodgement, not least because we tend to make a commitment to places in which we are likely to have a longer-term stake.

Fourth, good housing is sociable: in the establishment of the Church, the new community where all are one in Christ, growing together in unity and harmony, we see a vision of a renewed humanity, “not looking to our own interests but each of us to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2.4). Our homes need to have enough space, not just for the needs of their inhabitants, but also to enable us to exercise hospitality towards our neighbours. Developments need proper community space beyond the home, to enable interaction and fellowship, and to build strong community bonds.

Finally, good housing is satisfying: the vision of the new creation in Revelation is a garden city, a combination of natural beauty and human ingenuity, a place of beauty and delight, of colour, richness, and harmony. Good houses are places that we delight to come home to, that give pleasure and satisfaction, both to live in and to look at. Whether through design or architecture, our growing technological skill needs to be directed towards building houses that we enjoy simply venturing out from and coming home to.

 

THIS kind of housing, reflecting the sweeping narrative of the gospel from creation to new creation, tells the story of the gospel in the very fabric of our homes. Such housing will give people a taste of the coming home to which we are beckoned — the day when “God will make his home with us” (Revelation 21.3), even in the constraints of this fallen world, because, in the deepest sense, we are never fully at home here, but are made for our future home with God.

Whether as a test for a particular housing development, an individual design for a home, or for an overarching national housing policy, the more that our approach to housing and the actual homes that we build over the coming years meet these criteria, the more we will have built villages, towns, suburbs, and cities that will strengthen the bonds between us and enable us to live as God intended us to.

 

THERE is, however, one more factor. At the heart of the story of the gospel is the self-sacrificial death of Christ through which the world is saved. In the Christian faith, resurrection and life come only through sacrifice and death. Our national housing crisis will be solved only through an element of sacrifice, voluntarily borne by all actors or partners in the housing sector.

At present, that sacrifice is unequally borne by those living in sub-standard, unstable, and unsafe housing. This element of sacrifice needs to be embraced by all — developers, landlords, landowners, government, housing associations, and so on.

It will also need to be embraced by the Church. As one of the main landowners in this country, the Church of England cannot avoid getting involved in housing and considering how it uses its land and property — in particular, the 6000 acres of land suitable for housing development which we own.

The Early Church was radical and risky its way of thinking about housing for the sake of the poor: “those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need” (Acts 4.34-35). We will need to work out how to be appropriately radical and risky in our own day.

It is unrealistic to expect that we can solve the crisis in such a way that everyone becomes richer. Life comes through death, and only with a resolve for this form of shared sacrificial love for one another will we see resurrection, and hope for a better future in the homes that we provide and the communities that they build.

 

Dr Graham Tomlin is the Area Bishop of Kensington in the diocese of London, and vice-chair of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Housing, Church and Community. He is the co-editor of Coming Home: A theology of housing (Church House Publishing, 2020) (Books, 18/25 December 2020). The ideas in this article are developed further in Why the Church Should Care about Housing (Grove Books, 2021).

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