A Church for the poor could enrich us all

churchofthepoorInspired by Pope Francis’ vision of “a poor church, for the poor”, Church Action on Poverty is exploring how churches can do more to stand in solidarity with people in poverty. We’ve invited many prominent Christians to share their thoughts on this in our new publication, Church of the Poor?

In this guest post (reblogged from the Ekklesia website), Bernadette Meaden offers an in-depth reflection on our call to action.

For his book The Upside Down Bible ; What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence Symon Hill shared Bible passages with people who were reading them for the first time. It was striking how people not influenced by tradition or theology relate passages like the parable of the talents or the labourers in the vineyard to issues they face here and now, in today’s economy. When discussing these and other passages, they referred to zero-hours contracts, disability assessments, inequality, tax, and many more issues. To these readers, approaching the Gospels in a fresh way, Jesus was talking about real bread and butter issues. He wasn’t talking about money in order to use it as a clever metaphor to make a point about something else – he was talking about money. Real money, and how we use it.

Jesus said a great deal about money, wealth and poverty. What he said was very challenging in his own time, but as Symon Hill’s book shows, can be equally challenging in the context of our modern economy. This, I think, means that a new initiative launched by Church Action on Poverty, and backed by nearly every Christian tradition in the UK, has exciting and potentially very radical possibilities. It is an attempt to create a church that is truly for the poor, and of the poor.

The programme starts with the launch this weekend (4-5 June 2016) of a report, Church of the Poor? which contains various resources, including several challenging and plain-speaking contributions.

Anglican priest Al Barrett describes his vision of a church that doesn’t just do foodbanks for the poor, or debt advice sessions for the poor, or all the other laudable initiatives churches are involved in, but “a church for the poor, where the holy of holies is rent open, where middle-class norms don’t prevail and exclude, where middle-class anxieties aren’t the driving force and the criteria for making decisions. A church where all are welcomed and embraced. A church for the poor would be challenging, disturbing, in a society that prefers to keep the poor at arm’s length, if not out of sight and out of mind.”

Al continues, “Instead of spotting gaps in the ‘service provision market’ as ‘golden opportunities’ for the church to find its place, what about a church that discovers its resources, its centres, its leadership and its voice in the non-places that have been pushed off society’s maps?”

Ideally, a church for and of the poor would help to create a much stronger sense of social solidarity. People who are not struggling would feel a sense of solidarity with those who are, and speak and act accordingly. For this to happen, they probably need to come into contact with people they would not usually meet.

As Martin Johnstone of the Church of Scotland says, “Priority for the poorest and the most marginalised is the gospel imperative facing the whole Church, not just the Church in the poorest places.”

In prosperous areas, how many churchgoers have actually had a proper conversation with somebody who has been sanctioned, or somebody who has been evicted? Perceptions of people in poverty may have largely been formed by stigmatising press coverage, political rhetoric, or television programmes like Benefits Street. To develop social solidarity, the ‘haves’ need to interact much more with the ‘have nots’, and a church for and of the poor should be a place where these interactions can happen, where people struggling with poverty speak, and are heard. This can lead to real understanding. After taking part in a Poverty Truth Commission in Leeds, Peter Connolly said, “I’m a competent businessman, but the bureaucracy you have to go through to get benefits – I would fold under that pressure.”

And whilst many churchgoers may be relatively comfortable, with their own homes and a decent pension, their children and grandchildren may be struggling to find somewhere affordable to live, or a secure job that pays a decent wage. An understanding of the Gospels informed by the experience and voices of those living in poverty would lead not only to a fuller understanding of the Gospels, but a better understanding of and connection with wider society. Then, we really will be all in it together. And the church really will be able to bring good news, not just to the poor, but from the poor.

“O God, to those who are hungry give bread,
And to us who have bread, give hunger for justice.”
Latin American blessing


ekklesia_logoEkklesia is an independent, not-for-profit thinktank which orients its work around the changing role of beliefs, values and faith/non-faith in public life.

Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter.

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