Twenty years ago the Church of England published Faith in the City, a stern rebuke to the excesses of rampant neoliberalism, with its mass unemployment, widespread poverty and talk of “the enemy within”. Thatcherism took it as a slap in the face and – never one to turn the other cheek – hit back by labelling the document “Marxist”. This year comes its successor, Faithful Cities (click here), a report of the church’s inter-denominational Commission on Urban Life and Faith. Faith and neoliberalism: reconciliation, or round two?
The document sums up the Christian view of human existence as the journey from Eden to Jerusalem: “Looking back to the beginning, perfection is embodied in a garden; looking forward to the end, perfection is seen as a city” (7.7). Rather than Jerusalem, however, its focus is on the role of faith communities in real British cities of today, and the dilemmas of engaging with state-sponsored regeneration.
Since Faith in the City government urban policies have changed considerably, but for several reasons the overall results have been disappointing –
- Continuing regional unemployment, household indebtedness and the plight of the working poor mean that the corrosive impact of poverty has not been much reduced, while inequality has increased (chapter 4)
- There exists a “democratic vacuum” which may “allow the values of status, power, profit and security to dominate the agenda of urban regeneration” (5.1). All too often poorer populations are forced to make way for "the middle classes arriving to take residential control" (5.10)
- As regards its pursuit of the cheap, xenophobic headline, the report roundly declares it “inhuman and unacceptable that some asylum seekers are left homeless and destitute by government policies” (3.43)
- The dominance of the profit motive: “property is king in the regeneration game" (5.10). Indeed, the government's approach to regeneration, emphasising economic competitiveness and accelerated growth, is economistic when it should be "person-centred and creation-minded" (6.39). Half a century of economic growth has produced no corresponding increase in happiness or “human flourishing” (4.52)
So deep goes the rot that it is time to question whether capitalism “can really promote the happiness or wellbeing of all” (4.49).
Even a sympathetic critic might be moved to say that Faithful Cities’s prescriptions do not wholly live up to its often acute analysis. How, it reasonably worries, can “people of faith” engage with, humanise and even spiritualise the regeneration process? In taking state funds to deliver services, isn’t there a danger of becoming “unwittingly compromised as the powerful culture and demands of statutory bodies seep into previously independent institutions” (5.32)? Despite the report’s manifold examples of inspiring faith-based practical projects, this last question remains – as it does for civil society generally, not only the churches – decidedly moot.
But as regards the largely uncontrolled accumulation of wealth and market power to which our cities bear such eloquent witness, and the withering away of state commitment to fairness and social justice, the document suggests few remedies. William Blake, where are you?
Faithful Cities, Methodist Publishing House and Church House Publishing 2006, £9.99