Martin Warner gives a brief overview of the recent Church of England report Faithful Cities published twenty-one years after the influential Faith in the City and intended as an update on the issues it analysed
The call for celebration, vision and justice issuing from the report Faithful Cities should resonate loudly within us. For since the industrial revolution those movements that have brought about revival in the Church in Britain have originated largely in our cities and urban centres.
The Tractarian revival that started in the universities found the expression of its incarnational, sacramental, Catholic vision in its urban life and mission. So it was that the Hebrew scholar-priest, E.B. Pusey, could identify himself in 1848 with the call for justice: ‘It is a misery of our modern towns that rich and poor are locally separate, and the rich think that there is not poverty to relieve because they do not see it; and they do not see it because they do not look for it.’
Pusey’s comment is startlingly echoed by an observation that goes to the heart of Faithful Cities: ‘One of the obstacles to creating the political will to tackle structural poverty and inequality is the tendency for public opinion to be shaped by stereotypes rather than the facts. These are often fuelled by media portrayals of people experiencing poverty as ignorant and lazy, the suggestion that poor people only have themselves to blame’ [4.37].
This report from the Commission of Urban Faith and Life marks the publication, twenty-one years ago, of Faith in the City. Attention was drawn then to the deprivation to which large sections of our urban population were relegated as a result of government policy and public ignorance and indifference. Faithful Cities offers us an update and survey of what has improved, what has changed, and what has deteriorated.
Twenty-one years on, we are presented with the frank recognition of new, disturbing trends and some depressing signs of failure. But the first task to which Faithful Cities calls us, quite properly, is the celebration of what is good. Core to this report is an affirmation of the tenacity of the urban Church to its vocation to stand with Jesus Christ beside the poor and powerless: ‘Faith is still vibrant, diverse and alive in the city’ [1.20].
The accumulated benefit of the Church’s capacity to abide in the city is described by the report as ‘faithful capital.’ This is a re-working of the term ‘social capital’ used to identify those elements of experience, inherited culture and environment that contribute to the cohesion of society. This term embraces the contribution to the common good by congregations of other faiths, making it a challenging concept that perhaps deserves greater exploration than the report allows.
But the language of ownership, capital and investment can also sit uneasily with some of what Faithful Cities presents to us. The sketch of what has happened in the past twenty-one years reveals some areas in which poverty has become more effectively masked, as those who are not ‘stakeholders’ in the growth of material affluence slip from view. The significant areas of challenge that this report identifies on the world stage are globalization and the impact of the internet and IT, new areas of international instability and threat. At home it identifies growth in social exclusion; conflicts around diversity; growth in disparity of income and opportunity; the rise of consumerism; and an increasing life/work imbalance.
It is the implications of these issues that the reports explores in chapters that trace the nature of our urban context today, its unease with diversity, its propensity for wealth creation and exclusion, the impact of regeneration, the nature of the built environment, and questions about values and moral worth.
In the detail of these changes the lives of priests and people in parishes are to be plotted as those who hold ‘faithful capital’ faithfully. Recognizing the enormous asset of skills, networking and information that Church and other faith groups have in local communities, the report seeks to promote confidence in those assets in order to meet some important challenges.
Firstly, the report places great emphasis on the fostering of those values (virtue, in the words of the Prayer Book) that should characterize the good city and human flourishing: sustainable patterns of living [4.45–47]; the purpose of life and work [6.19]; selflessness and common decency [6.42]; honesty, generosity of spirit [8.18]. The report is unfailingly encouraging about the importance of the contribution of the Church and other faiths to the fostering of these essential values.
A second challenge is implied, but nonetheless the point is well-made, and it concerns the vocation to ordained ministry. It is a reminder that clergy should not be ‘diverted from their calling by becoming full-time social entrepreneurs’ [7.64]. This raises questions about the nature of the training given to those who are asked to identify the signs of God’s kingdom, within the Church, and in the community it serves.
Thirdly, there is also recognition, and challenge, about the nature of our church buildings (‘which must not be portrayed as millstones’ 8.13). Here we are called to be imaginative, to understand what these buildings might mean to those we have not yet found a way to encounter. So Malcolm McClaren, of Sex Pistols fame, is quoted as saying: ‘Church is the most fantastic place. It’s sanctuary…They’re the only place left in London where you don’t have to buy anything’ [8.10].
A fourth challenge put to us is how best to provide for the needs of young people. It is here that I believe the report undersells the Christian contribution because it lacks any clear indication of the importance of the home.
The home environment
Here, as elsewhere, there seems to be no willingness to claim marriage, the family and the home as the environment in which children might best flourish and grow to maturity. This must not be read as criticism of those who, without any other option, do not have this shape to their lives. But the lostness of children and young people in today’s society must surely challenge us not to remain silent about the recovery of a benefit they have not had.
Oddly, I sensed some proximity to a description of our purpose and destiny in the reference to an open-air concert hall and fountain sculpture in the millennium park in Chicago, described as providing ‘laughter and fun for children and adults. It is free; it speaks of diversity and inclusiveness and is a wonderful meeting place’ [6.59].
That began to point towards what I have always understood we believe about ourselves as the Church in relation to the totality of the human race.