Thursday, August 07, 2008

New publication : The Church in the Centre of the City

A parcel greeted me on the doorstep when I returned from delivering Clare to the nearest point to the East gate of the Eisteddfod Maes for an evening concert. It contained a copy of the book of essays edited by Prof Paul Ballard entitled 'The Church in the Centre of the City', assembled as one of the follow-ups to the ground breaking national City Centre Mission conference held at Aberdare Hall in September 2005. It's a sterling piece of work, which should serve as a handbook for anyone wanting to work in any city centre church in the next few decades.

This is a book which needed to be written in the seventies, but at that time attention was being given for the first time to the nature of Christian witness and mission in the inner-city residential areas, leading to the publication of the 'Faith in the City' report in 1981. That was during my time in the St Paul's area in Bristol, and I was fully involved in the creative process going on in inner-city parishes all over Britain that preceded and accompanied the publication that historic document. The focus of urban poverty and racial injustice was utterly vital and very timely.

However this urgent concern meant that scant attention was given to the equally pressing issue of how churches should be doing mission in the central business districts of cities, where all the economic and political decision making takes place. Even then it was taking place with less and less interest in any useful contribution churches might make. Less and less concern was shown by denominations in taking part in the debates of the time through their missionary presence in city churches. If they were able to stay open, they tended, with exceptions, to maintain a largely pastoral, self maintaining agenda, and so became marginal to the policy shaping processes which determine the economic and social life of our city centres.

My time here at St John's, trying to re-engage on behalf of the church, and motivate others to engage in this process has been challenging, to say the least, with little success, because religion has been allowed to slip off the social agenda of civil society, except in the most token ways - civic services and ceremonies etc - where it can shape very little at all. The absence of any kind of religious building or imagery from the city's official publications is prima facie evidence of the way that local government processes have disregarded the city's own religious history and present culture, and this at a period when it has become much more interesting and diverse with the variety of faith communities it contains. I'm pleased I was able to bring the Spiritual Capital reseach project to a successful completion. What happens next is altogether a different concern. However valuable it may be to some readers, it falls on deaf if not hostile ears for many in government, officers and members, reluctant to have their comfort zones challenged or interfered with by voices they've got used to disregarding.

I'd like anyone interested in the city and its politics, or in city mission to read 'The Church in the entre of the city'. I'll restrict myself to one good quote from an essay by Huw Thomas of Cardiff University's School of City and Regional Planning called 'Power in the City : How to get things done', as it rings true to my experience. He refers to a national policy document on planning for town centres in which

"... the government emphasises the creating of town and city centres that have the appropriate kinds of facilities and activities in them .... Naturally, the advice states the kinds of activities that centres might be expected to contain. Shops and offices are mentioned often. So is housing, increasingly promoted as part of so-called mixed use developments. Leisure is also regarded as an important activity in town and city centres, especially as part of the 'evening and night time economy'. But churches, and places of worship of any kind, are not mentioned at all ..... it doesn't oppose churches and church activity. But it ignores, and hence devalues the idea of there being a spiritual dimension to the city centre."

I'd say that was my experience too. Rather late in the day, there is some attempt to re-dress this oversight on the part of central government policy - otherwise there wouldn't have been any money for the Spiritual Capital Research project. But it's a bit like locking the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Quite apart from any attempts believers might want to make to promote adherence to their faith, they are now faced with the challenge to making or maintaining sacred space itself as an essential dimension of the living heart of the city. As long as they keep the rules, any preacher can claim a pitch in the public realm and have his or her say. Keeping a place of worship functional, as part of a safe zone dedicated to peace and quiet is a constant challenge. If it isn't being invaded by parasites and predators who want to take advantage of others when their guard is down, it's being invaded by noise, or choked by litter. The devaluing of 'God's acre' starts with ill thought out policy handed down, and is very difficult to put into reverse. no matter how zealous the efforts of the faithful. Will the tide turn? Or will the long slide into anarchy and violence as the hall-mark of spiritually devalued cities continue relentlessly?

Read the book and make up your own mind. You can get it from Epworth press, and no doubt, from the newly re-opened 'Churches Together Bookshop' in City URC Windsor Place.

No comments: