Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Church and the Poor, the Church of the Poor

Bishop Alan links to a Simon Jenkins article in the Guardian on the church's role as welfare provider, exemplified by St. Martins in the Fields, which celebrated its redevelopment last week.
Across Britain's cities historic neighbourhoods are being demolished and civic institutions fleeing to the suburbs, to be replaced by shopping malls. The police station is gone, the primary school closed, the youth club defunct, the library and post office shut, their staffs unionised into apathy or regulated beyond financial viability. Yet the old church plods on. The sooty spire soars over the wilderness while round its base fusses the exhausted vicar.

As an atheist he has plenty to criticise about the church, but is prepared to admire the way the church has served the poor and vulnerable, who often have no-one else to turn to. One thing missing from our local council 'vision statement' for the future of South Somerset was anything about the vulnerable: it was all about 'thriving' and 'dynamic' and 'prosperous', but nothing about those on the margins.

Of several books currently on the go, the most exciting is Punk Monk by 'Abbot' Andy Freeman, of the 24-7 Boiler Room in Reading. This is the first of a new generation of monasteries, or houses of prayer, founded to offer round-the-clock prayer, serve the poor and engage in mission. It's inspiring stuff, and part of a big personal jigsaw I'm struggling to finish at the moment.

A big question rattling around for me is 'how can we find a way of sustaining Christian community that doesn't depend on a Sunday morning meeting?', and the Boiler Room Rule may be part of the answer - it's a whole lot shorter than the Rule of St. Benedict, and states in clear and accessible ways what makes the Christian community tick, what practices it's committed to, and what it's vision and values are:

- True to Christ

- Kind to People

- Taking the Gospel to the World

Superb stuff. It's also very challenging, because the Boiler Rooms put the poor and vulnerable right at the centre of what they do, rather than making it a 'ministry' which the church organises and runs.

Simon Jenkins picture of the homeless snoozing on the pews next to the guests at the St. Martins service is a great picture of how the church should be - room for everyone. Not just room but welcome, hospitality, love, home.

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