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Opinion: Is there still faith in the city, four decades on?

23 June 2023

Robert Runcie’s Commission brought energy to urban mission, but new approaches are now needed, argues Greg Smith

THIS summer, it will be 40 years since Robert Runcie set up the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas. This approach of bringing together a Commission of “the great and the good” to report on a pressing social issue was possibly the last hurrah of the William Temple tradition. It assumed that the Established Church had considerable soft power, and could influence national policy.

The Commission’s report, Faith in the City, made 61 recommendations: 38 of them to the Church of England, and 23 to the government and nation. Almost all the policy recommendations involved increased public spending, and an attempt to empower urban communities. The underlying assumptions of the report were that a wide consensus around the post-war Welfare State, which Temple and his colleagues had promoted, would ensure that progress towards justice, equality, and human flourishing would continue.

According to a recent paper by Chris Shannahan and Stephanie Denning, however, “Faith in the City represented a moment of prophetic truth-telling by the Church of England but Government Ministers labelled it ‘pure Marxist theology’. The storm surrounding the report exemplified a broader secularist narrative that sought to restrict religion to the private sphere.”

SINCE 1985, Church of England attempts to influence national policy seem much more modest and have had little impact. The report Faithful Cities, 20 years later, is now largely forgotten. A new report from the Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households, Love Matters, makes a series of recommendations about how families and households can best flourish (News, 28 April); but it was not even mentioned by the BBC, and a Google search reveals only two articles in the secular national press.

Where the Bishops in the House of Lords have made what might be called “prophetic” comments on issues such as refugees, food poverty, or the personal integrity of politicians, they appear marginal to the prevailing political narrative, or are eclipsed by the interventions of footballers, such as Gary Lineker and Marcus Rashford.

Faith in the City, on the other hand, did have a significant impact on the churches, especially in a wave of urban mission activity over the following two decades. A significant achievement was the establishment of the Church Urban Fund and its support of local community projects, which continues to this day.

All the energy expended in its wake, however, failed to make disciples of inner-city people and integrating them into flourishing, self-sustaining urban parish churches. The recommendations to the institutional Church seemed worthy at the time, but many have come back to haunt us, 40 years later.

The training of leaders, both clergy and lay, to equip them for ministry in urban parishes remains woefully inadequate, despite a few useful initiatives in the immediate aftermath of Faith in the City. The sharing of resources, especially financial, of affluent dioceses and parishes with poorer areas remains a pipe dream. The issue of institutional racism in the Church was highlighted, but never adequately addressed.

There have been major changes in the urban scene since 1985. Massive regeneration programmes have been implemented in cities such as London, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, and Leeds, particularly in derelict dockland and post-industrial areas. Land use has changed, and land values have soared; but, often, original urban communities have been displaced, died out, or moved out.

Inequality has grown, and concentrations of poverty and deprivation are now more likely to be found in peripheral estates, smaller post-industrial towns, ex-coalfield communities, and coastal resorts. Globalisation and large-scale immigration has produced a superdiversity of populations in metropolitan areas, and, increasingly, in smaller cities.

In the Churches, the dominant forces now seem to be new congregations that serve particular ethnic-heritage communities, or Charismatic groups that attract individual consumers of religion. Yet, alongside this, we also witness growing numbers of lively multicultural local congregations and parishes, as discussed in John Root’s Substack blog.

TO BE fair, the Church of England, encouraged by the Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Philip North, has invested new time and finance in estates ministry and the National Estate Churches Network.

There is resonance to be found, however, in the work of “settler” mission teams associated with organisations such as the Eden Network. I attended a day at their recent Proximity Conference, and listened to numerous stories that were full of hope. Anna Ruddick and Chris Lane have written important books drawn from reflections on involvement in this movement, tracing how long-term commitment introduced more realistic expectations and measures of success, and transformed theologies from triumphalism towards a discovery of the missio dei in marginal places. It is in such movements that I see signs of God at work, and some of his people getting on board.

It is in this sense rather than in the soft-power approach of Temple and the Established Church, with its condescending “effortless superiority”, that, I believe, we can still find faith in the city.

Greg Smith is a research fellow at the William Temple Foundation.

This is an edited version of an article first published here

Read our feature on the Wythenshawe Estate community in Manchester here 

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