Does Reform care about the Inner City?
This was a question put to me by a vicar from Liverpool working in the inner city. It was said in the context of the recent Reform Conference. My reaction was "Yes, of course". Certainly in my own experience as a vicar of an urban priority area parish in Barnsley this has been the case in an overwhelming way. Obviously the questioner had doubts. I shared my experience which encouraged him. I want to share that same experience now, not to par Reform on the back, but to encourage more of the same. Before doing so let's ask some preliminary questions about the poor.
What does the Bible say about the poor?
David Sheppard argued in "Bias to the Poor" for positive discrimination for the poor. The bible certainly condemns the rich who exploit the poor. In the Old Testament fields were to be left with a residue of corn for the widow and the foreigner. the story of Ruth has this aspect in it. The Year of Jubilee was intended by God to make sure that everyone had the means of producing food. Micah 6.9 says "Act justly, show mercy and walk humbly with your God'. 'Act justly' sums up the message of Amos. It would seem that the Bible places a great stress on social justice.
Amos: The Prophet of Social Justice?
A cursory read of Amos bristles with reference to justice for the poor: 'You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts'(5.12).The cry of Amos is: 'But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never ending stream'(5.24). One of his recurring themes is the 'day of the Lord' (5.18) which will involve judgment on Israel (9.1-10) Judgment will be followed by the restoration and the setting up of a just and permanent world order (9.11-15). This is seen by many commentators as challenging the Church to work for social justice to make the world the sort of place that God wants it to be. It is an elementary principle, yet one often neglected today that a 'text without a context is a pretext'. The context of Amos is that he prophesied about 760 BC when Israel was in the spiritual desert. Whilst he does not speak of the gentile kingdoms, his main concern is the kingdom of Israel ("Israel means 'the covenant people of God' - at this time the Northern Kingdom of Judah). Amos told God's people that they were going to be punished for their failure to keep his covenant. There was social injustice not because the people lacked ;justice', but because they lacked God! In 4.6-11 the phrase 'You have not returned to me' is repeated no less than five times.
A Prophet who points to Jesus
Amos has bright hope for the future as well as judgment. The setting up of the permanent world order will come not primarily by the churches' social action , but by the act of God in his faithfulness to the promise made to David: 'In that day I will restore David's fallen tent. I will repair its broken pieces, restore its ruins, and rebuild it up as it used to be...declares the Lord' (9.11-12) Note the it is the Lord 'who will do these things', not man! Since this was not fulfilled in 538 BC at the Restoration, it must refer to a future event. The broader context of salvation history shows that this fulfilment is to be found in Jesus. When we preach from Amos to our society our priority must be to tell them to turn to God, to escape from the judgment and to find hope not in mankind, but in the God who will renew his creation in Christ.
A Reformed UPA Parish
Barnsley comes last out of 128 in the recent publication by Guinness entitled 'Top Towns'. The book suns up Barnsley as 'not a bad place, just a seriously injured one...it will take more than money to revive the corpse". St Andrew's Kendray, where I have been Vicar for three years, is a UPA church in the worst area of Barnsley. The PCC has unanimously adopted the Reform Covenant. God's love in action is being demonstrated by much social action including a good as new clothes shop, a toddler group and a proposed luncheon club, as well as many activities for the young people on the estate. It is our conviction, however shared openly with local councillors and social workers etc. that what Kendray needs most is Christ and his gospel.
Kendray and Fulwood: Chalk and Cheese?
For nearly three years Christ Church Fulwood and St Andrew's Kendray have been working together. Whilst Barnsley comes out as the worst town in England, Fulwood in Sheffield has the highest concentration of graduates in England. Our partnership is a true expression of being 'all one in Christ Jesus'. Fulwood have raised nearly £90,000 towards our £300,000 building project which is just nearing completion. The new church centre will give us a springboard for evangelism and social action. This March a joint team went from Kendray and Fulwood, along with students from Moorlands Bible School for a ten-day mission to Donetsk, Ukraine. I was apprehensive as to how the two ordinary housewives from Kendray would fare amongst several PhDs and theological students. The conclusion of the team leader was that our two ladies had made the most impact by their testimonies about the transforming power of Christ. They came back 'two inches taller' spiritually, and aware of folk in a much worse state physically than they were, who nevertheless possess a vibrant faith that has sustained them through the fires of communist persecution. What Fulwood has offered to this UPA parish in England's 'worst town' is a hand up, not a handout. We each share a passion for the gospel that has inspired and encouraged the other to make Christ known. This partnership is not unique in Reform but it may encourage others to move in similar directions. Dies Reform care about the inner city? We at Kendray can say a resounding yes!
Steve Donald is the Parish Priest of St Andrew's, Kendray, Barnsley in the diocese of Sheffield