Sunday, November 15, 2009

"Who cares about estates?"

was the title of yesterday's Estate Churches Network conference...and certainly in a predominantly rural and affluent diocese like this one, it's a question you might be forgiven for asking.

Happily the evidence at Carrs Lane Church yesterday is that rather alot of people care deeply, and that the church remains committed to loving and serving the areas  that other agencies treat as problems to be addressed. It was a good day, during which I learned a good deal.

Valley parish, you see, includes two estates, with very different atmospheres...One was built in the 1970s, pleasant houses for owner-occupiers, with lots of green spaces in between. The other is altogether greyer, older, mainly social housing (though some, of course, became owner/occupied under dear Mrs T's right to buy scheme 30 years ago).Between them, they qualify us as an "estate parish" and I'm very aware that on the whole we don't connect with those living on either estate - and that the whole estate culture is outside my own experience, so I was really hoping for insights and ways forward...

I was in no way disappointed. 

Lynsey Hanley spoke of "The Wall in the Head" and certainly broke down several walls in mine as she shared her experience of growing up on an outer city estate, and then moving far beyond it. High on her list of results was the sense that many estates dwellers have that certain things are only for others to enjoy...that the world outside cannot be trusted, so should be kept out at all costs. Education may be a route out of estates life, but it can also be seen almost as an act of betrayal of your origins...Wider horizons are dangerous, and few return to share the fruits of their education or experience (in contrast to the pattern on estates where the majority of the population is Asian; there an individual's academic or professional success is likely to be accepted as a community achievement, and estate "escapees" return to share what they have gained). Though the population as a whole enjoys ever wider experiences, broader horizons, on the estates life can become ever narrower, more constrained by poverty and depression.

Negative publicity (when did you last hear of a "pleasant" or "mellow" estate? to read the press, they are always and inevitably "tough") contributes to anxiety that you are to blame for your low social status as an estate dweller...
Immediate,cheap comfort via unhealthy options in diet, alcohol or substance abuse compounds the situation...(I heard someone say of the Co-op in my parish "It's full of overweight mothers buying unsuitable food to malnourish their children" a remark of such breathtaking judgementalism that I was left speechless).
In 21st century Britain, extremes of wealth and poverty are increasingly the norm...ours it the 3rd most unequal society in terms of wealth distribution (only the USA and Portugal outstrip us in this regard)...Whereas in Sweden the maximum income is about four times the average, in this country it is a hundred times, or more - so economic inequality is vast and perpetuated.

So - were we given any answers, any glimmers of hope?
Education may be part of the solution, but only if it is seen as the means to enrich life, and not simply to boost income...but the fundamental changes have to come in the hearts, minds and status of those who do NOT live on estates.
The problems that are manifested on the estates are problems that beset upper and middle classes too, -for institutional snobbery and inbuilt class distinction is responsible for many of the issues that bedevil estate life. This is not THEIR problem, created by THOSE people, out THERE.
It is, rather, OUR problem...created by our greed, our determination to safeguard status, to turn our backs on the assumption that we are all equal before God. 

Solutions in the past have mostly consisted of well intentioned attempts to impose a different way of being from outside...Funds are spent on project workers in problem areas, but little is done to address the fundamental causes of those problems.

The problem of miserable estates is a moral problem for all of us...a problem rooted in the sin that refuses to believe that there IS enough to go round, that in God's economy nobody need go short, that we need not protect our own at the expense of neighbours across the road, where life seems greyer and harsher.

Who cares about estates? God does, for sure.

Heaven shall not wait for the poor to lose their patience,
the scorned to smile,
the despised to find a friend:
Jesus is Lord; he has championed the unwanted;
in him injustice confronts its timely end.

Heaven shall not wait for the rich to share their fortunes,
the proud to fall, the elite to tend the least;
Jesus is Lord; he has shown the master's privilege -
to kneel and wash servants' feet before they feast.

Heaven shall not wait for the dawn of great ideas
thoughts of compassion divorced from cries of pain:
Jesus is Lord; he has married word and action;
his cross and company make his purpose plain.

Heaven shall not wait for triumphant Hallelujahs,
when earth has passed and we reach another shore
Jesus is Lord; in our present imperfection;
his power and love are for now and then for evermore.

John L. Bell and Graham Maule, from Heaven shall not wait, Wild Goose Publications, Glasgow

1 comment:

marcella said...

In your local co-op (which is a perfectly adequately stocked shop with plenty of sensible things for anyone to buy, should they have a reasonable amount of money) all I noticed was the number of elderly people complaining of health needs. In the light of this I wonder why the local Trusts have seen fit to close at least two hospitals in the district in recent yeas, but maybe I'm just obsessed with the idea that decent healthcare should be available locally to all.