Ministry, Marginality and Mammon:
some reflections on the church's 'preferential option for the rich'
Text of a final talk to UNLEASH on Wednesday 7th July 2004 at 2pm at Vaughan House, Westminster
On the 26th June 2004 the New York Times ran an article entitled 'When faith and duty collide'. Police Officer Eduardo Delacruz had refused to arrest a homeless man in November 2002, and , as a result, had been suspended from duty. Soon his fate in the police force will be decided. The reporter David Gonzalez wrote:
As someone who believes Jesus Christ can be seen even in the grimy faces of those living in the city's shadows and crawl spaces, Police Officer Eduardo Delacruz says he obeyed a higher authority when he refused to arrest a homeless man in November 2002.The story took me back to an earlier one, also in the USA, the story of Keith McHenry of the Food Not Bombs organisation in San Francisco, who had, between 1988 and 1994, been arrested 92 times for giving food to homeless people, contrary to local legislation (See Appendix).
I read the New York Times article as I was wading through thousands of papers, preparing to leave East London, trying to decide what to throw out. One of the papers I found was the Report to the City Deanery Synod on the proceedings of the General Synod meeting in February 2004, written by Mrs Sarah Finch, a person entirely unknown to me. Mrs Finch, who represents London on the General Synod, took exception to one of the new collects of the Church of England, that for the 2nd Sunday of Christmas, in which Christians pray that God 'would lead us to seek [Jesus] among the outcasts and to find him in those in need'. This, she said, 'undermined the gospel by encouraging the idea of salvation by good works'. It is interesting to see the illogical jump, for the collect says nothing about 'works', but about seeking and finding, about presence. (Though Matthew 25:40, presumably the source of the offending collect, does focus on works: 'just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me').
Here we have two conflicting visions of the church, of the gospel, and, I suspect, of God. And what is shown in these two snaps is a microcosm of the Christian world.
So I want to reflect on ministry, marginality and Mammon, and on the church's preferential option for the rich. I must confess that the phrase is not original. It was my friend John Atherton, recently retired as Canon Theologian of Manchester Cathedral, who used it after a month in Chicago over 20 years ago. As he left the diocesan offices, he commented that the work of the Anglican church there was a manifestation of the church's 'preferential option for the rich'.
Chicago is an interesting case study for we see there the most extreme examples of 'polarisation' between rich and poor, white and black, of any city in the western world. The 'mainstream' churches have followed the wealth. In many of the very poor areas, Anglicanism has virtually disappeared, though Roman Catholics, Baptists and black-led churches such as the Church of God in Christ are often still present. (The Roman churches are closing as a result of lack of priests, sexual abuse claims, etc).
The churches in Britain have a different history, not least in relation to social and political critique of governments, and to local social action. Yet as I leave as chair of UNLEASH, I think we have some cause for concern about the church's priorities. I don't say this to depress you, but to spur you to militancy. I want to make three claims and submit them to scrutiny and, if possible, refutation. But, if they turn out to be right, to action.
1 The churches are in danger of neglecting real pastoral ministry in favour of the cultivation of financial support in the interests of survival.
2 The people who will suffer most from this neglect are those on the margins who can provide no financial or direct support for the institution.
3 What matters most to the churches as institutions is adaptation to, and acceptance by, the power structures. They have taken seriously the words of Jesus 'You cannot serve God and Mammon' and they have opted for Mammon.
I want to draw on the thinking of two people who influenced my own thought greatly in the 1950s and 1960s, and in the second case until the late 1980s: Stanley Evans and Ruth Glass. Much of what they predicted has come true, many of their insights have been lost, most of what they said is more relevant today than when they said it. So in tribute to them I want to use their work as a way of looking at ministry, marginality and Mammon.
Evans, an Anglican priest, spent most of his ministry in East and South London. He wrote a good deal but the book which is most relevant to our concerns is very small: The Church in the Back Streets (Mowbray 1962), Only 50 pages long, it is a classic, rooted in his experience in the inner city. He coined the term 'the Church Condescending' as a way of describing how good, dedicated people moved into poor areas to minister to (rather than with) those whom they saw as belonging to a lower culture.
Inevitably they saw themselves as missionaries sent to a people of a lower culture, and they can hardly be blamed that they became the executive officers of the Church Condescending. Yet for all that, it is the bitter fruits of the Church Condescending , with all its kindness and desperate desire to do good, that we have inherited . . . An intelligent man [sic] could have prophesied the reaction of those whose fate it was to be done good to (p 5).
These people were there to 'be done good to'. Evans went on to point out that at a certain stage, when 'these stupid, ungrateful people don't come', the Church Condescending turns into the Church Indignant.
The Church Condescending has given birth to the Church Indignant . . . Does it need to be pointed out that here is nemesis; that at this point a long process has reached its tragic conclusion; that once you reach the stage of despising people, your attitude to them has ceased to be Christian at all, and that you had best haul down your flag and pack your bags, for you have no function left to fulfil? (p 13).That syndrome is still alive and well. In his book he stressed the central place of argument, debate and local theological engagement. Every local church needed to be a thinking church, constantly grappling with issues 'from street crossings to hydrogen bombs'. Is this still happening, or have we fobbed it off to Boards for Social Responsibility (which the Archbishops' Council seems keen to abolish). And he stressed the danger of substituting respectability for militancy. 'The Church Respectable can do many things but it cannot convert'. How right he was. As I re-read Evans over 40 years on, I wonder how much progress we have made.
Ruth Glass was an atheist, a Marxist, a refugee from Nazi Germany, and the pioneer of urban sociology in Europe. She taught urban studies at University College, London, for many years, and is famous for having coined the word 'gentrification'. Most sociologists refer to her first use of the word in 1964, but I have an unpublished study by her of North Kensington housing in 1959 where she uses the word 'gentrified'. It took some thirty years for people to realise what she was saying: that there was a real danger that poor people and people in middle income groups would be squeezed out of parts of Inner London which would become ghettoes of the wealthy or of the intelligentsia. This has now happened.
She also warned, in the early 1960s, of the likelihood that there would be a growth in the numbers of 'marginal men', including homeless people, in Inner London, and that social polarisation would increase. This has also now happened.
In an essay on 'Conflict in Cities', dated 1966, she predicted that there would be riots or uprisings in many cities before 1984, and warned people who were concerned with justice that 'aloofness from conflicts does not lead to their comprehension'. Ruth was, in Gramsci's terms, an 'organic intellectual', one who put her intellectual work at the service of the local communities in their struggles for justice and equality. Her refusal to stay aloof from conflicts is now not common among academics who are looking over their shoulders for funding and for 'tenure'. Again, how much progress have we made?
Let's look again at the three issues I posed at the outset. First, I suggested that the churches are in danger of neglecting real pastoral ministry in favour of the cultivation of financial support in the interests of survival. I may just be a cynic -- though I remind you that the word 'cynic' comes from the Greek word for 'dog', kuon, one who barks! But, barking or not, I do feel that the churches have withdrawn from the margins, from the places where ordinary people, and marginalised people are, and has cast in its lot with the centre. Survival has become the end of its existence. This is not, of course, to ignore the important work with homeless people which is being done, not least by members of UNLEASH. But is it being owned by the church at the centre? Is it being funded by the church at the centre? Is it seen as central to the mission of the church, or simply as a commendable activity by some eccentrics at the fringe?
Secondly, I suggested that the people who will suffer most from this neglect are those on the margins, those who can provide no financial or direct support for the institution. Data from the 2001 census strongly suggest that the north-south divide is becoming worse, after all the assurances of politicians that it is getting better or does not exist at all.
Thirdly, I suggested that what matters most to the churches as institutions is adaptation to, and acceptance by, the power structures. They take seriously the words of Jesus 'You cannot serve God and Mammon' and they have opted for Mammon.
This may seem a harsh judgment but I am being harsh on myself and on all of us in the interests of self-scrutiny and repentance.
As far as the churches are concerned, my sense is that they want to avoid conflict as much as possible, to be 'well thought of', (maybe this is the flip side of 'done good to', those two phrases ending, ungrammatically, with a preposition which sum up so much of our lives), -- in fact, to cause no offence. Mammon is powerful, and churches are happier as chaplains to Mammon than as prophets against it. We all want a quiet life. But the decline, and financial instability, of the church could be a trigger for a resurgence of the radical prophetic tradition. The fall of Babylon is often, though not inevitably, the impetus to the new Jerusalem. When you have nothing left to lose, you can stick to your principles. It would not be the first time that a crisis of the church would 'UNLEASH' the resources of the gospel.
City and County of San Francisco, Recreation and Park Dept.
(affixed the seal of city and county of SF)
July 20, 1990
Mr. Keith McHenry
Food Not Bombs
Dear Mr. McHenry:
On July 19,1990 at the 649th Regular Meeting of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission, the Commission heard and discussed an item on its Permit and Reservations policy. The semi-annual review of the Permits and Reservations Policy is mandated by Resolution 15585, which states:
"The commission directs the General Manager and staff to continue to evaluate the viability of these regulations and to ascertain whether this scheme strikes the proper balance between the recreational, Constitutional, and property interest of San Franciscans heretofore mentioned and the Commission's substantial interest in preserving park property, limiting excessive noise and conjestion [sic] and other police problems that may result from activities on park property'.
Contained within Resolution 15585 is Section I, Subsection IV: Regulations Governing Distribution of Free Food to the Homeless on Park Property This section details the terms and conditions necessary to obtain a permit to distribute free food on park property. It also contains a listing of the sites the Commission deems appropriate for this type of activity.
Prior to the July Meeting of the Commission there were two sites deemed appropriate for free food distribution on Recreation and Park property. These sites were
CIVIC CENTER PLAZA and the INTERSECTION of PAGE AND STANYAN streets in Golden Gate park. [where Food Not Bombs served food from 1990 through October1994]
Mr. McHenry, please be advised that on July 19, 1990 the Recreation and Park Commission voted to amend the Permitsand Reservations Policy and delete the section of the policy that allows free distribution of food in parks. This amended policy will not allow staff to issue any subsequent permits to any organization for the purpose of free food distribution on any park site.
If you have any questions concerning this issue, please feel free to contact me. Your cooperation in this matter is greatly appreciated.
Mary E. Burns