The first edition of this modest theological journal was issued in the Spring of this year and was sent to clergy and lay workers across the Chelmsford Diocese. I'm delighted to report that it seems to have been very well received and this has encouraged me to look to future issues with a degree of confidence and optimism.
Although my funding is very limited, I will endeavour for this second issue to distribute the journal as widely as possible across the whole Diocese rather than to limit it to the Bradwell Area alone, as we perceive that it is proving popular and might be of service on the wider front.
Already I have received more articles than we can manage to include in this issue and I look forward to a continuing stream of contributions for the future.
I am very grateful to those who have contributed to this current edition and I hope you will enjoy reading here a varied collection of articles and poems of a theological inclination. I trust they will encourage you to put pen to paper yourself and share your own theological musings in the next edition of the Bradwell Papers.
With best wishes to all,
London's Gehenna, The Rev'd Jake Loewendahl
Late Vocations, a poem by Andrew J Powney
Jottings from Norfolk, The Rev'd Sylvia Wood
Reflections of an NSM, The Rev'd Don Gordon
Freed for the Future, Debt and the "Underclass", +Laurie Bradwell
Temptations, a poem by Barbara Moss
The Rev'd Jake Loewendahl
Next time your dustbins are full, waiting for the refuse collectors to come, look at how much stuff your household is throwing away, and smell it. Then multiply your volume of rubbish and its smell by several million, and you might begin to get a picture of the rotting mounds of household waste that make up the 800 acres called Mucking Tip. The boundary of my parish runs through this tip, one of the largest rubbish dumps or landfill sites (as they are now called) in Europe. The household rubbish from 5 central London boroughs is collected together and loaded into large containers. These are brought down the Thames by barge, unloaded by crane at the Tip jetty, and taken one at a time, by lorry, to the current dumping area. There the container doors open automatically, as it is emptied into an enormous crater made by the extraction of ballast. A man closes the door of the container treading through the latest pile of rotting waste. Bulldozers go backwards and forwards over the rubbish, compressing it, so that a greater volume of waste can be crammed into the crater. When full the dumping does not stop, but a hill is created, 40 feet above the level of the marsh. On every working day of the year 280 to 300 of these containers are emptied at the site. The smell and the volume become overwhelming.
At the other end of the tip 150 lorries each day come with 'industrial waste' from the heavy industry along the East Thames corridor. Some of this is in the form of a slurry, some has been 'frozen' into blocks and made inert. Much of it, before treatment, was highly toxic; some of it probably still is when put into the ground.
The steep sided valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna, to the south west of ancient Jerusalem does not, on the face of it, have much in common with the broad marshes of the lower Thames valley. But Hinnom, like the Thames valley, was the place for contemporary heavy industry, and was used as a rubbish dump; Hinnom the dump for Jerusalem, the marshes of the lower Thames as a rubbish dump for London since Roman times. And whilst plague ridden bodies are no longer burnt on the marsh, as they were in Gehenna, farmers still expose the bones of the unwanted dead from London of 100 years ago. When the Bishop of Bradwell and I looked at the Thames valley from the top of one of the loading cranes at Mucking Tip, with its magnificent view down to the sea and across the Kent hills, we may not have seen ourselves as being at the mouth of hell, as Jewish tradition once held the valley of Hinnom to be, but burning, urgent questions came to mind.
Where, if anywhere, is God the creator in all this? We may see something of God in beautiful sunsets (made even more so by our polluted skies); or on mountains, or by the sea, or in the forests, but is there anything of God in the rotting rubbish of Mucking Tip? Where is God the Son, whose coming inaugurates a new creation, (2 Corinthians 5.17)? Are the rubbish dumps signs of the way in which creation continues to be 'bound to decay', or are there signs of hope here? Does the Holy Spirit, 'which gives life to the people of God' speak to us through the dumps, or are they merely barren lands, outside the realms of the Spirit's activity?
In the risky business of creation, there is always waste. Every living organism produces natural waste: the decaying shell of a body, a dead branch, excreta, the massive volume of dust and gas, and lava from an exploding volcano. Much waste is good and necessary. The final product useful to our lives: peat, coal, compost. Adam was told to have dominion over the created order (Genesis 1.26), but since the industrial revolution, our ingenuity in conquering, harnessing, exploiting, and manipulating nature has led to the production of highly damaging products, many of which have a long life (e.g. plastic bottles are mostly used once and last for at least 50 years). The way of dealing with factory and household waste up to now has been primarily a negative one. We do what all cities have done ever since cities began. When the waste cannot be conveniently allowed to flow into a river or the sea, we dump it in the ground, cover it over and the problem appears solved.
Mucking Tip is a sophisticated example of this negative approach. The process is well managed, or so we were led to believe, with the rules governing waste disposal followed to the letter. The pits are lined with clay to prevent leaching. There are screens to catch paper which may fly about. Tests are carried out to ensure that methane does not build up, or that the earth is not contaminated. Clean fresh water pools surround the mounds of waste. The problem is solved and money is made. Money from selling the ballast, money from dumping, and money from the restored land. Man's domestic and industrial waste is dealt with by man in a highly masculine way: ordered, brutal, upfront, unsubtle, quick.
Yet Adam was made in the image of God, 'male and female he created them' (Genesis 1.27), and perhaps a 'feminine' approach to dealing with waste needs to be discovered. One that embraces caring, nurturing, re-creating. Even in the man's world of Mucking Tip (the women are safe in the office, typing and making visitors coffee), glimpses of the feminine are to be found. The 'restored' land is used productively to breed highland cattle (a hobby of one of the managers). The methane gas (a produce of rotting household waste) is harnessed, through a system of pipes, to run an electricity generating plant on the site. This was built at a cost of some £3 million and will continue to function for 15 years after dumping ceases on the site - a creative and money making venture.
But for an innovative approach to waste, we need to look again at our dustbins and what we put in them. Some things can be recycled, but this is limited, by logistics and the market. There is not much point in recycling products by using up more energy in transport and the recycling process than in the production of replacement items. Some things can be used in different ways. Anyone who experienced the war, or was brought up by parents who grew up in the war, has lots of experience of 'making do' and re-using everything from clothes, to left over food, to candle wax. When we had a 'workshop' on local industry and harvest, one older member of our congregation showed us how he used plastic bottles as flower pots for seedlings. Re-using packaging, bottles, and many of the other things we throw away now needs to become a way of life if we are to deal with waste in the long-term. If we could begin to see our rubbish as a resource, rather than simply something to be disposed of, then we could begin to use it creatively. We could begin to share, even here, in the work of creation.
Natural waste is part of creation and is mostly positive; perhaps human-made waste can be the same. There is urgency here, as landfill sites are becoming obsolete. Within 15 years the 3 large Thames estuary sites will be full. No permission has been granted for further dumping. There is talk of incineration (which brings other environmental problems) but perhaps a new approach can be found, so that we share in God's work of creation in dealing with our rubbish.
With the coming of Jesus, human beings become part of a new creation (1 Corinthians), a new world order, implying something better. Mucking Tip appears a long way away from anything approaching a better world. The smell, the flies, the continual noise of lorry engines, and their bleeps, as they reverse, are part of everyday life for the residents of East Tilbury. For many this has led to a feeling of powerlessness: 'there is little we can do to change our lives, we just have to put up with it. We are dumped on, and nothing can be done about it'. For others this very adversity has become a spur to change things. In the last year with a public inquiry into a planning application to extend the life of the tip by 25 years, there has been some real community action. This time the community won, and the application was rejected. It was a remarkable victory, with people who had never spoken in public before, and who were terrified of doing so, giving evidence at the inquiry. People gained a little freedom, a step towards liberation, a taste of collective power. They took a step nearer to becoming what they are meant to be: people fulfilling their potential, discovering gifts they did not know they had, no longer afraid, they had a taste of the 'glorious liberty of the children of God'.
The tip itself is far from being a purely negative place. The land to the east of the tip, owned by the company, has become a conservation area and now has a very large reed bed with much new wildlife. The tip and its surrounding area is a great place for bird watching. In the future there will be a schools study centre on the site and the whole place will become parkland or recreation area. There is potential new life in this place of burial.
The prophets spoke in the power of the spirit of destruction and judgement, and the tip could be a place of destruction and judgement on the people of the 20th century for their way of life. Despite the sun and the strange beauty of the Thames marshes on the day of our visit, the Tip is a shocking place; a kind of hell with its hills of rubbish and earth, its smell, flies, preying, screaming seagulls and the constant roar of lorries. It is a ruined world. And maybe it is the door to a future hell, an environmental disaster. Do we really know what will happen to the plastic, and chemical waste that fills the tip, and what their lasting effect on the area will be, and whether the water table and the whole of the estuary will not in time be polluted through it?
But the prophets also held out the promise of a new age, a new kind of liberation and, maybe, alongside the judgement, we can perceive a message of hope, as we look at the discarded debris of our affluent throwaway society. The tip challenges us to seek new ways of living, a new life, to repent. People have already discovered some new possibilities for individual development through their opposition to the tip. The cattle, birds, fish and plant life, also speak of a transformation, a glimpse of new life, yet there must be more. We need to change our attitude to rubbish, so it becomes a resource rather than something that must be buried, hidden from view, merely scrapped.
The wind of the Thames marshes always blows, and as it sends the dust of the tip into the air, the paper flies up against the chain fence, and the smell wafts over the homes of those who live nearby, the paradoxical voice of the spirit may be heard: here is a place of judgement, but also a place of hope.
for my father
(The following poem by Andrew J Powney is soon to be published in the journal "The Month". The Editor of "The Month" is offering a complimentary copy of the journal, which I can thoroughly recommend, to all readers of the Bradwell Papers who wish to write and ask for one from The Month, 114 Mount Street, London W1V 6AH. +LB)
Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Matthew 16:19
Half of it is maintenance, grime swept off the pyx, your new stole folded.
Half is skill, deft words among the silent pictures, made for conversation that late have now assumed your living: the lived-for woman heard in here before the round begins, the wants of children, her stale unworking husband you also hear who shifts his trade his only skill of silence through the dreams of truant sons between the weapons amnesties.
Artisan of dead emotion he is turning godless by the television to your bindings. This living is all we have of living.
All this will happen. You, as monks from my bright studies, before our university had formed its riches, are the friar and jack of all trades, working to readiness the name of Jesus.
The Rev'd Sylvia Wood
(I enjoy receiving and reading the Parish Magazines of Bradwell Area churches. From time to time an article catches my eye. Here's one from Hutton. +LB)
I picked up a news-sheet from a (rare) open church in Norfolk recently whilst I was on retreat at a nearby convent.
What I read told me much about the anger, frustration and hopelessness of the local priest. In his letter to his scattered flock he berated, nagged and admonished in such a fashion I was surprised there was a flock at all and surprised he was still in office.
The reason for the outrage? Some people had obviously been on at him for not doing enough pastoral visiting. Others had obviously been moaning about declining numbers and the state of the church buildings - and still more about why they couldn't have 'one priest one church' like the old days. Sounds familiar?
The Vicar was leaving in September and their three churches were about to be made six and they'd be lucky indeed if they found another incumbent prepared to take on 6 churches, so they'd better roll up their sleeves and do some work!
It simply isn't possible for any one person to pastor adequately under such conditions and this man, I guess, would be fortunate if he escaped a break-down.
Whose fault? The vicar? The hierarchy? Society? Parishioners? GOD?
It's us. We hate change. We do not move readily from one scene to another. And yet, God founded his Church on a wandering people. People with a faith but no building. Yes, we need our buildings, somewhere to minister from and to worship God. But, as I visit non-churchgoing people in our parish, I am struck repeatedly by the belief in God the people hold, but also by an increasing awareness that the church in its institutionalised form is quite irrelevant to that belief. This means for me a radical re-think about the way I minister.
I read a book on retreat called 'Silence in God' by Andrew Norman. In one chapter it said 'Perhaps we ought more often to begin our evangelism by stimulating people to stop and listen to that which is already around them. Too often Christians out to convert imagine that they possess a faith that the unconverted desperately need and completely lack. More often the reality is that people will have already begun to feel after Him and will have some sort of implicit awareness of God. We might arouse less defensiveness if we began by inviting them to take this awareness more seriously, attending to it with greater concentration, than by treating them as if they were spiritual morons, and ourselves hard-sell salesmen'.
Another worrying feature I find about parish life is the creeping sectarianism, where we see the church as inclusively 'ours' and those who come to us for our services, to find God or whatever, as 'outsiders'. God has placed us here in Hutton as his servant-church and we would do well to grasp that nettle firmly or our theology will be impaired. The church belongs to all and to no one particular band. This is the privilege that the Church of England holds distinctively. If we couple this with what I said about evangelising we may find ourselves uncomfortably challenged and minds provoked. I hope I may stir your own thoughts as mine were when I read the Norfolk news-letter, even though you won't agree with everything I've said.
The Rev'd Don Gordon
(I am grateful to the Revd Don Gordon, one of the very first NSMs to be ordained in Chelmsford, for his reflections on that ministry and its development. +LB)
'Generalisations generally mislead.' Disregarding the logical implications of this view and accepting it at its face value these reflections must remain those of one man. A man made Deacon in the Non-Stipendiary Ministry (or Auxiliary Ministry as it was then) in 1971 and ordained Priest in 1972, beginning with great faith in the potential of this (for the Church of England at least) new approach to ministry, surviving the initial benign uncertainties of those in authority, and now, 23 years later, rejoicing in the degree of acceptance and integration normally found.
Some might cite manpower and financial shortages as the reasons for such evolution and this may be so, but they may also be seen as the opportunity for the NSM ministry to prove its worth. In retrospect the original concept of the NSM as one who helped in the parishes but essentially was to minister in the workplace appears misconceived. Understandably employers expected employees to concentrate on the work for which they were paid. Superficially, my own situation, first as a Lecturer in a Teachers' Training College and then, from 1976, as a Senior Teacher in a large comprehensive school, might appear more promising than many, but in fact it was not so. Colleges and schools boast their own, well established pastoral systems on a secular basis, and, in any case, in the school, a prominent disciplinary role was not the ideal recommendation for pastoral approaches by the pupils. Even so, that was not the whole picture. It was rather like the story of the two Jesuits, the one condemned for irreverence for smoking while he prayed, the other praised for his piety in praying while he smoked. In the midst of all the secular work, pastoral opportunities abounded, although within no official framework.
Approaches came from college students and sixth formers (very rarely indeed from younger ones) but above all from colleagues. At school I had the unenviable task of providing cover for absent staff and this brought me into direct contact with many personal problems. The role also led to a lot of irritability (for which I always endeavored to apologise subsequently), not a good example, but curiously or perhaps not, contributing to acceptance as one of them; endless leg pulling was another side of this. Perhaps an NSM friend of mine was right when he told a visiting Bishop that NSMs were like a famous lager advert in reaching parts that others could not reach.
Meanwhile the parish role evolved. From 1976 (when we bought the redundant post-war Rectory) I assumed responsibility for a rural parish within a group structure, eventually, on retirement from teaching in 1993, being re-licensed as Curate-in-Charge. The basic arrangement has continued under four incumbents. Over the years and as the church has grown, it has developed a whole range of activities, including, for example, a Healing Group now of 15 years standing, pre-school provision, a Sunday School and a large choir. Difficulties of course did arise from NSM status, most particularly from limitation of time to weekends and evenings. Hospital visits, follow-up of bereavements and general visits to the extent I would have liked just could not be fitted in except perhaps in school holidays. However, people rallied round. The wildly erratic dates of the newsletters, for example, became a source of humour. The implications were clear, however. Once again people related to an NSM as one of them. They accepted (indeed expected) leadership but from within the group where I was primus inter pares, not expecting and certainly not getting any deferment to title per se. With such ready help and a willing spirit, plus complete openness, it proved possible for the parish situation to work effectively. One aspect hurt. There was an understanding with the school that I would never ask for time off for church work and consequently I missed the funerals of many friends with whom I had worshipped and worked. Families were, of course, visited but it seemed incomplete care, although invariably I was accorded total understanding of the situation.
Accompanying the evolution all this suggests that there were many unanswered as well as unasked questions. At first the Church seemed very unsure of the new ministry. There used to be in Chelmsford day conferences for NSMs and dispiriting occasions they were too, often ending in grumbling and even bad temper. One factor was the negative approach. Invariably those present were put into groups to discuss 'our problems' (an open invitation to find some) rather than more positive subjects that might have included, 'How can we be of more use to the church?', 'How could we see our ministry developing?' Speakers were inevitably senior or academic clergy who tried hard to empathise with the NSM situation but who, for obvious reasons, could not. Perhaps they relied too much on a number of weighty reports on the ministry, some going into quite extraordinary detail on matters such as the average time the NSM spent reading and the like. Never in 23 years have I ever been consulted by the authors of such and never have I been able to recognise myself in their findings.
Perhaps the most widespread problem was never addressed, that of finding an individual identity in ministry. Traditional clergy were the only role models and training was similarly orientated. Yet, once ordained, the NSM was directly in the front line. What self image was the new NSM to adopt? A mass priest? Never. The traditional vicar/rector role? Impossible for lack of time, yet should he or she not be trying? Feelings of guilt at things not done or people not seen or books not read was the consequence of trying, not to mention a well-nigh incapacitating sense of inadequacy. Spirituality and aspects such as prayer discipline were a particular source of anguish. Clearly, it seemed, every clergyman I encountered was infinitely more advanced in such matters and one ought to be like them but couldn't be. Inhibited by over-concern about role models, it took time to realise that spirituality is a relationship between God and the unique individual and not a subject for prescription. Overall, my own first attempt at resolution was largely negative, namely that it was better that someone was doing something in a situation rather than no-one being in a position to do anything. But then, gradually, came recognition that called by God one was expected to do one's best and evolve the most effective ministry that could be offered in whatever circumstances prevailed. But to reach this stage required confidence born of experience and acceptance of one's inadequacy, not part of ordination equipment as such. Perhaps this is an area where much more help might be given to newly ordained NSMs who may well be handicapped by a preconceived concept of 'how they and the task will be' and as a result suffer much damaging frustration.
The official mentor was the parish priest, but not always was this the most practical solution. The potential for personality clashes always existed and, worse still, rivalry situations could too easily arise, fuelled by families, for example, asking the vicar for the NSM to conduct their daughter's wedding. There could also be genuine misunderstandings as to the role of the NSM. These were often older men, proven in their professions and of wide experience, who did not take kindly to being treated like young curates.
Curates move on but NSMs don't; rather it is the incumbent who will move and having well established curates of many years standing can be a disconcerting prospect to the newcomer. Further problems may arise if the latter, as is his right, wishes to make fundamental changes in policy on matters such, for example, as baptism. What can the NSM who has for years practised a different policy now do? A chameleon like approach does not enhance credibility.
I have so far been fortunate in encountering no lack of recognition from the laity (in honesty, their attitude usually seems to be, 'you are one of us'). While most clergy, if not all, have come to offer generous acceptance to the NSM concept; one still occasionally hears of ill disposed remarks ('he is playing at being a priest') and I know one who makes a point of ignoring me if I have reason to go into his church wearing a collar. In fact, one may feel much sympathy with this minority. As a teacher I know how I would have reacted to the amateur, however well intentioned. Coming into the classroom; after years of study, self and professional esteem may seem threatened. One of my sons is a team vicar in the Lichfield Diocese and I observed first hand what he had to undergo in training; and indeed when I conducted his wedding (his wife was a B.Th. as well) I prefaced my address by complaining at their impertinence in both being better qualified than I was. Today, NSM training has become much more rigorous than my experience (essentially a personal tutor and director of studies and two Long Vacation terms at Westcott House) and I wonder now if I could have ever completed it. However, I suppose a B.A. in History and a Ph.D. in Economic History helped, directly in the sense that I know enough to know what I don't know and can go and do something about it as required; this applies in practical situations as well. In short, the NSM should be very aware of the problems he or she can cause, howbeit unintentionally, while drawing confidence from the reality of the call duly tested by ACCM, training and the experiences which have led to ordination. The ministry one represents is the same ministry, but with a different approach and viewpoint. I do wish, however, that more would be done by the church to make the Non-Stipendiary Ministry better understood (Synods, Chapters, PCCs would be a start) and more to make the NSMs fully aware of the ripples that they might cause. Perhaps too, NSMs could play some small part in the training of NSMs.
Two recurrent themes in the history of NSM ministry have been personal health and personal family life, raised as issues because very often those engaged are working for a living as well as for the church (remembering that there is no such thing as a part-time priest) with the probability of heavy time commitment and some degree of stress. It is, however, for each to know his or her own powers of endurance, strengths and weaknesses and then respond accordingly - this is probably true of any kind of life. Again, speaking for myself only, I have frequently been over-stretched but know how to relax. Only once did I come close to making myself ill and that was when for nine months I nursed four parishes through an interregnum with, inter alia, PCCs, newsletters, pastoral work and a substantial number of extra services. After the eventual institution of the new incumbent, the Bishop informed me that he would have liked to have mentioned me in his address but he didn't know my name; but that was some years ago, it illustrates the themes referred to above and wouldn't, I think, happen now.
As regards family life, I do know that some marital relationships have suffered. For myself I have been very blessed in that to all intents and purposes my wife and I experienced a joint vocation. My wife never imagined that she was marrying an embryo priest (neither did I) but when the time came, having helped me through a very difficult period when I resisted the whole idea, she adapted easily and naturally to support everything I try to do and herself plays a prominent role in church life. Even to the extent of being a church warden for eleven years. Consciousness of how much I owe her and remembering a conference of NSMs and wives many years ago (the least said the better) prompts me to the view that wives (and of course husbands now) should be involved at a very early stage in the interviews leading to the possibility of ordination. They are crucial. But, as with health, each individual needs to correlate personal circumstances and abilities with the 'job description' - another aspect of the need for identity touched on above.
Two or three times questionnaires have arrived in the post from what I can only imagine to be very aggrieved NSMs wanting to form some sort of NSM Trade Union. They have taken the short route to the waste basket. Knowing that where the Lord calls he will provide it for each NSM to co-operate and find his or her own way. For myself, I am deeply thankful for all the experiences I have had, the lives I have been privileged to enter, the friends I have made, and the support of so many good people both lay and clerical; my hopes are to have some more years yet of active ministry and see the further development of the Non-Stipendiary Ministry in partnership with all other branches of the church, contributing to the overriding task of bringing God to man and man to God with which we are all charged.
I was recently asked to speak at a conference alongside a woman who used the boat as an image to represent our society. Unfortunately, she explained, some of our citizens, the so-called 'underclass', had not proved able-bodied seafarers and had fallen overboard and were therefore presently unable to enjoy the benefits which those in the boat of society enjoyed. Working from this image of the situation it was clear to her just what our altruistic task should be - to let down as many ladders into the sea as possible in order to allow those poor unfortunates to clamber their way back into the boat of plenty. My response to her description was to ask whether it was not possible to conceive of a society that did not force people overboard in the first place.
The term 'Underclass' itself is quite an oppressive word, forcing us to think of the marginalised as 'things' of lesser worth and value than those in the so-called 'upper' classes. Indeed, the term was coined by those (especially in the USA) who despise those on the margins of society. But it does seem to me that the term has the advantage of focusing sharply and vulgarly the realities of oppression that are at work in our economy, and our culture. I also suspect that a more careful analysis of marginalisation will provide us with an alternative definition of this term, the 'Underclass'. So let us begin tentatively.
1. The Growth of a Class Structure:
On looking at our present British society, we observe those who appear to hold the reins of power through inherited wealth, culture-control (which I now take to include political control), welfare-control, high income and private capital. On first sight our inclination would be to call them the masters of our society, but this would be to misunderstand the complexity of our situation and the power which a structure can develop over its originators.
Over against this small group stands the vast majority of men and women who sell their labour and expertise as they can. The system of rewards is largely determined by one's ability to play one's part in the maintenance and furtherance of the overall system and there has therefore grown up within this majority a large army of middle-classes whose task, the cynic might say, it is to inculcate into the hearts and minds of all, a type of pseudo-rationality which maintains the status quo by arguing that the basic system of our society is moral, normal and just. This is what Marcuse called 'technological rationality', which is a mind-set designed to convince us that the given system is natural and right. From this mind-set, any injustice which we perceive in society must be due. we believe, to our not operating the social system correctly - using the wrong social 'technology'. Any fault in the structure is seen as merely malfunction or lack of appropriate technique within this best-of-all-possible social structures. The idea that the system itself could be irrational or immoral is disallowed. This way of thinking has received a major boost of late with the demise of the eastern European state system. "Their system didn't work, so our own is therefore proved the only viable option." So we hear repeated the simple myth formulation to bolster the status quo, "There Is No Alternative" – TINA.
The inculcation of this 'technological rationality' at a deep level in the psyches of society's members is of such overriding priority for those who benefit so greatly from the status quo that those who are set aside to perform this controlling function have usually reaped handsome rewards of finance, security and status for so doing. Sometimes they are even allowed to own a little of the basic international capital itself!
So the Middle Classes find themselves differentiated from others in the labour pool by being given responsibility for the operation of the system of checks and balances that keep the system operative in relation to the advancement of capital. This differentiates them from what we might still call the 'working class' who have only their labour to offer to those who operate the checks and balances. Above them all are the persons and institutions which own and govern capital (insofar as it can be governed, for Mammon had always a mind of its own).
But below the whole edifice have hung those who are seen to be of no present use to the system. Marx called this group the 'Lumpen Proletariat' those at the bottom, those 'over-board' who are never able even to get a hand-hold on the boat in which the others sail. They remain without security unless it is offered them as life-buoys of welfare provision thrown to them from the boat, life-buoys which are designed to keep them just afloat but are not designed to get them out of the water - the so-called poverty trap.
During the peak period of mechanical industrial advance, the overall system required a massive work-force of manual (even brutish) producers who should not think for themselves so much as fulfil the demands of the given work schedule. This vast human resource was referred to by the entrepreneurs as 'the working class'. This large work-force had to be physically centred around the raw materials of production and sources of power and therefore were thrown together sufficiently to be able to organise themselves eventually into Trades Unions which in turn provided a threat to the entrepreneurs. In order to keep control of such a large and unifiable work-force, it was expedient to maintain a vast 'surplus army of unemployed' in order to threaten the labourers with unemployment should they demand overmuch. In this respect at least the Lumpen Proletariat was seen to be performing some function as the threatening sump of society into which one dared not slide.
In years past, this is how we may have pictured society. But now things have changed radically.
2. Why the Classes are now undergoing radical change:
Having served the needs of the system in order to provide the basis of its wealth, the working class has more recently been asked to perform another and very different function, but this has demanded a significant shift in its role in relation to capital. For with the advent of increased computerisation and automation of production, the need for manual operatives and producers has given way to an increasing need for consumers. Cultural norms have therefore shifted rapidly to produce the new acquisitive society that capital now requires to sustain itself and the system built around it.
Change in male sexual role models epitomises this change, as advertising has, in a period of only some twenty years, moved the working-class male population from being fascinated by machinery, solidarity and production into a much more effeminate mode, finding interest now in fashion, acquisition and expression of personal feelings. Feminism has also played its part in moving the male into this new role as subservient to the needs of the new Capitalism. This shift in role models offers to the needs of capital a more acquisitive and fragmented working class, which is less dangerous because of its lack of any sense of solidarity. The means of production having shifted, it was necessary to effect this very significant change in human society.
Added to the shift from a mechanical to an electronic base in the means of production was the demolishing of the industrial base of British society by between a quarter and a fifth in the early years of the Thatcher government. So with the gathering pace of the shift away from the sort of productive industry which requires a large manual work-force came also the reduction in Britain of the employing industries, resulting in the fearful shift towards unemployment on a very large scale.
Those in work had always been able to look down on the 'Lumpen Proletariat' as the sump of the reserve pool of labour, but as time continued so long-term unemployment and deskilling have led to vast numbers of the working class joining the ranks of the Lumpen Proletariat -from 'working' class to 'non-working' class. There was always a fluid relationship between the so-called Proletariat and the Lumpen Proletariat but now this fluidity had grown to the proportions of a swollen flood creating a whole new feature on the landscape. This new category, by virtue of an ironic 'trickle down' of poverty, has grown through these last generations to include groups within society who had heretofore considered themselves invulnerable to such a fate, and this vulnerable new grouping, although to be found hidden away in many sections of our society, is now especially evident in our Urban Priority Areas and in the rural pockets of deprivation, as the new (or not-so-new?) 'Underclass'.
People on this bottom rung of the ladder now find themselves redundant to the productive system and unnecessary to its continuation. Labour is often cheaper elsewhere, machines can be programmed to do the work, and not even a reserve pool of labour is any longer necessary to keep others under the threat of unemployment, since all in work began to see that threat looming in any case. Latterly, however, the situation has been compounded by the fact that this underclass has also become redundant to capital's problem of over-supply.
Were they to be able to consume in quantity then they would remain useful at least as consumers, but since, in order to fulfil this role they would have to be paid more than subsistence incomes, the mainstream of society does not reckon that the benefit to themselves of offering higher welfare payments would be worth the outlay. So the underclass has become a 'written-off' class, quiet and subdued by their marginalised status, the dictates of the dominant cultural controls and their own absorbing concern to survive the poverty traps which almost seem designed to sap their energies.
Marxist opinion had classically assumed the Lumpen Proletariat to be of little use to them as a lever to change society for the better, for in Marxist eyes this group has never had the necessary economic power to force others from the seat of control. Strident capitalists now agree that the underclass can be written off by society because it no longer poses a threat to its security since there is little to no opportunity for the building of solidarity or self-awareness within its ranks. What is more, the underclass is costly in welfare payments and therefore it is expedient to give the impression that their numbers, their worth and their need are minimal, and this is done by politically motivated statisticians in order that a reduced social security budget can be legitimated.
There is clearly a need for a thorough analysis and appreciation not only of the economic basis of this human redundancy but also of the social structures of domination, inculcation and persuasion which keep society in thrall to this oppressive condition. Social control in today's technological cultures can be achieved often without recourse to the nevertheless ever-present institutions of physical coercion, for it is now possible to reach down and control groups and individuals at the psychic level, and it is the cultural superstructure which performs this function.
By 'cultural superstructure' I mean the media, advertising, systems of bureaucracy, the arts and literature, church, school, commerce, welfare, family, television, trades unions, and the multiplicity of similar institutional safety valves which serve the status quo, knowingly or unknowingly, and seek to control the imagination of humankind.
This cultural superstructure wields such power that even those who appear to be in control of the structure are dominated by the cultural myths that have been designed within the superstructure to maintain the system. (Witness the way in which even Nigel Lawson and Margaret Thatcher came to believe their own hype regarding the boom that they had initiated before the '87 election). So we begin to believe that not only can the Market not be bucked but that it is actually benevolent! And as the cultural hegemony bites ever deeper so our every move, love and imagination, functions within the plane determined by the cultural regime we help to sustain. As Marcuse put it, we have all become 'One Dimensional', and we can no longer see beyond what is presented to us by the dominating culture.
3. The Arena of Struggle:
Many early Marxists believed that the only change which would bring about justice in society would be economic revolution. They argued that what sustains this great cultural edifice which keeps our hearts and minds in thrall is the economic base of capital and the means of production. In some senses it is this basic Marxist principle which has become the driving force of modern Tory political theory as even they now treat all other forces as subservient to the economic.
But what I want now to argue for is that there is a dynamic relationship in society between any economic infrastructure and the cultural superstructure which rests upon it. And surely this is becoming increasingly true as the economic base and technological culture become ever more of a piece, and especially as we begin to see information technology stealing a march on industrial productivity. But even if this revolution has not moved on as fast as some would posit, and the cultural superstructure still depends upon the economic base to uphold it, nevertheless the economic base does not appear altogether to determine the culture any longer even though it is intimately and dynamically related to it. Although the superstructure may be conditioned by the economic infrastructural forces, nevertheless there is nothing to prevent culture from reacting upon that conditioning structure in order to change it!
So, into the battle for change comes culture, art, aesthetics, literature, education, the media, politics, religion - and even theology! Each can use its own system of key language and symbols in the struggle to unblinker society and divest the dominating mind-sets of their power, by calling into question the nature of their rationality and pointing to those whom those mind-sets serve, asking the critical question: "What or who is benefiting?”
So, for example, Critical Theorists of society have begun to view the cultural superstructure not as Marcuse was prone to, as a somewhat rigid and unresponsive landscape but, like Gramsci, as a battle-ground where opposing factions must engage to win control of the hegemonic forces of society. And we must not be surprised to find similar ideas expressed in the New Testament for the Christian faith from its beginnings has been wrestling with this same essential issue of societal change - the transformation of society, through the power of the Holy Spirit, that it may more conform to Christ's portrayal of the Kingdom of God.
Look, for example, to St John the Divine who understood that the power which the social structures of domination wield in society is largely dependent upon the perception which members of that culture and society have of them. So by refusing to acknowledge the authority of the Beast, representing the dominant cultural myth of Empire, by refusing to worship it or carry its mark, Christians witnessed to an alternative culture and thereby confronted Rome's power to control the perceptions of the members of that society (Revelation 13 & 14). St John thus demands that Christians look elsewhere for transcendence and not to the myths of the Emperors nor the Pax Romana. The alternative culture was represented in the image of 'the Lamb who was slain', this image standing in absolute contradiction to the image of the powerful Beast. So, in the Book of Revelation we see the battle raging between the cultural mind-sets of Roman bondage and Christian liberating love.
St Paul casts his net even wider by taking old cosmological myths of the 'Principalities and Powers', depersonalising, demythologising and then remythologising them. So, the 'Principalities and Powers', he maintains, do have their rightful and God-given place; there is room in God's Kingdom for structures and form. But Christ's refusal to bow to their determination to dominate gives us the correct pattern and praxis in the struggle, so that now those self-same structures can be made to serve the Transcendent so that they no longer try to obliterate Divinity nor claim it for themselves, (cf. Colossians 2. 9-15; Ephesians 1. 20-23).
John the Divine sees the struggle as resulting in an all-out war to bring the dominating forces into line. Paul, like John, acknowledges that this battle has been fought and won by Christ, and we now reap the fruits of that victory. Our perceptions are therefore changed. We see ourselves as free, servants no longer to the structural demand of law and race or gender, and yet still living with these things present, given to us as a means of preventing society degenerating into chaos (Romans 3. 21-31; 7. 1-13). With this awareness, Christians are now able to view these same cultural constraints more objectively and can use them or deny them as the Divine Transcendent demands.
The structures and means of cultural control are of a dynamic nature and there is no reason to suppose that they cannot be won over in the cause of justice and love. How this power is gained and how it is used become the crucial questions for Christian witness and evangelism in society.
St John the Divine makes an heroic stand against the invidious creeping evil of the structures of Emperor deification, and he introduces the Christian symbol of the Lamb over against the hegemonic symbol of the Emperor cult. St Paul on the other hand accepts that a new and just function must be served by the Principalities and Powers once they have been divested of their falsehood and brought back into the proper role for which their creator intended them, (cf. Colossians 2. 14-15, assuming Paul as author). Whichever approach might be more appropriate to our particular struggle, our task now will be to use our theology, both theological actions and word, to hold up the dominant cultural ideologies of society to the scrutiny of the Kingdom of God criteria. How then might this be done?
4. The Gospel Strategy, Purity and Debt:
The Gospels provide for us a very strong account of the way in which Jesus undertook to locate, confront, question and do battle with the dominant cultural ideologies of his time and place. His methodology, as for example recorded for us in St Mark's Gospel, looks to be an ideal pattern for our own situation. Jesus first locates himself alongside those who are in the most marginalised of conditions in his society. From that perspective he uses the claims and criteria of the imminent Kingdom of God to critique that society from the underside, from its vulnerable and 'soft underbelly'. He thereby perceives what are the dominant factors operating in his contemporary society to keep God's poor oppressed and their oppressors captive. The work of Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man, Orbis, 1988) helps us to locate the precise societal factors which Jesus focuses and confronts.
At the time of Jesus, ritual purity was the chief system of division of society, the scribes dictating precise regulations as to what was to be considered as clean and unclean. There was a pecking order of purity and cleanliness and although the Pharisees had tried to liberalise and broaden the reach of these regulations, it was the Priestly caste, especially that located in Jerusalem, which determined whether or not a person was to be considered 'clean' and therefore accepted into society.
It was the priests who also controlled to a large extent the debt structure of the society, which, alongside the purity code proved to be the structure most oppressive of the poor with whom Jesus related. The peasants were heavily taxed and were also largely responsible for the payment of tithes, especially where landlords were absentees. The tithe was originally intended to support the Levites who were not at liberty to grow produce for themselves but this distributive tax had by the time of Jesus largely been centralised upon Jerusalem and we have records of armed men acting on behalf of the Jerusalem priesthood against poor local Levites who tried to make their legitimate claim upon local tithing.
Loans were essential to the peasant farmers if they were to survive the harsh strictures of the Law which forbade them producing on the Sabbath even though their debts were forever increasing due to harsh taxes, rents and tithes. There was of course the Jubilee and Sabbatical release from debt built into the Holiness Code, but we must not romanticise the effects of this legislation. In reality it simply meant that creditors were not prepared to make loans in the years immediately prior to the years when loans were to be remitted. So the Sabbath laws in particular, even though they were originally intended to bring justice, served only to grind the peasantry further into debt. Rabbi Hillel, understanding their plight, had devised a shrewd method of escaping the Jubilee release from debt laws in the hope that the poor would still be able to borrow money near to a Sabbatical period, but this had merely been used by loan sharks to hold debtors forever to a spiral of poverty.
In view of the earlier arguments of this paper, it is intriguing to see in the first chapters of St Mark's Gospel repeated examples of Jesus at war first with the enslaving ideology of the Purity Codes: curing Peter's mother-in-law and then immediately eating at her hand; confronting in the holy synagogue the unclean spirit; raising up the girl in puberty and the woman whose blood had indicated impurity - bringing them all back into the community and so creating for them a 'holy communion', of warm relationship between the Holy One of Israel and the outcast.
Secondly, the ideology of Debt is also confronted: Jesus restores the paralytic to health and inclusion within society by pronouncing release from indebtedness - "Your sins are forgiven." For we must remember that within a Covenant Law faith of scrupulous regulations, illness and impurity was understood to be the wages of sin, the debt owed for ones unrighteousness. Ones unworthiness was debt. Sin requiring forgiveness was debt demanding remission. The healing which the paralytic required was the lifting of the burden which he was forced to carry. And so Jesus pronounces forgiveness of sin, thus wresting from the scribal and priestly caste their authority on earth to release from debt. He restores the paralytic to full personhood, demanding that from now on he take up his own bed and walk - no more indebted even to those who carried him. The scribes of course, immediately accuse Jesus of taking to himself the right to forgive sin and debt which only God, through themselves, had on earth. But the Kingdom Year of Jubilee has arrived and now the Son of Man, says Jesus, has taken authority on earth to remit sin.
And, as if to drive the point home, Jesus immediately calls the unclean tax-collector, Levi and then goes to take table fellowship with those who were considered by the purity codes to be unclean and not of the fellowship - those who 'owed' the debt and obligations of sinfulness. In reclining with tax-gatherers and sinners he takes one powerful cultural symbol and sets against it another. For table fellowship in that culture was representative of an intimacy, respect and regard for those with whom one supped and Jesus takes this cultural symbol and expresses through it the total forgiveness and atonement which now pertains. He can eat with them because all are now equal before God, since in the Kingdom all debts are forgiven. The Kingdom is inclusive. Even the burden of the past and of the sins of past generations are swept away by this forgiving and healing Son of Man for he heals the man born blind to give glory to God rather than to press home the sin of the parents, (John 9. 1-3).
In attacking the issue of debt, Jesus takes the dominant cultural norms of his day and exposes their dynamic so that those who have been oppressed by them are released and liberated into their future. God gives the future back to his children.
5. The Community lives in Repentance:
From the crowd Jesus calls out the little child and the man with the withered hand, and stands them in the middle of the throng, (Luke 9. 46-8; 6. 6-11). Thus he takes the lesser representatives of the oppressed, 'the poorest of the poor', the 'written off ones', the 'underclass', and brings them to centre stage. The margins become the central focus of his praxis. The first become last and the last first.
The Church in our time must follow the same dynamic as its Lord by locating itself amidst the throng of the poor and dispossessed, placing them at the centre, in order to explode the dominating cultural myths of today. It must, like Jesus, move into action alongside the poor and take with it any others from other classes who are prepared to witness in this way, to expose those myths and parade them in order to proclaim what their true worth is or is not. (Colossians 2. 15)
And from the earlier argument in this paper, it seems to me that it is significantly amongst the so-called 'underclass' that we are to find in today's society the equivalent locus for sensitive experience and opportunity for analysis and liberating action.
It is important to appreciate that immersion in the concerns of the 'underclass' will also help us understand the actions of Jesus as recorded for us in the Gospel, for the oppressed today continue to be users of the Gospel language codes. We will thus find in the 'underclass' a use of story which is strikingly similar to that found in the New Testament; a similar use of parabolic symbol, acted parable, apocalyptic hyperbole, cryptic political allusion and celebration song. (See my God in the Inner City, Urban Theology Unit, 1993)
It has often been said that it is only from the perspective of the lowest in the society that we can judge whether or not that society is a just society, for it is the vulnerable soft-underbelly of the society. And from the perspective of the underclass we will certainly find ourselves confronted yet again by the realities of debt and the cultural myths that surround it today. For now, as then, you cannot live amongst the poor for long before debt becomes the abiding issue. And this holds true at both the personal and the international level. Poor countries have debts now standing at well above one million million U.S. dollars and despite debt rescheduling, devaluation of local currencies and striking cutbacks in educational, social and health spending in those countries, it is clear that without a moratorium on debt they will sink deeper and deeper into poverty. And from the debt of the poor nations we considerably benefit. We hold them indebted to our past inhumanity whilst we promote the myth of Third World Aid. Millions are impoverished and the international environment is raped.
Likewise within our country and especially within our Urban Priority Areas, society holds to ransom those who remain the poorest of our poor with financial debts which we have surrounded by cultural myths of blame and sinfulness worthy of first century Judaea. For example, our society conditions us to think that the poor borrow in order to buy luxury items for themselves. The facts make it clear however that the bulk of borrowing by the poor is for absolute necessities. Most working class communities can be found to owe phenomenal debt at exorbitant rates. Roger Ruston O.P. (Priest and People vol. 7, n5, p171) cites the typical case of a young father who borrowed £50 for his kiddies' clothing, but because he fell behind with the interest payments of 25p per pound per week, he had eventually to pay interest on the owed interest which brought his final debt to the loan sharks to over a thousand pounds. Such loan sharks often do dwell in poor areas because normal companies will not lend to borrowers within certain address districts, and likewise, 'buy now pay later' schemes are targeted specifically at the unaware, who do not realise what the constant addition of compound interest will mean in the long-run. Again, some loan repayments are demanded with the threat of violence, which in turn can lead to prostitution, with some parents starving themselves rather than that their children should suffer.
Ruston goes on to point out that the poor pay more in absolute terms for their money than the rich. On average they pay £1 per week for every £100 borrowed whereas the rich pay only 60p per week per £100. Within UPAs, annual percentage rates of almost 400K% have been recorded and APRs around 1000% are widespread, (cf. Policy Studies Institute report on Credit and Debt, 1992, Berthoud & Kempson p98). In addition, many are now aware of the horrendous facts about mortgage debt and home repossessions. Government deregulation of credit in the eighties led to aggressive loan-peddling by banks and building societies - including the sale of the notorious endowment mortgages so that we now find home repossessions running at over eighty thousand per annum. And with banks calling in their loans at the slightest sign of risk, businesses too go bankrupt. Individuals suffer, as the young are directly targeted with high-interest credit cards and the nation suffers as capital investment is siphoned off from production industries because bigger short term profits can be made instead by lending for consumption.
It would seem that debt is a major feature of today's world and holds us all to some extent in its thrall. And the more we learn about the situation the more we can imagine Jesus today choosing to be right in amongst those who suffer as a result of debt and its horrendous mythologies; and we can hear him once again preaching his Gospel of release to the captives. It may therefore be that by engaging alongside those who are most hurt and oppressed by debt that we may taste something of the power of the dynamic of Jesus' dialogue with this phenomenon in his day, as he not only sought to understand, not merely to challenge, but actually to unmask the cultural myths of debt and purity which were so sturdy a bastion to privilege and division in his day.
Jesus proclaimed that despite the myth that the lowliest in their society did not belong because of their indebtedness and sin, the truth actually was that they did belong. We all belong to each other because we belong to the one God who made us - and the ultimate indebtedness which we inevitably owe to him is freely forgiven by him so that we can find release together rather than find oppression and alienation in one another's company. The so-called 'underclass' of today therefore do belong with us and us with them. The Father of Creation ordained that his Son be incarnated alongside those who were oppressed by the dominating myths of societal indebtedness so that he could live out the truth which would make them free and liberate them from alienation. And this he continues to ordain. He gives himself, his own Holy Spirit as free gift to his creatures so that the Kingdom of God may be among them in the quality of their new relationship one with another - sharing all in brotherly and sisterly affection - and so reflecting not the myths of sin and death but the Unity of the Holy Trinity of God in whose image we are made.
The Church then is expected to place this dynamic of forgiveness and release at the heart of our fellowship and in our daily prayer we are bidden to ask God to "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors". Having ourselves been forgiven so much debt, how can we dare not forgive the little that is owed to us? (Matthew 18. 23-35, The Unforgiving Debtor) But, unfortunately, the Church has tended to major on the reality of guilt and sinfulness without proper emphasis upon the overwhelming release we experience from this alienation through his Spirit. But we are bidden to forgive others, and release them from the bondage of sin and debt because that is bondage to the past and we do not know what the other has it in them to become in the future. In forgiving, we open up their future and release it from the burdens and ghosts of its past. So we join table-fellowship with Christ in the company of those we were hitherto apt to think unclean, for now the purity codes of exclusion and debt have been slain with the Lamb, who takes away the sins of the world, (cf. Revelation 5. 9).
In repentance we will find fellowship with those whom our cultural myths call unclean, the 'underclass', and from within that experience we may, by paying strict attention to the stories of the people, be able 'to hear the cry of our brother's blood crying out to God from the earth' (Genesis 4. 11). We will therefore listen with rapt attention and involve ourselves actively in exploding the myths of sin and indebtedness, knowing that Christ has initiated a counter-culture of forgiveness and belonging.
Afterthought - Ten years ago, the Faith in the City report made the Church own up to the circumstances of the poor, but we still have to make the Church listen to what is heard from the perspective of the poor. It gave to the Church a vision of getting the poor out of poverty and quite rightly so, for enforced poverty is obscene, but it did not, it seems to me, go on from there to investigate what vision lies beyond freedom from poverty. Freedom from is not necessarily freedom for. Many people in the UPAs of East End of London seem to look at salvation in terms of a safe mortgage in Brentwood or Basildon, and I can't honestly find much in the Faith in the City report which takes us beyond that hope. It seems then that we have not done enough to get under the skin of the cultural myths which continue to enslave even when poverty is relieved. Theology can and must help here. But in order to do so, it must be a theology worked out from the perspective of a Gospel context. One such context is the perception of today's so-called 'Underclass'.
© Laurie Green, Bishop of Bradwell, 1994
Barbara Moss, February 1993
He was a clever devil.
He did not offer bread.
Just think of how much good you'd do.
Food for the hungry, garments new,
Endow a peace foundation, too
With all this gold, he said.
He did not offer bread.
He was a clever devil
And offered him no throne.
Let incense burn in constant prayer
Atone for all men everywhere,
But of their troubles take no share.
Such priesthood is my own.
He offered him no throne.
He was a clever devil.
He did not offer fame.
All men must die. Prepare for this,
Greet your betrayer with a kiss.
Leap from the cross to heaven's bliss
And leave earth to its shame!
He did not offer fame.
The gold, and myrrh, and incense
Lie on the stable floor
Abandoned by the refugee
Forced, with his family to flee
A frightened despot’s tyranny,
Murder, and civil war.
He cried for toys no more.