On a Sunday afternoon in June last year nearly 2000 people gathered at CS Lewis Square in East Belfast for an evangelistic rally organised by a partnership of six of the largest churches in the city.
CS Lewis Square is an impressive example of designing and implementing civic space. It’s a testament to the imagination, vision and perseverance of the community and voluntary sector and its commitment to inter-agency collaboration. Furthermore, naming the Square after one of Belfast’s most notable authors and theologians is also an affectionate nod to Lewis’ international renown.
In a publication produced by the Christian Community Work Alliance (CCWA) named “Acting in Good Faith: Churches, Change and Regeneration” in 2004, the then Permanent Secretary of the Department for Social Development Alan Shannon spoke in similar terms of the value churches and faith-based organisations add to regenerating neighbourhoods while building capacity in institutions and agencies to work in dialogue with local groups to shape and determine change in their communities.
This followed on from the Third-Way optics of Blairism which certainly played a role in bringing the impact of religious congregations into New Labour’s policy development. This was not a one-way conversation. Faith in the City – published by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas in 1985, was a landmark document in rallying churches and challenging the Government, and provided significant impetus for church-related community development work.
Fast forward to 2019. Umbrella organisations like the CCWA no longer exist and many of the organisations profiled as examples of good practice in the 2004 report operate in greatly reduced capacity. The role played by church-related community development in Northern Ireland is now much diminished when it comes to playing a major role in civic regeneration or the urgent policy work of addressing long-term socio-economic disadvantage.
It is interesting that the most progressive relationships between the faith-based sector and central government developed before the restoration of Stormont in 2007. While MLAs no doubt offered personal support to faith-based projects, positive policy development was not on the same scale as before.
The formal onset of austerity policies following the global economic clash led to a sharp rise in food bank usage. Unsurprisingly, churches and faith-based organisations were, and remain, at the forefront of responding to this need. It could be argued that wider discussions around the churches’ role in long-term preventative, justice-based work in local communities became sidelined by more immediate, tangible need. Other issues such as burn-out suffered from pioneering leaders, and failure to integrate community models of church into the mainstream language of mission, are undoubtedly contributing factors.
Furthermore, as the US culture wars’ focus on personal morality and abortion as defining issues take hold on this side of the Atlantic, the space for conversations within NI churches on social and community engagement becomes more contested. Social justice runs deep in the scriptures, given voice by the Old Testament prophets, embodied in Jesus’ life, and lived out in the upside-down economics of the early church, but now appears even more politically tainted within congregations than before.
The policy dialogue about the role of community development from a faith-based perspective in neighbourhood regeneration sits with the Department for Communities but with little current strategic direction other than a consultative role. While the Government’s flagship regeneration policy stagnates, this feels like a missed opportunity.
Evangelistic rallies, large anti-abortion protests, and even the highly-organised food bank warehouses all look good but sit firmly within the comfort zone of mainstream Evangelicalism. In the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar… it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
This is a deep challenge to a Northern Irish Church that still sits with considerable privilege and power in its pews. A privilege and power that is too often complicit in abuses of power rather than speaking truth to it.
The 2004 report states:
“..the command ‘to love your neighbour’ has decisive political dimensions. People of faith who care about their neighbours also care about the nature of the political context that radically affects them. The command to love is the key to the relationship between the Kingdom of God and work for a more just society.”
There is a risk that churches will be nostalgic bystanders while Northern Ireland struggles to address complex socio-economic inequalities, like the iconic but static Narnian statues concealed among the foliage of a vibrant Inner East Belfast park.
“TITANIC YARDMEN 401 BY ROSS WILSON [ PUBLIC ART LOCATED ON THE NEWTOWNARDS ROAD IN BELFAST]-151067” by infomatique is licensed under CC BY-SA
Jonny works for an anti-poverty charity. He can be found at @scrabopower