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Keir Starmer, and the art of listening to the voices of the poor

by
23 January 2024

Rob Wickham, the new CEO of the Church Urban Fund, attended the Labour leader’s civil society summit

Alamy

Sir Keir Starmer speaking during the Labour and Civil Society Summit at St John’s, Waterloo, south London, on Monday

Sir Keir Starmer speaking during the Labour and Civil Society Summit at St John’s, Waterloo, south London, on Monday

DIETRICH BONHOEFFER speaks powerfully of the need to listen. In Life Together, he goes as far as saying that ministry begins with the art of holding one’s tongue, which could lead to active listening, and then, and only then, proclamation.

For Bonhoeffer, this act of listening is mirrored in prayer. Unless we hold our tongue and listen, we are unlikely to hear God, but get immersed in our own prattling. The Lent theme of watch and pray should always be to the fore.

This week, at a Civil Society Summit, surrounded by significant numbers of the Labour Front Bench, Sir Keir Starmer asked the 140 or so civil society leaders present, plus many others online, to help shape Labour policy and practice.

His language was almost episcopal. He outlined five missions, to enable a “society of service” in a “decade of national renewal”. His Government would be “mission-driven”; the values he spoke of were “courage, compassion and community”. He was casting a vision for a hope-filled future in which all played their part. He set out his intent to listen, and to hold his tongue.

Sir Keir talked of the importance of civil society, and made reference to the importance of churches and faith communities. There is, as yet, little evidence of this sense of joint mission might work out in practice. It was striking to hear research shared by the Charities Aid Foundation, which asked which group best understood the issues facing people: 36 per cent of those responding said that charities understood them, and seven per cent said that the Government did. Just five per cent said that faith communities understood them.

 

I HAVE just completed a six-month listening exercise for the Church Urban Fund. It has been a sobering process, since, when you dare to listen and hold your tongue, you hear things that make you change your mind. The Church Urban Fund will change as a result. I had to choose where and to whom I would listen, conscious that I can make choices. Others do not have this privilege. Listening and choice is about discipleship, the art of being a lifelong learner.

During this period, I have chosen to listen to disadvantaged communities, to those who experience poverty. I have chosen to listen to theological-college principals, to the CUF staff and trustees. I have chosen to listen to church leaders and bishops.

I’ve also chosen to listen to others who undertake research — for example, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which reminded us this week that 14.4 million people live in poverty (including nearly three children in ten). I have chosen to listen to leaders of other faiths, who face daily the impact of world events in their places of work and in their homes in Luton or Leeds.

 

WHAT I have discovered is brilliance. Clergy and church leaders are carrying out unglamorous ministry that involves messiness, vulnerability, and disappointment. I’ve discovered hearts fueled with love, compassion, a holy resistance, and a righteous anger that desires to subvert.

I’ve discovered the food co-operative in Manchester that challenges the transactional implications of foodbanks; the Place of Welcome in Leeds, which includes a clothing store and parent support that emerged from the high levels of mental-health issues in the area; the social enterprise in Bristol that trains young people in construction and woodwork skills, as this is needed by local commerce; the centre near Coventry which, according to government calculations, adds over £8 million to the local economy.

Each has arisen from a desire to serve, and a knowledge that here, Jesus weeps as people weep. These are places and people who daily live out Jesus’s command to Peter to “feed my lambs” in
St John’s Gospel. These are people who have decided to do things differently, and are responding to local need by taking the steps that lead others into the realms of hope.

Our most deprived communities are brimming with creativity and passion. The Church is made poorer by not telling these stories, collecting their data, reflecting theologically on their experience, or learning from their immense expertise and wealth of knowledge. We are poor at supporting clergy and lay leaders who, working in partnerships, bring about community transformation in solid, practical ways. This is true regeneration rooted in baptism, because God dared to pitch his tent among us.

Mission is, of course, a language that is not confined to the Labour Party alone. But of whatever political persuasion we may be, given this invitation from the Labour Party to listen, perhaps all clergy and lay leaders should be encouraged to meet their prospective parliamentary candidates to share the work of building God’s kingdom.

 

The Rt Revd Rob Wickham is CEO of the Church Urban Fund. He was Bishop of Edmonton until last July.

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