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Church Growth, Mission & Healing of the Social Fabric

By Michael Johnson.

This paper considers the perspective that growth and mission can be achieved by working with others outside the Church where “social healing” or healing of the social fabric is necessary for the society (or locality) to return to a state of well-being. It starts with an international campaign that connected church people and non-church people and seemed to consciously draw on the biblical principles of the Jubilee. We then consider an historical overview of the one hundred year social project for sanitation in Britain as Christians allied to others to drive forward social healing. Finally, a case study provides a fascinating depiction of church growth following after the key task of healing the social fabric in the locality. It is hoped that this look at the three levels of international, national and local Christian mission and social healing will stimulate discussion with Church groups.

 

Approaching the Millennium, I remember that our church, like many others all over the country, was involved in the campaign to have Third World debt cancelled. We sent postcards to the Chancellor, Gordon Brown MP, wore lapel badges with little chains, held public meetings and prayed about it a good deal in our private and corporate prayers. I lived in the Forest of Dean then, and my friends and I had the joy of participating in something big, vital and necessary. It brought together people of different outlooks around what was really a biblical way of seeing humanity and providing a just and fair way out of economic difficulties. The campaign grew out of the evangelical movement, was backed by Archbishop George Carey and was invigorated by the challenge of joining hands with Africa. That issue had already been kick-started by Bob Geldof, who raised the consciousness of young people about the grimness of poverty, not on our door-step, but in faraway Africa.

As the campaign grew in towns and rural parishes, churches welcomed touring speakers, musicians and children dancers from distant lands. They entertained us and proclaimed the positive biblical Jubilee message. It was linked to a message that the growing debt mountain weakened social progress and asked us to consider: Is an unequal world beneficial? Mr Brown received over a million postcards, so a lot of people were in on the campaign. There will be others. Let us see how the Jubilee idea has been effective in Britain.

Jubilee Principles applied to society

The year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25 and 27) was a God-given way of placing godly principles into the running of society. Every fifty (or forty-nine) years  the land was given a holiday, slaves set free, debts cancelled and all property redistributed to its original family ownership. Built in to this mechanism was the idea that every so often a new start was needed and poverty tackled. While perhaps difficult to put into practice in industrial and post-industrial society, the principle of God’s concern for the ordering of society to promote health and wholeness is nonetheless important. Experience has shown that the best, most long-lasting responses are balanced and thought through with real compassion. They are partly about conviction, although not wholly, for initiatives must not banish ambition, industriousness or entrepreneurship, but harness it.

The jubilee is a splendid example of a society-wide plan to harness personal desire ambition and greed. Benevolence cannot be left to the whims and wishes of the rich. Such giving makes the rich feel better, but does not alter the evil structural conditions which allow them to perpetuate their luxury at the expense of the poor.                                                                                                                         (Daniel Kraybill in UpsideDownKingdom)

The most significant development to affect the health of the whole people in this country was not  corporate health insurance, hip replacements, or even doctors or nurses, or social workers, but the sewers. They are taken for granted now, but open sewers in the town streets were once commonplace and got so bad towards the end of the industrial revolution that epidemic disease and low life expectancy led directly to fatalities, particularly among the young and the old. It took a great battle of principle and moral courage to bring in a country-wide system of sanitation.

Ridding Disease from the Social Fabric

Change was proposed by the educated, especially doctors, statisticians, politicians and the clergy (particularly the dissenters). Chadwick and others began campaigning in the 1830s, and by 1848 were successful in getting central government to legislate for refuse collection, drains and sewage systems. Yet this approach was piecemeal and was resisted in many areas. Ratepayers were askance, delaying implementation another 27 years until Disraeli’s new act in 1875. The new paternal Tories formed local alliances with business that ensured that the enfranchised new middle classes in the suburbs had underground sewage drains. The poorer, under-represented districts had to wait another twenty years or more before a heady mix of Christian evangelicalism, philanthropic unease and socialist agitation brought forth municipal councils prepared to act to eradicate disease and poverty.

Empirical observation aided the new thinking about social healing under the generous sponsorship of wealthy businessman Charles Booth. He provided the first scientific estimates of poverty, and was responsible to propagating the principle that old age was a key structural determinate of poverty. Under his auspices Toynbee Hall was established in Whitechapel. This proved to be a key centre for men of learning to humble themselves and study poverty while living with and helping the poor. The first warden was the Vicar of St Jude’s. Toynbee Hall would later prove to be a training ground for men of vision such as William Beveridge and Clement Atlee, the architects of the ‘New Jerusalem’ education and health programme known as the Welfare State.

However, it was courageous men and women of compassion who joined with a chorus of outspoken critics of various persuasions to articulate the view that pockets of disease had to be eradicated in the interests of all. Socialists had denied the liberal economic, high Tory Establishment position that vagrants, infirm and needy people in some sense ‘deserved’ their inhuman conditions. In the face of more desperate conditions and protests (the East End descended on the West End with three days of carnage in 1886 and again the following year for the ‘Bloody Sunday’ riots),  General William Booth soon published his influential survey, In Darkest England. This highlighted the dreadful conditions and argued that a circle of sin was the contagious outcome of the dark places shunned by society. His answer was the pioneering mission hostels. It was necessary to nourish the body before the soul could be revived. Fear of the mob as well as crime and squalor eventually brought proper sanitation, pensions and council housing. But the way out to decent living conditions for all was often mediated by other interests and seemingly perpetually postponed from one generation to another. Therefore, pockets of poverty - whether material, in poor social fabric - or spiritual, in unrelieved gloom or indisposed resentments, remained.

In all it took one hundred years from the beginning of the campaign with Chadwick to the full implementation of a universal sanitation system. It is much the same today, and because of the haphazard and piecemeal approach through that long period, extensive repair programmes are now necessary. And we have seen that it took a mixture of righteous anger and courage, allied to clear-headed scientific studies, together with business acumen, to establish good physical structures of social healing in Britain.

However, this historical example can serve as a prototype of how Christians may approach some of the endemic social problems to be found in many neighbourhoods in contemporary Britain.  For example, during 2007, many unfortunate people living along the River Severn near Tewksbury had to leave their homes due to flooding; hundreds are still living in temporary accommodation six months after the event. They are social victims and need the support, prayers and practical assistance of the Church. They and other victims are in need of a new start today and the danger is that they might be forgotten. The path is often difficult, resistance has to be overcome, and alliances with non-Christians maintained. Let us consider one particular recent case where the work of mission grew from small beginnings, spread into the community (where social healing was urgently needed), and from this the church rekindled with fresh growth, hope and wellbeing.

A Case Study of Growth, Mission and Social Healing in a semi-urban community: Blakeney, Gloucestershire 1997-2007.

Blakeney is situated on the A48 Gloucester-Chepstow road, near the Severn estuary and on the edge of the Forest of Dean. It also owes its position to a shallow river tributary running from the industrial mining centre of the Forest down to the River Severn. In a bygone era, ore was transported on barges to the estuary, and there collected and taken onto the port of Lydney. The barges were superseded by the short-lived railway, which came and went in just two decades. It was also the base for Blakeney Brewery and no less than six public houses. Since the 1920s, the prospects of the locality declined: the mines closed and therefore the railway. During the war, it was an underground centre for trading illicit and contraband goods. This enabled its population to survive difficult times, but resulted in feuding and lingering bad feeling for succeeding generations. Overall, its population was proud of its sense of community, even if they were very inward-looking and fearful of change.

By the 1990s, Blakeney’s situation on the A48 led to interest by housebuilders, and several new in-fill estates sprang up. However, the new inhabitants did not mix well with the locals. This was exacerbated by the fact that the new incomers tended to have jobs, whereas those on the council estate either had poorly paid work or none at all.  Vandalism, alcoholism and drug abuse began to take a grip on the younger generation.

At the centre of Blakeney was a large level playing field donated to the community just after the war by a wealthy benefactor. It was an important asset for the wellbeing of the community and on this site had been built the community centre and the football club house. By 1997-98, the disaffected youth had begun to target the club house and village hall by regularly and wantonly damaging the premises. Windows were smashed, goods stolen and the area became a haven for drug addicts. Those trying to stop the trouble were harassed. The situation had become so bad that the Playing Fields Committee resigned en bloc. The community was in desperate need of social healing and the church was soon to play a major role not only in turning round the community, but rebuilding itself.

A few years previously, the incumbent, the Revd J Hutton, although in sight of the end of his ministry, had been intrigued by the outpouring of spiritual power to be found at a particular church in Toronto, Canada. On returning to the Newnham group of parishes, the Vicar found that prayer had a new power and new possibilities were springing forth for mission. He attended Holy Trinity Brompton and realised that the message and format of the Alpha course could be a training for participants to be blessed. At first those who attended the courses were from other places in the Forest and other church traditions. But at All Saints, Blakeney, at his instigation a corporate prayer meeting was held regularly in the church. This started with just a few people and the quality and power of the meetings was such that it often seemed that the prayers were answered in our hearts before they were spoken. Others came from other localities to join in and try to discover why this was so. At this time there was hardly any growth in numerical terms, and the majority of the small congregation had not been involved in either Alpha or the prayer ministry.

In 1998 a new vicar, the Revd John Seaman became the new incumbent of the Newnham group. An outgoing man who believed in outreach he relished the opportunity to work with children and continued with the regular prayer meetings. Those who had attended them from before knew that it was the responsibility of the church to intercede for the whole community, and the wellbeing of the local organisations. The Revd Seaman believed in putting prayers into action and decided to attend the public meeting called to wind up Blakeney Playing Fields Committee. Demoralised by intimidation, the officers of the committee did stand down, but a new committee was re-elected. A younger church warden from All Saints became secretary and the Vicar took the post of treasurer. It is interesting that several women come forward offering help. One of them said that her husband could be persuaded to be chairman. He was an accountant who had run businesses for clients. He would relish the opportunity of turning around ‘a sinking ship’. In the coming months, the accountant did indeed become chairman, worked alongside his Christian colleagues, and pledged to instil new life into the organisation.

For a time the situation was still precarious: the hall had no bookings, only a skeleton committee, vandalism continued to the fabric and even got worse. Each time the buildings were attacked the Vicar and churchwarden would say prayers to allow them time and space to be healed, and repairs were promptly carried out. It was important that the wounds sustained did not become places for evil spirits to rest. Indeed, the adjacent derelict toilet block had not only become an eyesore, a base for drug taking, but also a haunt for evil spirits. An action plan began to have positive effects. The public was invited to clear the litter left by the drug addicts; repairs were promptly undertaken; fund raising got underway; and plans drawn to revitalise the area including turning the old toilet block into a store area. Another crucial measure was the introduction of a ‘drop in’ for youngsters, again run in partnership by Christians and others in the community. Modest success breathed new life into the committee and new members began to join. Within a few years, the community spirit was restored to the village hall and one sign of this was a well-supported ‘Over 50s’ afternoon club with a programme of talks and activities that attracted members from as far as Gloucester and Chepstow.

Meanwhile, the task of growth and mission at All Saints gradually began to blossom. This seemed to develop in concert with the revitalised community. Revd Seaman had a real rapport with children and kept up with them as they grew into young people. From about 1997 onwards, a community at odds with itself from old sores and new divisions has been gently eased into a new time of neighbourliness, and much of the credit was due to the inspiration for social healing by some energetic members of the church. The church that had only a dozen regular churchgoers (with just two members under 50) has blossomed in that time to an all-age congregation of about forty. The organ is played by a young man who was at school until recently, and worship is also led by a band of young musicians. The much larger congregation recently raised the funds for a new heating system, kitchen and toilet. It is a church on the move, at the heart of the community. It all started from a regular prayer meeting.

Conclusion

One of the most important activities for Christians in modern Britain is to realise that declining communities, poor social fabric and social ills are all connected to spiritual ills; and that in such conditions, opportunities do arise for mission. The Jubilee principle of a fresh start for the disadvantaged is just as relevant today, as shown by the debt cancellation campaign for the Third World of a few years ago. Historically, the overcoming of social ills such as the building of our sanitation systems is best achieved by broad, inclusive campaigns of Church and community working together. As Christians, we should be praying healing prayer into the social conditions of our society. The Prayer Book asks us to pray for our leaders to have wisdom. Some of those leaders must be where the problems are. In fact, God-given wisdom to define priorities and see the real problems of society and beneficial solutions for all is key. Therefore, let us be thankful that through our history, Christians have been actively involved in promoting health and wholeness in our country.

A Prayer Model

Below is a model of prayer on healing of the social fabric (or social healing). Human society can be a marvellous uplifting experience when it works for the benefit of all, but we also need the spirit of the Jubilee on occasions to put things right. And of course, to be sure that God is in our endeavours.  

Heavenly Father, we proclaim the spirit of the Jubilee to go back to biblical principles of social healing and seek your guidance, power and eternal hope to change the world as we find it today for the better.

Lord, we bring before you all the social institutions where we live [name, county and district] in the knowledge that over time the good intent and purpose for which they were established may have become lost and overlaid with other objectives and outcomes.

We therefore pray your Spirit into these human institutions in order that they may be cleansed and healed, restored to the purpose for which they were designed as a partnership between humanity and you our Heavenly Eternal Father.   

We pray for our communities: our church, village hall and all clubs and voluntary organisations, in order that the spirit of community will be strengthened.  We pray for our schools, hospitals, libraries and local government and ask that the values of duty and care will grow stronger.

We pray for our leaders to have God-given wisdom, and that they will be able to begin the task of rebuilding our social institutions with generosity of spirit. And give us as individuals the dream of a better, more humane, kind and loving society.           

Amen.

Social healing is about seeing things differently and finding opportunities in our work and community life for God to make a difference - to assert our values. It is about having one eye on the ground and our heads turned slightly to heaven to perceive a deeper vision. Social healing was once what the Church did as its main purpose in society: it is often forgotten that the Church established the first schools, hospitals, accommodation for the feeble and downhearted and care homes for the elderly; it sustained a good social framework that provided work for the needy. It could do all this become it was at certain times it was empowered to do so.

Growth and mission can sometimes follow from identifying the social problems where we are and, by working with others, we can help to alleviate them.

 

Michael Johnson

St Mary's, Gladestry, Wales

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You are reading Church Growth, Mission and Healing of the Social Fabric by Michael Johnson, part of Issue 42 of Ministry Today, published in March 2008.

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