From helping asylum seekers to providing affordable homes – social action is about bringing profound change to people’s lives, not just a bit of do-gooding here and there.
That was the message from the Bishop of Swansea and Brecon, John Davies, at a national conference this week.
He added that caring for the welfare of others was a Gospel imperative and the Church had a legitimate right to speak up and challenge those in authority.
Bishop John was speaking at the Pushing the Boundaries conference, a three-day event hosted by the Church in Wales in Cardiff, for social responsibility officers from Welsh and English dioceses.
He said, “Social action is not just about a little bit of do-gooding here and there, it’s about profoundly challenging aspects of the lives of so many people – asylum seeking, affordable housing, disability issues, isolation of rural communities, unemployment, poverty, benefit caps – the spectrum seems to get ever wider day by day. We are engaging with all sorts of groups, not because we want to intrude on other people’s territories, but because it is an imperative of the church to be engaged with such issues, with such people and in such places.”
He urged Christians not to be reticent or apologetic about engaging with public authorities and secular institutions in the pursuit of social justice.
He said, “The problem with the relationship between the church and matters of social concern is that if the church doesn’t do anything it is accused of being too self absorbed, too preoccupied with its own internal wrangling and therefore irrelevant. If it does say something, it is told it doesn’t really know what it is talking about or has the expertise and ‘we’d prefer it if you went away and minded your own private business’.
“There are countless Biblical texts that draw us to the obvious conclusion that silence on social matters cannot be an option for the people of God. The church has not just a legitimate concern but a duty to give voice to those who sense their lives are lacking and want life in all its fullness.”
Examples of how churches are involved in social action were given in a series of presentations at the conference. They included promoting the needs of disabled people, tackling problems faced by people in rural areas, converting church property into affordable housing and helping people seeking asylum.
Revd Dr John Gillibrand, vicar of Llangeler, who has worked extensively on promoting the needs of people with autism in Wales, described his experience with his son, who has autism, and outlined his political activity to raise awareness of the needs of disabled people. He said, “There is no such thing as mission without justice.” He added, “We’re about ministry of people with disabilities not to them. We are an inclusive church.”
Sharon Lee of the Faith in Affordable Housing scheme and Alex Glanville, head of property services at the Church in Wales, showed how redundant church buildings and spare land was being used to create affordable homes. Mr Glanville said, “Using our assets to help people in need furthers the mission of the church. Social housing can be part of a wider community-based regeneration with the church at its heart.”
The Church’s Rural Life lead adviser, Revd Richard Kirlew, outlined issues facing people living in Wales’ vast rural areas, such as the breakdown of community, isolation, unemployment and poverty. He said “rural” meant a whole way of life, not just “little bits of town in the country”: “There is a huge decline in the sense of community in rural areas as local amenities close down one-by-one. Churches need to adapt to these changes taking place. We have chaplains at rural shows now and livestock markets, for example, and these are a good way of reaching out to people.”
Constance Nzeneu, a lawyer from Cameroon, who now works for the Women Seeking Sanctuary Action Group, outlined her experience of arriving in the UK as an asylum-seeker and how she was threatened with deportation. Jonathan Cox of Citizens Cymru Wales showed how community groups are working together to achieve social justice and change.
Pushing the Boundaries conference, Oct 6-8, was organized by Revd Carol Wardman, the Bishops’ adviser for Church and Society. She says, “The church doesn’t just exist for its own sake, but to act as salt and light in the society in which we finds ourselves. So alongside the task of nurturing believers, you’ll find church involved with all sorts of social action – from supporting refugees and asylum-seekers, running food banks and community cafes, and hosting credit unions, to running wide-ranging projects supporting children and families, or engaging with the Welsh Assembly, UK Parliament and other decision-makers to help bring about a more just society – nationally and internationally.”