In these straightened times, the worth of individuals, families and indeed whole communities seems to increasingly be calculated only in terms of their ‘productivity’ and contribution to economic growth.
Several London boroughs are now actively pursuing plans to transport hundreds of families and homeless people to other parts of the country, because they are surplus to requirement in the capital. According to one report, Hammersmith and Fulham Council want to prioritise “wealth creators” rather than people in housing need in its housing strategy. It apparently considers that the 70% of tenants in social housing who are workless and dependent on benefits are “not making a contribution that could help drive economic growth.”
The message is clear. You who are of no economic value are not welcome here. Don’t be poor, don’t be unemployed, don’t be on benefits, don’t be disabled and don’t be old.
As Christians, we must surely recoil from such attitudes. As we read in John’s Gospel, Christ came that all may have life in all its fullness. Our Christian faith means nothing if we fail to offer a radical welcome to all – regardless of age, ability, wealth or economic productivity.
But before we reach to cast the first stone, how well do our churches stand up to inspection against such lofty ideals? And we should not be judged by our fine words, but by the economic priorities our actions betray. ‘Follow the money’ as the saying goes.
So how well does the Church score when measured in terms of our financial commitment to include the excluded? How do we respond when congregations are deemed to be too poor to be economic viable? And how does the preferential option for the poor reflect in the budget setting of denominations as a whole? These are far from comfortable questions. But throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament the message of God is clear: to ignore those in poverty is to ignore the face of God…
My very first job after leaving University, back in 1986, was as a Community Worker, employed by my local Methodist Church in inner city Manchester – with funding from the national Mission Alongside the Poor programme. In response to the riots and re-emergence of poverty and mass unemployment in the 1980s, the Methodist Church made a decisive commitment to stand alongside those whom wider society considered to be of little worth – and backed this up with £3 million in hard cash. Is it not time to revive programmes of similar ambition?
Ah, I hear you say, ‘that was then, and this is now. Churches don’t have the wherewithall anymore for such things.’ Well, look north. Just over ten years ago, the Church of Scotland General Assembly agreed as a national church that “priority for the poorest and most marginalised is the gospel imperative facing the whole Church.” In 2010, General Assembly reaffirming its commitment to participating in the transformation of the poorest communities in Scotland.
For more than a decade, substantial resources have been made available to these vulnerable church communities with heartening results. From these poorest communities come impressive stories. I spent a fantastic day in Gorbals Parish Church last week, listening to stories of Tricia, Marie and others, local people ‘Bridging the Gap’ between different communities, ages and cultures; singing their hearts out; speaking out and seeking positive solutions to the problems they faced together.
These are not stories about folk who are unproductive . They are stories of true wealth – the richness of faith and the wonderful resilience of communities to bring about life-transforming change. As the latest Priority Areas report concludes “They are not about places to which the Church brings God to the people but rather they are communities in which we recognize that God has always been present.”
For the past six years I have acted as convenor of the Inner Manchester Mission Network: A network of fourteen mostly small, mostly struggling URC and Baptist churches across inner Manchester. Many of their members are at the real sharp end; the kind of folk who, indeed, offer little ‘added value’ to the economy. How many of these churches will still be here in ten years time? They are not ‘wealth creators’ in any sense that an Ernst and Young accountant might understand. I’m sure it would be far more economically viable to let them die, one by one, and retreat to the suburbs.
Does any of this matter to the wider church? Is it a priority for the URC, or any denomination, to retain a presence in the poorest communities across the UK? If, as Christians, we believe that the value of people is not set by the market, but is intrinsic, God-given, these are not questions we can easily put to one side.