Friday, March 22, 2013

The Churches and the Common Good



Have you ever played or seen Sim City?  It is a computer game in which you are invited to build your own city by deploying some basic features of city life.  It is undergoing a re-launch this year, not without some pain.  For all it is a game about planning and building, the makers did not plan for the popularity and complexity of their own game and did not build enough servers to cope with the online demand.  Sim City asks a range of questions about what makes a good city and what is needed to build a good city.  Playing Sim City brings one into contact with the need for disposing of rubbish, laying pipes and cables, building schools, policing, even offering leisure activities, and, in some versions of the game, capping volcanoes!  And, at least since 2003, places of worship have been included in the range of options a Sim City builder could include.  Some of the ingredients (though sadly not the capping of volcanoes) have been tackled in this series of addresses: the City Council, business and commerce, education, law and order and arts and culture. My task in this final address is to speak on the Churches contribution to common good in the city.

On one level, there is a huge amount to say about the amount that the churches contribute to the common good of the city.  Churches in Derby are involved in a huge range of things from Parent and toddler groups to visiting care homes; providing youth work to pastoral care of the bereaved, the sick and the lonely.  These are not simply done by the Cathedral (although the Cathedral is involved in some things), nor by the Church of England (although, again, the Church of England is heavily involved in all or almost of the things I mention).  Rather, it is Christian Churches of all different varieties, with differences in the way in which we worship, and the understandings of various doctrinal and organisational features.  But the list of activities that the churches are involved in goes on and on.  Churches offer chaplaincy in the work place, to schools, the university, and the Police. Street Pastors offer ministry to those present in the city in the evening.  Many lunches are provided for those in need, there are health groups, like walking groups, advice centres on debt and pregnancy, special events like the Christmas Lunch on Jesus which supports those in Derby and Calcutta.  There are many organisations that owe their origins to the work of the churches, the Derby Contact Centre supporting broken families, and the Padley Centre, supporting the homeless, to name but two.  Homelessness is something the churches in Derby have a particular concern for, and a soup run and drop-ins are part of the churches’ response to this.  Foodbanks run in a variety of church settings, both in Derby and around the county.  All this is not to mention the historic and continuing role of the churches in hospitals, hospices and schools.  The Church of England alone has a role in 110 schools in Derbyshire, and supports them, their teachers and their students.

That is a very partial and certainly incomplete account of some of the contributions that the churches make to the common good of the city.  It reflects a picture replicated across the country. The 2012 National Church and Social Action Survey found that over the last two years, in the face of the recession and of austerity, the Churches in the UK increased their local social action by 36% to 98 million hours per year, increased their giving to social action initiatives by 19% to £342 million per year.  Each church in the UK now runs an average of more than 8 social action initiatives.  This only covers Church run initiatives, and does not include the many more hours and great sums of money given by church goers to other charities. If the volunteer hours put in by churches alone were to be paid for, it would cost over £1.9 billion.[1]

I could probably stop there, having demonstrated that the churches do indeed contribute to the common good of the city.  But I want to go further and to talk a little about why the churches do all of this, and why it should not really be a surprise that they do.  All of this activity that I have spoken about is really the outworking of five far deeper contributions that the churches make to the common good of the city.  These five contributions are vision, hospitality, worship, commitment and judgement. Together, these five things comprise a particular Christian calling and an irreplaceable contribution to the common good of the city. 

The first of these is vision.  The Churches have a vision for the good of the city.  Christians are called to seek the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29.7).  And the Christian vision of what it means for a city to fare well is a broad one.  It is for economic prosperity, certainly, but much more.  It is for all aspects of human life, not just the economic, to fare well.  This is a vision of wholeness which, by its very nature, means that all aspects of human life and welfare are to be considered.  And all people are to be considered as well.  It is wedded to an understanding of justice as concern for the poorest and weakest members of our society.  Unless the cares and concerns of the marginal and the hidden members of the city are addressed, the vision of faith will not be satisfied. The vision of the welfare of the city, which the Churches bring, is not satisfied with things as they are, but has a transformative aspect.  This can be seen in the hope and the work of Christians and the churches for a renewed and better society.  This vision for the welfare of the city of marked by wholeness, justice and transformation is a vision marked by God’s own concern for all people and for the restoration of all of creation to the goodness for which he created it.  It is one of the key contributions that the churches make to the common good of the city.

The churches bring vision to our city, a vision marked by concern for justice, transformation and the well being or wholeness of all.  But this vision is sustained by worship and prayer.  Fundamental to the life of this Cathedral, and of all churches is worship.  Our faith calls us to worship, to come into the presence of God with gratitude, to acknowledge his supremacy and to ask for his guidance and help.  The practices of faith set our concerns in a wider context, they call us to penitence for our misdeeds and commitment to future good.  Worship provides the city with space; space in which reflection can happen, space in which we can own our failures, space in which commitment can be fostered, space in which the Spirit can work.  Faith provides space in which mourning and tragedy can be expressed, and in which joy and celebration can be enjoyed.  The marking of death, marriage and new life is part of this, as is the weekly disciplines of worship seen in all religious traditions.  Above all, perhaps, it is in the daily prayers of believers of all faiths that this gift is given to the city.

The churches bring the gifts of vision and worship as contributions to the common good of the city.  The churches also bring hospitality, expressed above all in an openness to difference.  Faith crosses boundaries, it is in itself an expression of trust and it opens our hearts to those who are not like us.  Many religious traditions, Christianity included, have an important role for hospitality, for entertaining strangers.  And the importance of hospitality is in the relationships that are born with those who previously were strangers.  Hospitality is deeper and more active than mere tolerance.  Hospitality involves us in listening to those who are not like us; in meeting and sharing with them; and in opening our lives to those who are different to us.  Hospitality is a risky encounter, one which risks change to our lives as they are opened to others.  ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers’, says the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, ‘for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’ (Hebrews 13.2).

Vision, worship and hospitality; all of these are the contributions made by the churches to the good of the city.  The churches also brings a patient, sustained and long-term commitment to places and to people.  Standing in a church which dates its origins back to a Christian community on this site that began in 943 the sustained nature of this commitment is clearly on show.  But all the churches show something of this long term commitment.  Because the churches’ contributions are founded on vision, worship and hospitality, they are not just short term strategies.  Rather, the churches’ commitment is rooted in the most essential elements of Christian faith.  They reflect the faithfulness of God to his creation, his constant love for the world even after it has gone awry, and his emptying of himself, enduring even death on the cross, to bring all people back to himself.  The commitment of the churches is rooted in God’s faithfulness and this is reflected in the daily lives of their members.  This commitment has no limitation to its time-frame.  From this the churches have a a wisdom and a rootedness that is hard to match in any other way.  It is of the nature of the church that it thinks in the long term, in terms of lifetimes, rather than in terms of the next election or the impending funding deadline.  Faith is expressed in faithfulness to the people and places whose lives we share.

So vision, worship, hospitality and a patient sustained commitment: these are the contributions of the churches to the common good of the city. The final contribution is less comfortable, an acknowledgement that this is a Lenten address, if nothing else.  The final contribution that the churches bring to the city is judgement.  The churches seek the welfare of the city, but they do so out of their worship of God.  This gives the churches a different perspective and a particular contribution.  Sometimes, that contribution is a challenge to those with power in the city.  We have seen this recently on a national level in the letter concerning the cuts to benefits signed by both bishops of this Diocese, and supported by Archbishop Justin.  Locally, the churches have met with representatives from the council to express their concerns about the homeless in the decisions made about cuts in the council’s budget.  Each of the contributions that the churches make can also offer a challenge to the city and for its leadership: a challenge to look beyond the merely economic vision of well being; and to seek a broad account of the welfare of the city; a challenge to work with faith communities and to unlock the resources they have to offer; a challenge to deal generously with strangers in the city; and a challenge to develop long-term commitments for the good of the city that look beyond the immediate economic and political horizons to the future of life for all in Derby.

But judgement begins with the household of God, and the churches find themselves just as challenged by the contributions that they make.  The churches are challenged to practise what they preach.  They is challenged to find the imagination and courage to offer vision for the city in a way that builds partnerships with those of all faiths and none as together we work for the welfare of the city.  The church is challenged by the gift of worship to truly open itself in worship to God, and not simply to claim a divine authority for our own prejudices.  We are challenged to find ways of exercising hospitality with those who differ from our neat theological positions and to express penitence for the times when that our lack of faith has meant that hospitality is lacking.  And, finally, the steadfastness of God challenges the church to maintain its commitment to places and communities in an era of fewer financial resources. 

The churches contribute a great deal to the common good of this city.  The many and varied contributions are founded on deeper contributions of vision, worship, hospitality, commitment and judgement.  May our prayers and our activity continue to seek the welfare of this city, for in doing so we will be serving the God who in Jesus Christ came to dwell with us. Amen.

Given as part of a Lent Series on 'Contributing to the Common Good in the City' at Derby Cathedral 21.3.13


[1] Geoff Knott, Church and Community Involvement: National Church Social Action Survey Results 2012 (Jubilee Plus and ACT Network, December 2012).  Available online at http://www.jubilee-plus.org/Articles/337911/Jubilee_Plus/About_Us/Research/RESULTS_OF_THE.aspx

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