Who is my neighbour?

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Last month the House of Bishops of the Church of England released a Pastoral Letter on the 2015 General Election.

In this letter to the people and parishes of the Church of England, the Bishops seek to counter Russell Brand’s ‘no vote’ call and to mobilize people to vote.

They explain that in a social climate of political disenchantment, Christians should step forward to provide a vision for the kind of society that people are longing for.

I find it quite interesting that the Church of England, which is constantly characterised as being in decline, hits back by framing the contemporary situation as ‘our almost-moribund political culture’. Indeed!

But the tone of the letter is not cynical. Instead, it states that: “In Britain, we have become so used to believing that self-interest drives every decision, that it takes a leap of imagination to argue that there should be stronger institutions for those we disagree with as well as for those ‘on our side.’” It goes on to argue for the need to break free of self-interest in order build up communities that connect people. “The extent of loneliness in society today, with the attendant problems of mental and physical health, is one indication of how far we have drifted into a society of strangers.” This point is interesting for our study, because the research at the two Church of England megachurches in London, HTB and All Souls, has uncovered empirical evidence that church communities reduce social isolation and proactively build networks of relationships.

What is so telling about this letter, in my opinion, is that the Church of England here is demonstrating that it believes it has a role to play in the political sphere. Not pulling any punches, the Bishops write: “It is not possible to separate the way a person perceives his or her place in the created order from their beliefs, religious or otherwise, about how the world’s affairs ought to be arranged. The claim that religion and political life must be kept separate is, in any case, frequently disingenuous – most politicians and pundits are happy enough for the churches to speak on political issues so long as the church agrees with their particular line.”

Although the letter is careful not to give priority to one political party over another (a point disputed by The Times), what is given precedence is the notion of ‘the common good’: “The privileges of living in a democracy mean that we should use our votes thoughtfully, prayerfully and with the good of others in mind, not just our own interests.”

This raises a question for us – what is the common good and is the church’s understanding of this concept the same as the government? Are people using the same words but meaning different things? I put this question to a London city councilor who attends a Church of England megachurch, and, seeming surprised by this question, resisted this dichotomy, essentially saying that there is a great deal of overlap, and partnerships between churches and the local government can be very fruitful.

It will be interesting to see what this general election brings!

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3 thoughts on “Who is my neighbour?

  1. Thanks Sarah. It is interesting to think about how your title question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ plays out across different social, cultural and faith groups across the UK – and between different geographical communities and neighbourhoods. At a conference hosted by Near Neighbours in Birmingham last week, Muslim community leaders pointed to teachings from their faith that required them to care for their neighbours 40 houses in each direction from their home, ensuring that no-one went hungry, for example.

    I wonder what impact ‘self-interest’ orientated decision making has had on our ability to really know our neighbours? There is perhaps an increasing divide between those drawn into the demands of career-building and long-working hours which leave little energy or time to invest beyond one’s own family, and those on the margins of the labour market, where relationships with neighbours may be very significant, but perhaps lack the cultural and social diversity to allow for a genuine sharing of contrasting, common, or complementary life experiences, resources and skills.

    The Social Integration Commission’s Social Integration: A Wake-Up Call report, published last year, highlights the importance of interaction between people of different social and ethnic backgrounds for community cohesion, trust and wellbeing, stating that: ‘Without action to promote greater integration, the danger grows that in the face of the many and complex challenges of the future, instead of asking ‘how can we solve this together?’, the people of the UK will ask ‘who can we blame?’’. As the report notes, such attitudes are already evident in relation to benefits recipients and immigrants, for example. Churches and other places of worship, however, were found to be ‘more successful than any other social setting at bringing people of different backgrounds together, well ahead of gatherings such as parties, meetings, weddings or venues such as pubs and clubs.’

    The recognition of the importance of relationships for human wellbeing is certainly something that Christian teachings have much to say about. It would be interesting to discover how megachurch leaders are responding to some of media debates around poverty and related policy issues at present – and indeed what responses some of their members might be able to make to these through their participation in society, employment and local communities.

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