Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The frustration of voicelessness

I've been putting in a lot of spare time work recently on preparing the ground for the research project for which we received funding from the Community Development Foundation's Faith Communities Capacity Building Fund. Instead of employing someone directly to work on data gathering, we've commissioned work from the Regeneration Institute of Cardiff University Social Sciences department. So, it's been important to be very clear about what we want done, who the subjects to be investigated are, and how to be sure we get them talking about the real subject of the enquiry - relationship between religious communities of every culture and background, and civil society, local and national government, and all the institutions which serve us.

I've represented Archbishop Barry for nearly five years, as an observer on various incarnations of the County's Strategic Planning Body, and it still seems to me that lip service only is being paid to the contribution made by religious communities to the economy and social welfare of the city. There seems a steadfast reluctance to engage properly with the views of religious communities, especially when they challenge and contradict the policy leads given by politicians. This is a cause of frustration, not only amongst Christians but also amongst Muslims I've heard speaking on radio, or talked to personally.

Civil society, certainly in this city has disengaged from any meaningful dialogue with religion and is tries to push religious opinion and value out of the public realm all together, mostly by ignoring it or not inviting contributions. When I read news forums discussing anything to do with religion and listen to discussion programmes on the Beeb, the confident articulation of anti-religious sentiment amazes me, and it often goes uncontested, or challenged only by traditionalists without any real credibility or vigour in their responses. It seems as if a new kind of public consensus is is being forged - largely due to the poverty and weakness of current Christian advocacy. I often hear more incisive argument coming from top Muslim and Jewish thinkers. It's what becomes of the church squandering its energies on internal disputes, and failing to focus on the essential task of prosecuting the case for faith in the Gospel of Christ. We've fallen a long way behind in the last 30 years.

Active religious community members of all faiths probably make up ten percent of the population of the Borough, only about five percent of these are Christian, although over fifty percent of the number of citizens would put down 'Christian' on a census form. There's never a problem filling church school places, and people still turn to the church for crises and special events in life, as a kind of default consumer choice. So there's still a fair amount of general good-will towards Christianity, and an acceptance of other people's religious cultures as part of our urban diversity.
Fewer and fewer people are willing to stand up and be counted, and express views that many others may agree to but not have the confidence to voice. A society can hardly claim to be truly liberal and tolerant when it fails to engage sectors of its population in the debate about its present or future.

Politicians lament low voter turnouts and apathy. Many people feel powerless and lose interest in contributing socially because they fell they won't be heard. Talking politics on TV creates only passive 'consumer' audiences. The media belong to and are part of the powerful status quo. Too much street politics is a kind of performance art for the sake of the news media. Politicians come to church for special events because Protocol demands they should be there - even the Mayor (of one party) doesn't always show up if the Leader (of another party) is also attending - unless Royalty is coming! Few come quietly, humbly and ask to hear what church communities have to say about matters of mutual concern, without reporters or cameras around to distort the event into something other than grass roots listening.

There's such a lot of work to be done to prevent total alienation of religious communities which will leave them outsiders, stuck in their own past, unable to be shapers of the future. One has to admire those Christians who stick it out at the heart of politics despite the crushing weight of a system which doesn't much value what they really stand for any more.

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