Ranters of Mow Cop

Ranters of Mow Cop

Friday, 28 March 2014

How Christians should be tackling poverty in the UK.

If as we have argued in the previous blog poverty in the UK is absolute, and best described in terms of destitution, gross inequality and oppression, what is to be done? How should Christians, working through their local churches and alongside other people of goodwill in their communities be striving to make a difference?

First of all we have to admit that it is not going to be possible, this side of the return of Christ to abolish poverty and injustice altogether. This is not so much that as Jesus put it, "the poor you will always have with you" for it is possible to read these words as an ironic commentary on Deuteronomy 15;11…. addressed to a disobedient people... In John's gospel (12;4-6) he was in fact responding to Judas the crooked banker in the midst of the disciples. Indeed as he earlier verse in Deuteronomy (15.4) has it .. there need be no poor among you for God has given you a rich and fertile land. And with the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 4 the church in Jerusalem demonstrated how it was possible to abolish poverty within a community.

The difficulty rather is that there are huge social, economic and ideological forces ranged against the poor in the contemporary world..It is these, whether understood in terms of secular politics, or as structural sin "embodied" in the "powers and principalities" that rule in the heavenly realms that will obstruct and hinder in our struggles. But that does not mean that nothing can be done or that we are always doomed to impotence and defeat.

There are three main levels at which we should be working, which are in Boff's terms the personal, the pastoral and the political.

At the personal level it is morally impossible for a Christian or any human being, who having food and other resources to pass by on the other side when we see a brother or sister who is destitute and starving. We are bound to share what we have and to give generously following the example of God who has graciously given us all things. There is in this sad world a place for food banks, soup kitchens and furniture stores and the churches and communities of Britain have recognized this and responded. Many of us already give food, money and unpaid labour in such projects. However, charity is not enough – even at the individual and household level. We can go one step further by helping people with signposting and advice, advocacy in face of bureaucracy, in offering money management courses and credit unions, programmes to address addictions, job clubs, mentoring and job creation enterprises that may make people self-sufficient economically, and new hope in Christ whereby individuals may see their personal lives turned around.

Yet still this is merely doing to and working for, or serving the poor. At the pastoral level it is better by far in terms of humanity and empowerment, and in following the example of Jesus if we can walk alongside the poor, in solidarity with them, in listening to and amplifying their voices and the stories of their experience, and in learning from them something of the depth of faith that keeps them going, and the blessedness they have been promised. Some of us may be called to be involved in radical new Christian communities such as the Comfort Zone in Blackpool, others to move in and live deep (as the Eden Network puts it) in deprived urban neighbourhoods, if we are not there already either as a lifestyle choice or constrained through our own lack of wealth.

At the political level the challenge is even greater. We can of course use our votes, write to our MPs and Councillors or lobby the government. We may advocate for specific reforms, such as the end of benefit sanctions and the bedroom tax, for curbs on legal loan sharks and a capping of interest rates, for fair fuel tariffs, for the introduction of the living wage. We can join and support campaigning groups such as Church action on Poverty and CPAG. We can even join a political party, and stand for election, or infiltrate local political structures such as community forums and health boards and seek to make a constructive difference there. People supporting and advocating justice persistently in democratic societies do sometimes win small victories and bring in worthwhile reforms – the names of Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury easily come to evangelicals' minds.

However, history seems to teach us that long term and deep rooted political and social change comes through the struggles of organised social movements. The trade unions, the Indian Independence movement inspired by Gandhi, the Civil Rights movement led my Martin Luther King are the most obvious examples. Christians are often far too reluctant to take part in organized resistance and the struggles of the dispossessed. In today's society we need to engage in new forms of organising, using electronic social media, subverting the stories of the mass media and mass lobbies and demonstrations. Make Poverty History in 2005 showed that the churches in Britain could mobilise for international justice. Why can't we do it for economic and social justice in our own land?

But even this is not enough. Increasingly politics is about narratives and the powerful forces linked with neo-liberal economics seem to have persuaded all the parties that they can only win elections by persuading voters in the "squeezed middle" that they support the interests of hard working people. The rhetoric is about "the strivers" against the non working "scroungers". Of course here they intend us to understand the reference to the poor, the unemployed and the welfare dependent, rather than the non – working scroungers who make fortunes by gambling with vast sums of capital, and find ways of dodging taxation on their ill gotten gains. As Christians committed to the equal value of all human beings before God, and to greater generosity and equality in society, we need tell convincingly a counter narrative. We will need the best of our Christian and progressive economists to bring forward sound alternatives to neo-liberal dogma. And we will need to find powerful communicators with access to the media to publicly and prophetically declare a different truth.

Though we may not succeed in abolishing poverty until kingdom come, we can at least make some difference if we can work together in the Spirit of Jesus at all these different levels.

There is an interesting Catholic take on Matt 24;11 here http://www.catholiccincinnati.org/56108/the-poor-you-will-always-have-its-not-a-prediction/

Friday, 14 March 2014

Understanding the Language of Poverty in the UK today

I was pulled up short this week on reading again a draft document from a colleague at the church Urban Fund
When people refer to poverty in England, they are not generally referring to the complete lack of material resources that millions of people around the world experience. Thankfully, that kind of 'absolute' poverty is mostly absent from this country. Poverty in England is a relative concept
This reflects a widespread assumption that has been oft repeated over the last fifty years. However, in my own experience I fear this is no longer true. Every week at the homeless drop in Preston where I volunteer meals are served to over 50 people, who are permanently skint, and depend on the circuit of soup kitchens around the town for their food. In Blackpool the numbers reported in similar ministries are even higher. Across Lancashire in 2013 the 26 different food banks issued at least 30,000 food parcels to people who had been formally referred as not being able to afford any food. At the different job clubs run by local churches and community groups there are constant stories of people who have nothing to live on because they have been "sanctioned" - all benefits withdrawn because of some trivial breach of harsh regulations. And then there are thousands who are trapped deep in debt by the legal loan sharks, to whom they turned when for a short term fix to their desperation and destitution. I've not yet mentioned addictions, where the pushers of booze, drugs and late night high street gambling have preyed on human weakness and continue to destroy lives. Many of these people are not yet living on the streets, or sleeping rough – thanks often to the genrosity and forbearance of families, friends and various charities – though the numbers are rising and are likely to grow exponentially. If this situation is not absolute poverty, what is?
The most frightening aspect is that much of this destitution is the outcome of deliberate policy. Thirty years of neo-liberal economics has promoted the rapid growth of inequality so that a small elite controls the financial institutions, and holds sway over the world's governments. Gross inequality has been shown to be detrimental to the health and well being of all not just the poorest. In global capitalism real wages have been supressed, and welfare spending has been cut. Austerity policies have turned the screw on the poorest, with specific cuts hurting the disabled, social housing tenants and the jobless who are disciplined by benefit sanctions to take a job, any job that is on offer, rather than being offered incentives to look for gainful and meaningful work. All this of course is undergirded by a propaganda machine that labels and demonises the workless as "scroungers.
Nonetheless the emergence of absolute poverty in the UK does not mean that relative poverty has gone away. Huge numbers of people may be in work, or even managing to survive on their benefits yet may be living in poverty when they are considerably worse off than the majority of the population; when they lack sufficient resources to achieve a standard of living regarded as normal in this society. This kind of poverty is about exclusion, as individuals and families are excluded from participating in economic, social and cultural activities that are considered, or promoted by advertisers and role models of popular culture, as essential.
Definitions and benchmarking of relative poverty vary, but two methods are common. Governments and economists seem to prefer a mathematical formula based on the proportion of households who fall below an income threshold based on 60 per cent of the national median income. Using that measure, around 13 million people, including 3.5 million children, are estimated to be living in poverty in the UK. The calculation is relatively easy if the data is sound, and in principle comparable over time. However, strange quirks can occur as inequalities grow, or as GNP falls with the possibility that the numbers within the definition go down, while their struggle to manage on their income becomes worse. Social scientists on the other hand prefer the "breadline Britain" approach, based on the proportion who cannot afford a basket of consumer goods considered to be essential for a decent life, by the average British resident, sampled by opinion polling. Again there are problems with such relative definitions, as aspirations and expectations of the decent life can rapidly change, and may vary widely across a diverse population. There are for example especially among practicing Christians many who are more than content with the material blessings God has entrusted to them, and generously give much of their income away – and in the extreme case there are religious orders who have taken a voluntary vow of poverty, and see lack of possessions not as a problem but as a blessing.
Poverty then is a complex phenomenon and hard to define. It is clear that its impacts are multi-dmensional. Although many people manage brilliantly on low incomes, and remain resourceful and hopeful usually lack of resources begins to impact on physical health through the lack of a good diet, poor housing, and unheated living space. In a world where a person's worth is measured by their personal wealth lack of resources brings lack of status, and with that a lowered self image and lack of confidence. The stress of struggling to make ends meet impacts on mental well-being, and can drive people to depression, substance abuse, crime, suicidal thoughts and actions as well as relationship problems. Families can become unstable or break down, often making the cost of living higher for the individual. Communities can find it harder to trust one another, and housing policies often concentrate households with economic and social difficulties closer together. Services in such areas are often over-stretched and under-funded, and over time are tolerated with low expectations. Aspirations for improvement are lowered with the result that people find it pointless to strive for education, decent employment or political change.
The interrelation of these factors and the link to local area deprivation is well captured in a publication from the Church Urban Fund, "The web of poverty"

All these problems are closely interlinked, trapping individuals and whole communities in a 'web of poverty': poor education dampens aspirations; unstable home lives and domestic abuse are triggers for homelessness and drug and alcohol misuse; unemployment and lack of opportunities promote crime; low income makes healthy eating unaffordable; dependence on benefits disempowers people; mental health problems lead to social isolation; and the closure of local services damages community cohesion
The document goes on to name poverty of identity, poverty of resources, and poverty of relationships as three distinct dimensions. However, in my view the analysis is flawed if we see these factors as in an almost Trinitarian relationship with each other. It must surely be the case that economics – lack of resources - is the primary driver of the other aspects of poverty. This must especially be the case if we understand the growth of absolute poverty, and the growth of inequality as politically driven. In the driving seat of course are those who already have much, and in their greed are always demanding more, at the expense of the ordinary and the most vulnerable, the least and the lost. It is they of course who also control the language and dominate the discourse around poverty. Only those who have much to gain in terms of a "divide and rule" approach to the electorate could promote a language of poverty built on terms such as "the underclass", "scroungers and shirkers", "teenage lone parents getting pregnant to get housing", "addicts begging to feed their habit" and "benefit tourists and asylum seekers"
The language of relative poverty and social exclusion may seem more liberal and can surely have some beneficial uses when trying to bring on board those who are in low paid work or are striving to better themselves. However, if my analysis is to any extent true then it is arguably time that we forgot about the complex, confusing and contested notion of poverty. Rather we should be speaking and acting compassionately and politically in the vocabulary of inequality and destitution and declaring that behind these symptoms we discern oppression.
It is my contention that such an understanding is profoundly Christian and soundly based in Scripture..
In the Old Testament, "poor" can be translated by six major and three other terms—totalling about 300 references, and revealing a broad understanding of the causes, reality, and consequences of poverty. The poor person is the downtrodden, humiliated, oppressed; the man pleading and crying out for justice; the weak or helpless; the destitute; the needy, dependent person; and the one forcibly subjected to the powerful oppressor. ..........
Throughout the Bible the majority of references indicate that the poor are the mercilessly oppressed, the powerless, the destitute, and the downtrodden. Nor is their poverty taken for granted in Scripture. It causes concern, anger, and protest. It is challenged and opposed. And its source is seen as injustice and oppression by the powerful.

This quotation is not taken from some Marxist inspired volume of liberation theology, or even from Pope Francis but from a decidedly evangelical source that is nearly 35 years old

Lausanne Occasional Paper 22 Christian Witness to the Urban Poor

Report of the Consultation of World Evangelization Mini-Consultation on Reaching the Urban Poor held in Pattaya, Thailand from 16-27 June 1980 Sponsored by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization
This paper is still well worth reading in full and the appendix which meticulously lists every Bible reference to poverty is available here
It is worth noting that the report was drafted by members of the "MiniConsultation on Reaching the Urban Poor" under the Chairmanship of Rev. Jim Punton, who also served as International Co-ordinator of the pre-COWE study groups on Reaching the Urban Poor. Final editing was by Dr. Colin Marchant.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Progressive Localism and the North South Divide

Last week I was privileged to spend a day at the North of England Fairness commission conference in Blackpool's Tower Ballroom. Highlight of the day undoubtedly was the virtuoso unscripted speech by Professor Richard Wilkinson (co-author of "The Spirit Level") presenting the evidence that inequality is bad for everyone's health and well-being. One of the best nuggets was his condemnation of our culture where "we read personal wealth as an indicator of personal worth",  a critique which resonates so well with the core values of Christian faith. With a large number of public health professionals present and presenting their concerns, the divide between the North of England and the London and South East region was highlighted in similar ways to the recent BBC TV "Mind the gap" Series. As London sucks in talented young people from around the globe, the north loses some of its best prospects, is hardest hit by cuts to local government spending, loses jobs because of its higher proportion of public sector employment, and is left with vulnerable industries (such as BAE systems in Lancashire, and the Barrow dockyard) relying on government defence contracts and the global arms trade. As stress and poverty rises health and well being fall, leaving a place like Blackpool with the lowest male life expectancy in the country.
Another fascinating feature of the conference was that a number of the speakers and participants were explicit about faith and values. Blackburn's director of public health using a powerpoint slide drawing on Leonardo Boff's liberation theology toexplain the different points at which change could be encouraged through popular, pastoral or political action. It is not the first time this link between faith and social action has been articulated in Blackpool. At a conference last November based around the findings of the Faith in the Community Report the leader of Blackpool Council publicly spoke about the threefold commitments of his life as a Labour Party activist, a residential social worker in a hostel for homeless people, and as a Christian believer in a local church. His hope was that through one or more of these he might make a difference to the social conditions in the town, and help to transform some peoples' lives. A similar event was also held in Preston where people of many faiths and none considered haw they might work better together to tackle local poverty.

These events suggest there is a opening up of spaces in the public sphere where faith and values can be openly articulated in the face of the current economic and political crisis and the policies which heap misery and destitution upon the poorest and most vulnerable members of society and the communities in which they are concentrated. Church leaders supporting symbolic protests of fasting against food poverty and provoking government anger at the national level are resonating with experience and conversations at the local level, in the North of England at least. This phenomenon has been described by Chris Baker of the William Temple Foundation as the interaction of Spiritual capital and progressive localism and suggests the emergence of the idea of progressive localism which suggests the emergence of new spaces of mutual engagement between outward-facing faith and secular organisations. These spaces, I conclude, represent new opportunities for faith communities to exercise innovative and creative forms of local political leadership. 
But what would a progressive localism look like in the context of the North of England at this time. A reinvigoration of the powers of local authorities would obviously be helpful, including the right to set a Council tax rate according to local needs and political accountability. Preston Councillor Matthew Brown in a piece for New Start magazine argues that in the absence of a statutory living wage of £7.65 communities should have the freedom to set such a level themselves as a number of US cities already have done. He is also leading the moves to bring a new credit union for Preston called 'GuildMoney' which could soon be helping hard-up families escape the grasp of pay-day loan firms, and a scheme to invest council funds in a renewable local energy scheme which could bring both economic and environmental returns into the local economy. Through the city council's Social forum experiment there are opportunities for voluntary and faith sector groups, together with the trade unions to be involved in the conversations and governance of these projects. Though such broad based organising may be politically controversial they may among the best hopes that local communities and Christian social activists have in the cities of the North at a time when national government doesn't seem to care about poorer people in poorer communities, but rather intends to make them poorer still.

Another Book review

Woodhead, L & Catto, R (eds) 2012, Religion and Change in Modern Britain. Routledge .

(ISBN 978-0-415-57580-5 hardback, £80.00 and ISBN 978-0-415-57581-2 paperback, £27.99).

Review by Greg Smith

Download Here https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/89023969/wtf/Greg%20Smith%20review%20of%20Woodhead%26Catto.pdf

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Food-banks - Charity is not enough

Another piece for the Lancashire Evening Telegraph

Last year at least 25,000 food parcels were distributed by around 25 food banks which operate in different communities across Lancashire. The numbers have risen rapidly over recent years as economic hardship has hit the region. Unemployment together with low and stagnant wages mean that many families have the choice between eating and heating. Some of the food banks report people who refuse to take items such as pasta because they need to be cooked – they may not even have cooking equipment at home, or if they do they can't afford the gas.

The food banks estimate that a quarter of their beneficiaries are working families, on low or unpredictable wages. The rest are living on benefits and divide roughly into three equal groups. One group are getting their payments, but just can no longer manage on the stingy amounts that are paid. Indeed the EU has recently told the UK government that they should double the rates paid to bring claimants up to a reasonable subsistence level. With recent welfare reforms, most have had a cut in their income and increased bills to pay their bedroom tax and council tax, on top of the increasing cost of living. A second group are those who have made a claim, but have had long delays before what they are entitled to comes through to the bank. The third group are made destitute by the deliberate government policy of imposing benefit sanctions – a sentence imposed without any legal process by job centre officials, often on flimsy evidence and trivial grounds.

The response to this growing crisis by the food bank movement has been magnificent. Projects have now been set up in every district of the county, mostly led by churches and other faith communities and supported by donations from thousands of the warm hearted and generous people of Lancashire. Most of us realise that there but for the grace of God go I - and respond to human need when we see it. It is the self organising genius which David Cameron until recently called "the Big Society" at work. What a pity then that almost every recent government statement on food poverty and the food bank movement is either evasive or critical.

Indeed as most of the food bank providers recognize there could be a problem of dependency, and it's possible that a few people who have enough money to spend on fags and booze, do get through the referral systems for free food. Yet even,when need is genuine, as in the vast majority of cases, charity on its own can never solve deeper problems and change people's lives.

Thankfully most of the food banks realize this and try to get to know people personally. A listening ear over a cuppa is just the first stage and that can often bring comfort. The next stage is to signpost people to other services and projects that help address other parts of complex problems, housing advice, debt counselling, parenting skills, drug and alcohol services, work clubs. The churches and faith groups in particular are well placed to do this as they are at the heart of a network of such agencies. Additionally when asked they can also offer prayer and spiritual support.

Christians have long seen the church community, and society as a whole, as a single body, in which all persons are members of equal dignity and worth. So action must also go beyond the individual level if we are to end the scourge of food poverty in our county and country. Businesses can help not just my making available their surplus food stuffs to those in need, but by organising themselves to thrive, in order that they can offer decent living wage jobs to those who are unemployed. Communities need to be better organised to be more compassionate, co-operative and resilient in times of austerity. Finally progressive politicians must do better to take a moral lead on these issues, to bring people together, to engage and organize ordinary people in participatory democracy, to lobby, to vote and to campaign so that food poverty and the gross inequality that we now see is driven from our land. As the good book says "without a vision the people perish".

Faith on the Job...

A piece about church based job clubs I wrote for the Lancashire Evening Telegraph
Sarah Sugden is just one of over 35,000 Lancashire people who are counted as unemployed in 2013. And that figure takes no account of the many more who are in short term, part time, irregular and low paid work who cannot, or don't wish to claim Job Seekers allowance.  Last week Sarah's child had an asthma attack and instead of going to school spent Thursday morning at the doctors with her mum. Sarah was supposed to sign in at the Job centre that morning, but in her concern for her child forgot all about it. By the end of the week she discovered she had been sanctioned, all her benefits had been stopped for the next month. Destitute and with no food in the larder she manged to get referred to the local food bank and was given a parcel of tins and pasta which should have helped her feed the family for the best part of a week. However, when she got home she found the gass had run out and she still had no money to charge up the key meter at the usual high tariff rate. Without a working cooker the free food was pretty useless.

Sarah herself is fictional... but her story is becoming desparately familiar to church and community projects working with the unemployed. Our Together Lancashire network which attempts to tackle poverty together through Christian social action, is in touch with churches and social projects from Fleetwood to Pendle. In Preston and Blackpool several churches are running work clubs, weekly meetings for unemployed people, where volunteers support them in preaparing CVs, writing job applications and searching for vacancies. Vacancies are scarce, such jobs as there are tend to be low paid and hardly worth taking by the time you've paid the bus fares, many people just don't have the right skills or experience necessary, and many are daunted by having to apply online when they have never used a computer, and find reading and writing difficult, especially when faced with the gobbledegook of application forms. Job Centres make customers sign an agreement that they will apply for ten or more jobs a week, and if you don't you lose your money. In one case we have heard of a non-driver being sanctioned for not applying for a post as an HGV driver. In Cleveleys and Fleetwood the local Christian Advocacy service has been supporting people in taking such decisions to appeal. They say one of the biggest problems is that people with mental health difficulties are ofetn found fit for work, when they are just not able to hold down a job. Across the county food banks run by local churches and supported by all sorts of people in different faith communities are overwhelmed as the practice and policy of making people destitute becomes more evident every month.

Christian churches are beginning to get angry with this growing injustice. In the past there has been a mixed picture in serving the needs of the unemployed. One recent national survey by the Evangelical Alliance ("Working Faithfully") suggests that a third of churgoing Christians who had faced unemployment in the past    had received no practical help beyond prayer and moral support when they lost their jobs. And only 9% went to churches where a specific project to help the unemployed was being run. However on a brighter note 58% said their churches now  offered practical help to members who had lost their jobs and 40% to people in the wider community. There is clearly a move among the churches to do more and plenty of practically schemes such as the recently launched Christians Against Poverty Job Club programme. These can help, even if it is often just in boosting people's confidence and lending a listening ear and sinposting needy people to other sources of help. But more needs to be done, through trainings and apprenticeships, through job creation via developing sustainable and socially responsible business that provide meaningful work, and through establishing the principle of the Living wage which is one of the best ways to ensure it pays to work rather than to depend on benefits.

Christians, and people of other faiths and none are beginning to show that they care about people who have no jobs. But the government also needs to be aware that more and more of us are getting angry about the injustices and the mistreatment, and the unfairness than many job seekers face from week to week.

My Rough Guide to Urban Theology

There is a draft version of my review of the main influences in my own urban theology over the last 40 years available to


This is a piece I wrote in December 2012  - There is a longer version you can download here

The dictionary definition of the Greek word ekklesia (which we translate as "church", the French as eglise, the Welsh as Eglwys ) is a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly .

I take it for granted as someone formed by Methodism that as Mr. Wesley, said "there is no such thing as a solitary Christian". Christian life is life in community, in the fellowship of the Spirit we call the church. Thus it is inevitable that the church will have some form of institutional existence and life, even on the minimalist definition of an institution as "some people and some rules"

However, many people think the institutional church in the 21st Century is in the process of disintegrating – this article is an attempt to explore whether it is possible to reassemble the church in contemporary urban society. If it can be, or rather if by the Spirit the church is being, reassembled what shape is it likely to take.

It seems obvious to me that the institutions of church will have no choice but to change if we want to see

  1. a credible visible church with something like an intellectually coherent Christian world view that can hold up its head with integrity in the public sphere

  2. a missional church that increases in numbers, becomes sustainable and influential in all sectors of public life

  3. a strong Christian contribution to the formation of a more just, equal, compassionate connected social order..

The Church Disintegrating?

What then of the state of the church in Britain today? There is little doubt about the numerical decline in church attendance among the major denominations over the last half century, the loss of the monopoly position of Christianity or from the 2011 Census data of the increasing numbers of people who claim to be of "no religion, especially among younger people. Current controversies over female bishops and gay marriage and the poor PR and news management of the major denominations have hardly helped. The public image is of a church in crisis, divided and not very relevant to contemporary society and of church leaders who lack conviction and credibility.

We continue in a long Christian tradition of defining the "other" by boundary maintenance processes. Historical examples include the polarisation between fundamentalism and the modernist "social gospel" in the 20th Century which continues to be replayed in the church today. In the evangelical churches there are not always gracious disagreements which turn into tribal battles between neo Calvinists and charismatics , between conservatives (Piper) and open or "emergent" theologians (Rob Bell, Brian Mclaren). But in the mainstream denominations conflict has focussed on issues of gender and sexuality and Giles Fraser may be correct that polite disagreement in public debate, papers over bitter tribal animosity between factions in the church. None of this is good public relations in a media saturated age, or helpful to mission in the name of one who prayed that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17;21).

Yet despite the overall trends there are signs that in certain sectors congrgations are persisting, thriving and even growing. Some case studies are collected in Goodhew 2012. It is clear for example that ethnic diversity has led to church growth especially in inner London, in the Church of England and the Roman Catholic church as well as among evangelicals an Pentecostals. Across the country it can be argued that the main denominations are in crisis while the evangelical/charismatic is now the mainstream for congregational life. There is evidently a resonance for current generations raised in an ethos of cultural consumption and individual choice – various genres of popular Christian music, person centred spirituality, ministry that addresses immediate felt needs, and in some cases promises of material as well as spiritual blessing at relatively small cost. Non-Christian spiritualities and therapies also compete in this market as do other Christian traditions. There are numerous strong and growing reformed biblical churches and lively Anglo-Catholic exceptions especially in Cathedrals who offer aesthetically beautiful worship, without perhaps a radical call to conversion and discipleship. Yet even this apparent success if based on individualism and consumer choice can be seen as a force for fragmentation of church as instituion.

However, it does seem that the further one moves from core to periphery, the less well the market is saturated with attractive options. As a participant observer in church life in semi urban Lancashire one is struck by the conservative traditionalism of the main-stream denominations, the widespread acceptance of the narrative of inevitable church decline, the increasingly geriatric composition of congregations and the improbability of a financial or institutional sustainability. In my own city of Preston for example, in the last few years numerous congregations and their associated church buildings have closed of all the major traditions, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist and URC. In other cases parishes have been merged or clergy posts withdrawn. Furthermore several of the new independent charismatic and evangelical fellowships have emerged, flourished for a season then declined or fragmented and disappeared.

One factor remains hardly changed over the last hundred years. In urban and semi urban settings in the UK white working (and non-working) class adults, especially men, remain grossly unrepresented in church congregations. Traditionally it was assumed they would be found in the pub rather than the chapel or church, but as local pubs close almost more frequently than churches this is no longer the case. Concern about this emerged as early as 1957 in Wickham's Church and People in an Industrial City, Lutterworth Press, London and in the emergence of industrial mission. Built as a City (Sheppard 1975) developed this analysis but in general the concerns and methods of the David Sheppard generation of urban evangelicals consolidated into the approach of Unlock have either been found wanting, or more likely not properly tried and applied, with the result that most social housing estates are regarded as Unreached (Chester 2012) and possibly unreachable for the gospel.

The Church Reassembling

What then are the prospects for reassembling the urban church in the ecclesiastical and social context in contemporary cities?

First of all we need to be aware that despite the weakness of Christian institutions in the urban setting there is still a residual presence and power base of the established institutionalised churches. There are church buildings, ministers, and faithful congregations, undertaking locally rooted mission activities and linking with other local community institutions such as schools, residents associations and youth clubs. The importance of this infrastructure should not be ignored.

Alongside this, here and there new shoots of Christian life are emerging. Statistics have started to capture evidence about the movement known as Fresh Expressions. At least a couple of thousand have been documented in the main-stream denominations . They include simple family friendly approaches such as Messy Church to movements inspired by ancient tradition such as new monasticism, and some that have emerged or thrived in inner city settings. Perhaps most interesting for discipleship and mission in deprived urban areas are the intentional missional communities that seek to become incarnate in local neighbourhoods, working where possible alongside existing churches, or perhaps planting completely new congregations. Described by some as "submerging church" the best know examples are the Eden Network, the Baptist Urban Expression movement and the Reaching the Unreached network, although there are more established religious orders in the catholic tradition who have renewed examples of such missional presence. Whether these movements will succeed in bringing urban people to faith in Jesus and gathering them together in new local congregations on a large scale remains to be seen.

Maybe we need to look beyond the congregational unit for signs of hope.

Various comentators such as Chris Baker and Justin Beaumont have observed a new broader ecumenism which has been encapsulated in the notion of "post-secular rapprochement", emphasizing broad coalitions of diverse actors striving for social justice irrespective of social identity, value, and emotional or affective disposition. In my own experience here are many contemporary examples of such new or changing institutional forms of urban Christian activity which represntr a reassembling of the church. Here we will mention only three.

Firstly there are new signs of a growing acceptance of pluralism in the church, and a willingness to work together across denominational and theological boundaries for the sake of the Kingdom of God . At the national level Hope 08 now established for the long term as Hope Together has drawn Christians together to work on mission activities in local communities. In many towns and cities there is a renewed fresh form of ecumenism that gives the wider church a voice and influence in the public sphere as well as opportunities to pray, worship and serve together. The Gather movement and conference in February 2012 brought many of these together and has documented them on the web. In Preston I myself have been involved in one such network and written about it as it flourished in a remarkable way during the recent Guild year. These movements are not without their own problems from time to time, as certain sections of the church remain apart from them, and there are dilemmas about their relationship with multi-faith and interfaith movements, which in an age where equalities legislation is in place will be favoured as a mechanism of public policy.

Secondly community organizing on the Alinsky model is a significant phenomenon bringing congregations, other faith and community organisations together for political action in a number of British Cities. The most developed London Citizens has been well known for its successful campaigning for a living wage, The model through Citizens UK seeks to replicate itself in other urban areas with little evidence to date of sustainability. In many ways it can be seen as an attempt to reassemble the church, and the major denominations have played a significant role in the start up process. However, the movement appears mainly pragmatic and political, and while there are clear value positions that resonate with those of Christian faith, it is not so clear that it is underpinned by serious theology or by a depth of spirituality and prayer.

Thirdly the current context is one where the church, with evangelicalism in the forefront is developing widespread programmes of charitable social action. Since the first Lausanne conference in 1974 evangelicals have rediscovered the concept of holistic mission and the social activist tradition that was a key factor of Methodist and subsequent revivalism. Organisations offering franchise operations to churches wishing to serve their communities have flourished. The most well known are the Trussell Trust with its food banks, Christians Against Poverty with its money management courses and debt counselling, Redeeming Our Communities with its Youth Cafe projects and Street Pastors with its late night teams patrolling city centres and UPA neighbourhoods. All of these have an evangelical ethos and would say they are not ashamed of the gospel, but operate on the principle that actions often speak louder than words. In many places they assemble teams drawn from a wide range of congregations and denominations. For example in recent commissioning service for Street Pastors in Preston over 65 trained volunteers drawn from over 30 churches came together to worship in the context of a city centre night club. The Church Urban Fund has developed a strategy to develop ecumenical co-operation in tackling poverty together at the diocesan level. In several areas formal partnerships in the first place between Anglicans and Methodists have been established as Joint Ventures but offering a "generous table" for the widest range of churches, In Birmingham this has led to a weekly rota of churches providing a night shelter for the homeless, in Preston a food bank delivered by the Salvation Army is supported by donations from most of the churches, and from community and faith groups including local mosques.

The context of austerity and welfare reform means the need for such collaborative mission is likely to increase and that social action projects will largely need to operate without grant funding support from the national and local state. But they will be a locus for a reassembling of the urban church, with a renewal of its ancient function as an important provider of welfare and solidarity with the poor. Congregations will no doubt continue to have a life and a role as centres for the ministry of word and sacrament, for the weekly rituals of worship and liturgy. Small groups (usually linked with a congregation) will remain as a focus for bonding, study and prayer. However, with the growth of on line communication, for a generation of Christians where Facebook and Twitter are taken for granted my hunch is that in a reassembled chuch, developing an urban ecclesiology for the 21st Century it will be thin networks of special interest groups, ad hoc coalitions for social justice and intentional incarnational missional communities that will have the most significant role. Inevitably this leaves a question as to the future of denominations, synods, deaneries, circuits and regional associations of congregations – the instituional forms of church from the 19th and 20th Centuries. Can they be flexible enough to embrace the emerging forms and allow the new to flourish, or do we need to see entirely new wineskins to contain the new wine that is being trodden out today?