Places of desire, ambition and hope :FAITH & REASON

Ten years ago the Church of England in its report Faith in the City challenged Britain to respond to the needs of the urban poor. The Rev John Kennedy assesses progress.
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The Independent Online
When the history of the Church in the second half of the 20th century is written, the Faith in the City epic will be one of its most exciting features. It will be judged that Britain in the early Eighties was enduring a brutal readjustment. What history might not record is the pain and bewilderment suffered then by Britain's poorest urban communities. The Labour Party was in what looked like a Trotskyite death spasm. When the pain continued after the 1983 general election, the Church of England took its courage and its cash in both hands. It produced the Faith in the City report, and challenged Church and Nation to respond to the needs of the poor.

Ten years later, the project continues. Many poor parishes have been significantly renewed, made places of welcome; pounds 20m has been raised for urban activity; above all, the project has engaged bravely with the structures of the Church of England, making urban poverty a concern of the whole body, not just its urban enthusiasts.

The Anglicans have also, sensibly, avoided excessive ecumenising of the project. This approach has marginalised the Methodists a bit, and made us do our own things better. More significantly, it has upstaged the Roman Catholics, who still have the really strong presence in Britain's cities. And I wish more credit had been given to one ecumenical body, Church Action on Poverty. But these are quibbles. A great, historic note has been struck. When it mattered the Church of England spoke out. This splendid achievement does raise questions, however.

Let me introduce Ivor Seddon, a businessman from Salford. We met there last week. He makes curtain fittings, and sells them around the world, especially in Japan. He started out on a market stall 20 years ago. He now employs a hundred people and turns over pounds 5m a year. He knows the whole world, but likes it best in Britain. He admires the Japanese, but reckons British commerce is more efficient, and Britain is a nicer place to live.

Now the Faith in the City project has produced a thousand pages of text. Lots of analysis and stories. But Ivor isn't there, nor anybody much like him. The project was far too pessimistic about the prospects for medium- sized firms like Ivor's, and placed excessive hope in community activity and public institutions.

Many urban authorities have worked hard to turn cities into good business locations and generators of jobs. Cardiff, Bolton, Glasgow, Salford and Leeds look a lot better now. There is a good rule of thumb about cities: if you have created an environment in which business cannot thrive, then you change the environment. That means beginning to renew it as soon as it stops being profitable, rather than letting the dereliction pile up over generations, as we have done in Britain. It also means avoiding huge single mistakes, like the construction of job-free zones in the form of the modern outer-city estates.

This is where the thrust of Faith in the City was too light on politics rather than too heavy. For it is the outer-city estates that created the least tractable urban problems, especially in their exclusion of people from access to the labour market. The churches' silence on the awfulness of Labour city government there did its bit to make Labour unelectable.

There is of course something deeper at work here than political prejudice and parochial myopia. Peter Sedgewick has edited a theological collection to celebrate the 10th anniversary, called God in the City (Mowbray, pounds 12.95). He highlights the problem with a quotation from the fourth- century preacher St John Chrysostom:

Thus does the devil stealthily set fire to the city. It is not a matter of running up ladders and using petroleum, pitch or tar; he uses things far more pernicious; lewd sights, base speech, degraded music and songs full of all kinds of wickedness.

That kind of "fear in the city" continues. The city has always been profane, hard to manage. Through two decades in east and west London, I sometimes feared that the churches were happier managing the city's misery than engaging with its vitality. The Church of England has earned its place in history through its eloquent protest against the injustices of contemporary city life. But Christians have yet to grasp the nature of cities. We find it hard to accept them as places of infinitely varying and barely manageable desire, ambition and hope. It is safer to stay with misery, but that is not the whole of what God has given us in these strange places.