Recently Anglican bishops attending the Lambeth Conference who took part in an anti-poverty walk with other faith leaders through central London assembled in Whitehall Place, and walked past the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.
The London Borough of Westminster is a borough of contrasts, where wealth and power can be found side-by-side with hardship and insecurity. In imposing buildings, bankers, business leaders, politicians and civil servants are busy making decisions which will affect the lives of millions whom they have never met.
Meanwhile low-paid workers – many of them migrants – are also at work, often scraping together their meagre savings to help support family members and friends ‘back home’, while near-destitute asylum-seekers wait fearfully for officials to decide on their future.
Many are survivors of political purges, ethnic cleansing, brutal sexism (often including rape) or homophobia, and must struggle to convince the authorities of the reality of their experience, so far removed from the glossy façade found in promotional films and travel agents’ brochures. Statues of military heroes loom above passers-by, a reminder of the horror as well as heroism of war, and the violence which underpins much of the status quo.
All too often in this part of London, deals are done which favour the shareholders of huge corporations as well as some members of the elites of Asia, Africa and Latin America but do few favours to the most oppressed and marginalised in these countries.
For church leaders in the West as well as the South, there is a tension between not offending the most wealthy worshippers and donors or alienating the authorities which control a range of functions from taxation to planning permission, and which can assist or obstruct faith communities, and prophetically challenging the systems which impoverish and repress so many.
It is all too easy to agree to intentions with which few would disagree – a cleaner environment, drinkable water, better child nutrition and so forth – without delving too deeply into the causes.
Moreover, few bishops are specialists in social science or economics. Attention to the findings of those who have researched these issues, as well as to the voices of the poor and displaced (largely women), and recognition of the ways in which people’s position in society affects their viewpoint, are also needed if effective action is to be taken.
Being a good teacher and pastor sometimes means being a good student, and unfortunately this is not a quality that all in the Anglican Communion value. Yet some bishops have done excellent work in drawing attention to issues of justice, at some risk to themselves as well as the church’s standing among the most prosperous and powerful, true followers of the way of the Cross, and this deserves to be acknowledged.
The bishops and others walking with them crossed the River Thames to Lambeth Palace. While it is common to assume that all in the West are prosperous, some parts of the London Borough of Lambeth are among the most deprived in England.
There have been various schemes to try to tackle urban poverty in this densely-populated borough, yet all too often the involvement of disadvantaged people themselves in decision-making has been more tokenistic than real, and schemes have had little long-term effect. Nevertheless there are some examples of excellent practice, where commitment, patience and humility by those in positions of authority have paid off and real achievements made.
Lambeth and neighbouring boroughs also home to large numbers of Londoners of African (largely African-Caribbean), Asian and Latin American descent, and the high streets as well as side-alleys display something of the diversity of this city’s population. There are also numerous lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people, many of them black, living within half an hour’s walk of Lambeth Palace.
The divisions between North and South, East and West are not absolute, and this is evident in much of London, where many people are still deeply engaged with the issues affecting communities ‘back home’.
The importance of love for all, involving justice for the despised and oppressed, and willingness to go beneath surface appearances and bland slogans to confront the causes of the poverty and violence that blight the world, will hopefully be reinforced by the walk across London, and the lessons learnt taken back to Canterbury.
With grateful acknowledgments to LGCM
(c) Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi is author of Re-writing history, a research paper on the Episcopal Church, among several others. She has contributed several chapters to the new book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008).