A Story for Easter: Sacrifice and forgiveness in WW2

Miracle on the River Kwai - book cover

Unquestionably one of the most wonderful stories of World War II

I first read Ernest Gordon’s fascinating and moving book, “Miracle on the River Kwai” about twenty years ago. (The book had first been published nearly thirty years before I got my hands on it.) Gordon, enlisted in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at the outset of the Second World War. At the age of twenty-four, as company commander with the 2nd Battalion, along with hundreds of others, he was captured by the Japanese while escaping from Sumatra after the fall of Singapore.

The book details his experiences, along with many British prisoners, at the hands of their Japanese captors as they were forced to build a jungle railway. Gordon describes atrocities worse than most of us could even imagine as he relates a story of torture, abandonment and death.

As conditions steadily worsened, as starvation, exhaustion and disease took an ever-growing toll, the atmosphere in which we lived was increasingly poisoned by selfishness, hatred, and fear. We were slipping rapidly down the scale of degradation.

We lived by the rule of the jungle, “red in tooth and claw” – the evolutionary law of the survival of the fittest. It was a case of “I look out for myself and to hell with everyone else.” The weak were trampled underfoot, the sick ignored or resented, the dead forgotten. When a man lay dying we had no word of mercy. When he cried for our help, we averted our heads.

We had long since resigned ourselves to being derelicts. We were the forsaken men – forsaken by our families, by our friends, by our government. Now even God had left us.

Hate, for some, was the only motivation for living. We hated the Japanese. We would willingly have torn them limb from limb, flesh from flesh, had they fallen into our hands. In time even hate died, giving way to numb, black despair.

Despite the conditions described above, ultimately the book is a story of selfless sacrifice and triumph over that death. The turning point for Gordon happened in the ‘Death House’. The Japanese were especially cruel to their captives. The starvation diet, lack of medical provision and brutal treatment at the hands of the guards all contributed to cause Gordon’s health to deteriorate to a point that led to his being placed in the ‘Death House’, in theory a rudimentary hospital but in reality a place designated for those who were not expected to live. However He was treated there by two special soldiers. Motivated by their Christian faith, the two gave Ernest 24-hour care. They would boil rags and clean and massage Gordon’s diseased legs every day until, against all the odds Ernest Gordon survived and went on to see a miraculous transformation in that prison camp.

Here are two stories from the book which sum up that selfless sacrifice and victory over death that mirror the ultimate sacrifice and triumph of Jesus which is the Easter Story (Where the Bible is quoted I’ve used a contemporary translation):

The day’s work had ended;  the tools were being counted as usual. As the party was about to be dismissed, the Japanese guard shouted that a shovel was missing. He insisted that someone had stolen it to sell to the Thais. Striding up and down before the men, he ranted and denounced them for their wickedness, and most unforgivable of all, their ingratitude to the Emperor. As he raved, he worked himself up into a paranoid fury. Screaming in broken English, he demanded that the guilty one step forward to take his punishment. No one moved; the guard’s rage reached new heights of violence.

“All die! All die!” he shrieked.

To show that he meant what he said, he cocked his rifle, put it to his shoulder and looked down the sights, ready to fire at the first man at the end of them. – At that moment the Argyll stepped forward, stood stiffly to attention, and said calmly, “I did it.”

The guard unleashed all his whipped-up hate; he kicked the helpless prisoner and beat him with fists. Still the Argyll stood rigidly to attention, with the blood streaming down his face. His silence goaded the guard to an excess of rage. Seizing his rifle by the barrel, he lifted it high over his head and, with a final howl, brought it down on the skull of the Argyll, who sank limply to the ground and did not move. Although it was perfectly clear that he was dead, the guard continued to beat him and stopped only when exhausted.

The men of the work detail picked up their comrade’s body, shouldered their tools and marched back to camp. When the tools were counted again at the guard-house no shovel was missing.

As this story was told, remarkably enough, admiration for the Argyll transcended hatred for the Japanese guard.

News of similar happenings began to reach our ears, from other camps. One incident concerned an Aussie private who had been caught outside the fence while trying to obtain medicine from the Thais for his sick friends. He was summarily tried and sentenced to death.

On the morning set for his execution he marched cheerfully between his guards to the parade-ground. The Japanese were out in full force to observe the scene. The Aussie was permitted to have his commanding officer and a chaplain in attendance as witnesses. The party came to a halt. The C.O. and the chaplain were waved to one side, and the Aussie was left standing alone. Calmly, he surveyed his executioners. He knelt down and drew a small copy of the New Testament from a pocket of his ragged shorts. Unhurriedly, his lips moving but no sound coming from them, he read a passage to himself.

What that passage was, no one will ever know. I cannot help wondering, however, if it were not those words addressed by Jesus to his disciples in the Upper Room:

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. …I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.”

He finished reading, returned his New Testament to his pocket, looked up, and saw the distressed face of his chaplain. He smiled, waved to him, and called out, “Cheer up, Padre, it isn’t as bad as all that, I’ll be alright.”

He nodded to his executioner as a sign that he was ready.

He knelt down, and bent his head forward to expose his neck. The Samurai sword flashed in the sunlight.

The examples set by such men shone like beacons.

“This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13 NLT)

“When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners.Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners… So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.” (Romans 5 NLT)

The Spirit of ’45 – A Celebration and a Lament.

Spirit of 45On a cold, wet St Patrick’s Day afternoon I travelled to the Greenwich Picturehouse, accompanied by the living legend that is CWU official Roy Vargerson. We were off to see Ken Loach’s stirring documentary film “The Spirit of ’45” which not only looks at Labour’s post-war landslide election victory but is also an impassioned plea for a return to that post-war unity.

Using rarely seen archive footage and recordings, Ken Loach’s documentary movingly depicts the events of 1945, when the Labour government rallied the nation to rebuild Britain’s war-battered economy. The film chronicles the birth of the welfare state and the nationalisation of our public services, and their subsequent destruction by privatisation.

The British Film Institute described the Spirit of ’45 as both ‘a celebration and a lament.’ You could equally describe the film as a ‘call-to-arms’ – for ordinary people to once again unite against the policies that have systematically dismantled the Britain that Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan aimed to build.

After the terrible depression and poverty of the thirties and the horror of the Second World War came Labour’s election landslide of 1945. At that moment, it seemed  feasible that we’d fulfil the plea made by pre-war Labour leader, George Lansbury to build the New Jerusalem “in England’s green and pleasant land.” The new Prime Minister, Clement Attlee presided over a period of unprecedented community spirit. A spirit that, as we see in the film, Margaret Thatcher eventually and comprehensively destroyed.

If you believe that the establishment of the NHS and the nationalisation of the railways and other key industries was the crowning achievement of that pioneering government, then The Spirit of ’45 will resonate with you.

I found myself drawn along by the simplicity of the film’s presentation – stylistically, the film is a success, blending old newsreel and modern interviews all in monochrome, only in the finale of the film do we see colour footage.

That post-war 1945 spirit may be mocked today –”it’s naïve”; “it’s old-fashioned” – but it seems preferable to the current spirit of austerity, especially when placed alongside the ever increasing wealth of those at the top of society. The Spirit of ’45 compels you to ask “Where did all that strength of public spirit go?”

The people interviewed in the film provide poignant anecdotes about the poverty of the 1930s, as well as a new found sense of purpose and optimism after Labour’s landslide victory.

Deborah Garvie, a present-day housing worker, shows us the letter her builder grandfather received telling him that he had been assigned a council house in Stevenage New Town – a town that he himself had helped to build. This letter, she tells us, he carried with him in his wallet till the day he died.

Likewise Ray Jackson, former train driver, describes his delighted amazement when his family moved into their new council house with its French windows and indoor facilities. “There was all this light! And there were stairs! And a bathroom!”

Professor Harry Keen relives the gratification he felt when, as a North London GP visiting a mother worried she couldn’t afford his services or the medicines he prescribed – a visit he made on the very day the National Health Service was inaugurated – he was able to tell her, “‘Today, July the 5th, it’ll cost you nothing!’ I’ve never forgotten that moment.”

Repeatedly we’re told of people’s elation at the idea that “at last we’re going to take charge of our own lives”. Ray Davies, a retired Welsh miner, recalls his whole community “cheering, laughing, singing, dancing” at the news that the mines were being nationalised, and seeing some of his hardened fellow miners, tough men who “would take anything the bosses ever threw at them”, with tears rolling down their cheeks.

The people of post-war 1945 moved to bury and forget the pre-war world where, as Julian Tudor Hart puts it, “everything was run by rich people for rich people.” Labour’s 1945 election manifesto was explicit in placing the blame: the slumps of the 30s, it stated,

“Were the sure and certain result of the concentration of too much economic power in the hands of too few men… The cost of ‘economic freedom’ is too high if it is bought at the cost of idleness and misery for millions.”

Here, as elsewhere in the film, are pre-echoes of our condition today.

The film leaps forward to Thatcher’s election and then we’re reminded of a more recent history, as one by one the nationalisations of the post-war era are reversed Gas, steel, water, electricity, the railways and all the rest are sold back into private hands at bargain rates. At the same time, we see other key elements of the welfare state being chipped away – council houses are sold off, bit-by-bit privatisation eroding the Royal Mail and the NHS. Interspersed with this, the key defeats of working-class power: the miners’ strike of 1984, the Liverpool dockers’ strike of 1995.

An angry but articulate miner denounces the police brutality suffered by himself and his fellow-miners: “Why do the police come with such venom? They seem to enjoy inflicting pain and suffering on the working man. Why? Who tells them to go beat a picket’s head? Who tells them to inflict pain, try to kill him? Who is it? I want to know.” By way of response Loach cuts straight to Thatcher at that year’s Tory Party conference.

Loach’s film is openly, unashamedly polemical and partisan – an eloquent cry of rage and grief at what we once had and what we’ve allowed to be taken away from us. (Empire reviewer David Hughes)

Building on the passionate testimonies of his interviewees and on his superbly chosen archive footage Loach challenges us today to resist, to fight back against the forces of greed and indifference. The film ends with shots of modern-day protests – Occupy, UK Uncut, Defend the NHS – as ‘Jerusalem’ swells on the soundtrack.

Already there are bloggers implying that work established back then is unsustainable today. Refering to the ever increasing amounts of cold hard cash being poured into Social Security being a sign that The Spirit of ’45 is in rude health. But that misses the point completely. The Spirit of ’45 is about unity, it’s about dignity, it’s about people working together for the common good. It’s about building a better world for everyone, not obsessively attempting to increase profits for the few at the expense of the many. It’s about ALL people having access to a decent job with a proper wage, to a decent home, decent health care regardless of income. Is all that too much to expect in what is after all the seventh richest nation in the world?

I hope the future proves ‘The Spirit of ’45’ will be less of a lament and much more something to celebrate.

George Martin, The Strange ‘Saint’ of Southwark

St George the Martyr, viewed from Borough High Street today

Local writer and historian, Debra Gosling recently sent me an e-mail containing a facinating local history story – a piece she wrote for a local newspaper. An article which somebody subsequently ‘stole’ and passed off as their own in another publication. Well I’ve nicked her article too. Well at least parts of it. This time with Debra’s permission. Along with a bit of research of my own, this is an acount of the Reverend George Martin.

I doubt if there are many people left around Borough High Street who remember a shabby bearded old man by the name of George Martin. But on the day of his funeral in 1946 hundreds of local residents knelt in the streets and wept for a man many called a ‘saint’. They mourned the passing of an eccentric friend and benefactor who for nearly 48 years had lived the life of a poor man, tirelessly giving of his time and what little money he had for the poor and needy of the area.

It was in 1899 at the age of 35, that a tall, angular, kind-faced man from Cornwall came to live on Southwark’s smoky streets. He’d given up his comfortable living as a Cornish clergyman and moved to the area around Borough Market.

Rather than working as a vicar in the Church of England the Cambridge educated George Martin; worked as a market porter. Rather than living in a comfortable vicarage, he chose to rent a small Spartan room, where he lodged for well over forty years, choosing to identify with the people he wanted to help by sharing their lifestyle. He worked and dressed as a market porter, but unlike his work-mates, he gave the majority of his hard-earned cash away. Understandably, his fellow workers at first mistrusted his posh accent and his air of Cornish gentility. He was initially seen as an odd, obscure character.

In his early days in London, George Martin’s quiet, cultured ways hid what some could say, was a misplaced zeal others might say mental illness! On a number of occasions George Martin found himself under arrest.

In the summer of 1902, as the nation was in a party mood preparing to celebrate the coronation of the hugely popular Edward VII, George Martin appeared before the Bow Street Magistrates. He’d been discovered in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. The court heard how he’d attempted to deliver a letter personally to the King. He went on to tell the court that he objected to the extravagance of the planned coronation celebrations and had already posted the King two letters of protest. When he got no reply he decided that the only way he could get his message across was to see the King in person.  Having none of it, the Magistrate declared Martin a lunatic and sent him off to Covent Garden Workhouse. However the workhouse beadle decided the good Reverend wasn’t insane and released him back to his Borough Market ‘parishioners’.

As Southwark began their preparations in earnest for the coronation procession. Southwark Cathedral (then known as St Saviour’s church) commissioned the construction of an immense stand so that borough bigwigs could watch the procession in comfort.

On the morning of June 25th 1902, a Mr H Langston, who was heavily involved in the building of the stand and the festivities that went with it was in his office at the Southwark Street Hop Exchange when, what he thought was a Borough Market coster walked in and handed him a letter. It was in fact, the Reverend George Martin wearing his trademark cord trousers, green frock coat and heavy boots. In the letter Martin strongly protested to the erection of the cathedral stand, stating it was a desecration and that the Lord’s house ‘should not encourage the payment of large sums for such a purpose while so many of its members have not the necessaries of life’. George Martin then suggested he would carry out the Lord’s work by blowing up the stand and ‘strike a blow for Christ’. Mr Langston called the Police.

Once again Martin was up in court, this time charged with threats to kill! As he stood in the dock he closed his eyes and prayed for his fellow prisoners. Then pleaded guilty to all charges. Incredibly, he was released, bound over to keep the peace.

Despite George Martin’s objections, spectator’s stands were put up. St. George the Martyr in Borough High Street was one of the many churches that erected a stand and must have looked very grand in the sunshine covered in bunting and flowers.

The day of the coronation finally arrived, a fine day; a day of parasols, parades and parties. Tubas, trombones and drums sparkled in the sun as brass bands played a selection of patriotic tunes. Kids danced around in the street as parents sat outside the pub with a glass of stout and a pint of whelks. Women wore their finest clothes and fancy hats while their other halves sweltered in their Sunday best. Local regiments marched past in full uniform and street vendors were busy supplying lemonade and ices to all and sundry. The church bells rang out across the borough; it was a lovely day.

But not everybody could enjoy the fun. Back at Southwark police station, PC Norris was ordered to walk his beat and keep a lookout for Reverend Martin, who by now was known locally as ‘the mad person’. Hot and uncomfortable in his scratchy uniform, he went into the churchyard of St George the Martyr to find a bench to rest for five minutes. As he sat watching the festivities he suddenly recognised a face in the crowd: Reverend George Martin. Quick as a flash he whistled for backup and apprehended the vicar. When searched, a pound of gunpowder and a box of matches were found in his pockets. It transpired that as Southwark Cathedral’s stand had been taken down, the Rev. was intending to blow up St George’s.

For the third time that summer, Martin was in Court. This time he answered charges of possessing gunpowder with the intent to destroy or damage St George the Martyr church and burn, disfigure or do grievous bodily harm. He addressed the court by saying:

‘The stands represent the league between the Church and the more affluent classes, which is at present so great a barrier to a large proportion of the people. That league prevents them from coming – I don’t say back, because they have never been there – but from entering the fold of the true flock of the Church’.

He then pleaded guilty and was remanded in custody to the Old Bailey.

In November he came up for sentencing a changed man. His appearance was pitiful. He was unshaven and gaunt, his shabby market clothes hanging on his thin frame. His voice, which was once described as distinguished and beautiful was now barely audible. The Judge offered to send him to a Home in the Malvern Hills where he could recover from his mental strain but he refused to go. George Martin was sentenced to a month’s imprisonment but he was then released as he had already served this time on remand. Outside the court, Christian friends from back home waited to greet Martin and vowed to help him get over his illness.

Some people had sympathy with Reverend Martin’s mission (although not his methods), as he could see the local people around him struggling to survive in a very poor area whilst the affluent classes got all the benefits.

He was instructed by the Bishop of Rochester to work with the Reverend Henry Pitt, vicar of St Mary Magdalen in the Old Kent Road (known as the ‘pearlies church’) who counselled and guided him. Rev. Pitt’s influence obviously worked because Reverend George Martin went on to do a great deal of good work for the poor in Bermondsey and Southwark. He returned to the Borough Market where he eventually gained the love and respect of the people.

As George Martin committed his life to the welfare of the less fortunate  in that grim corner of London, he eventually became known among the poor parishioners as a ‘modern day St Anthony’. Some said, “He possessed a power for good that was irresistible.”

There was the time a fellow porter’s child fell ill and needed nursing 24 hours a day. It was George Martin who shared the long nights watching over the child with dad until the youngster recovered.

On another occasion, Martin unselfishly, shared his meagre wages with a neighbour who was unable to work because of disability and faced eviction onto the wintery streets along with his hungry family. Martin kept the family fed and sheltered until the father was eventually able to find work.

George Martin always managed to find money for people in need. Those who visited his bleak, bare little room soon understood why he was able to help others. Martin consistently denied himself of all but the barest of necessities. His meal was often just bread and margarine, occasionally supplemented with a few vegetables, maybe scavenged from Borough Market.

At 82 years of age, George Martin died, alone in the solitude of his tiny room.

To the amazement and disbelief of the community, George Martin left an estate valued at well over £40,000. £1000 was to go to St John’s College, Cambridge (where he had obtained his BA and MA) to provide financial support for other Cornish students who were reading for Holy Orders.

He bequeathed the rest to the poor and needy of Southwark.

It’s no wonder that so many back then called him ‘Saint George’.

Foodbank – More Social Justice might just mean less Social Action

A man leaves the Mosaic Church food bank in Coventry earlier this year

This is the 21st Century. We live in a first world nation. Even with the rapid rise of new world economies we are still the seventh richest country on the planet. Yet we have Foodbanks springing up in towns and cities across the nation at a phenomenal rate; something like 200 in the past year. Trussell Trust, probably the biggest food handout charity in the country, has a stated goal to have a food bank in every town. And you can understand why they have that goal. According to the Trussell Trust the number of the UK’s poor and destitute receiving emergency food aid has almost doubled in the past six months.

The trust’s executive chairman, Chris Mould, said in a recent  interview:

“When you’ve got people who are on the margin of just making it and there’s another price rise, another change in their outgoings, they can’t negotiate [the change]… something gives, and it is going to be the food.”

Up and down the country, there are hardworking, selfless Foodbank volunteers who are positive and excited about the work of Foodbank. But should we be positive about people being sustained by food handouts?

The answer has to be, yes and no.

The answer is YES, because some people find themselves in the most desperate of situations and they need urgent help and support. Here’s just one example reproduced from the Swindon Foodbank website:

Ella has been receiving disability allowance for several years due to ill health, including epilepsy, which was thought to be under control. When changes in the Benefits system were recently introduced, the Benefits Office booked a medical check on Ella to reassess her current disability.

Meanwhile pressure at home, including her partner being out of work, lead to Ella’s home life becoming stressful, eventually leading to what appears to have been a relapse in her epilepsy. On the day of the Benefits health check Ella was actually at the hospital, having what was initially thought to be a seizure, which meant she missed the appointment.

Despite supplying proof of the circumstances the Benefits Office stopped all but the very basic benefits because of the missed appointment. Ella and her partner were left really struggling financially to provide for themselves and their three children.

Ella received professional advice, and the case was taken to court. When the case was finally brought before a judge – after nine months – the judge was outraged that the family had been left in such circumstances when it was clear there was a genuine reason for Ella not making the medical appointment. All benefits were reinstated – but this will take a further four weeks to be put in place. Swindon Foodbank has been able to provide regular foodboxes to the family throughout this time.

The answer is also NO, surely Foodbank shames us all? Isn’t it a sad indictment on our nation that people are going without food and having to rely on handouts?  I would’ve thought the goal should be NO Foodbanks needed ANYWHERE in what is one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

According to a report for Coventry University by Hannah Lambie –

The social injustice of having to go to a charitable food project is keenly felt by Foodbank clients. A number of distributors talked about how clients they have referred have been reluctant to go to the Foodbank because it feels like ‘charity’ and one client that was interviewed described how the experience had felt like ‘begging’. Some participants also talked about how hard it was when people are not used to receiving support, or have never sought any kind of ‘help’ before.

Many of the distributors talked about how visiting a Foodbank was ultimately a humiliating and degrading experience for those people that they referred:

‘And I think it, you know people who are as poor as the people who usually need this are actually, they’re knocked down all over the place, so it’s just another humiliating thing to have to do…’ [Social worker from a family support team]

‘It’s because I don’t know, it’s going back to the Victorian era, isn’t it? Asking for more soup please, you know what I mean? It’s degrading to some people, let’s be honest, even if as a criminal he doesn’t want to go out and ask for food, he’d rather you give him money and he goes and purchases food, and going to a food bank, when they hear it’s a charity where they’re going to be given bags of food they think oh my God, have I got to that now? That goes through their head and I say to them beggars can’t be choosers mate’ [Drug worker working with prolific offenders]

So what can we do?

Well the need is obvious and acute so we must continue to meet that need. After all, who wants to see kids going hungry in 21st century Britain? But as we meet the immediate need, let’s also campaign against the injustices that have caused the need. I believe we need to couple our social action with social justice.

Let’s encourage some of those enthusiastic Foodbank volunteers (and others!) from our churches to go on Saturday’s (20 October) TUC organised ‘A Future That Works’ march in central London. Let’s stand together with the nurses and postmen; teaching assistants and street cleaners and their families.  Let’s march together against the injustices that have caused so many people to experience the humiliation of going ‘cap in hand’ for food handouts.

Let’s make our voice heard by the Government ministers who want to cut a further £10billion from the payments made to the most vulnerable and needy. (The same ministers who recently cut the top rate of tax – effectively a benefit for the wealthiest in this nation.)

The church is certainly at the forefront in running foodbanks to meet people’s immediate need.  Shouldn’t the Church also be at the forefront of campaigning against the injustices that caused it?  If we did that, maybe the need wouldn’t be quite so great.

Like the Christian campaigners of old, let’s make our voice heard. Let’s not be docile do-gooders who by default support the injustices being imposed on the weakest and poorest in our society. As we continue to respond to the immediate needs of others let’s also campaign on their behalf.

Remember, God encourages us to: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves;
ensure justice for those being crushed…  speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice” (Proverbs 31)

Not only food for all but also justice for all.

The Challenge of True Diversity

The Blind Beggar Pub, Whitechapel Road, London, E1. William Booth preached his first sermon just outside and where Ronnie Kray shot dead George Cornell.

I’ve known Mike Hewett for well over twenty five years. Mike is a radical and gifted church leader and a good friend! We have quite a lot in common. We both chose to move into inner London to make a positve difference. We’ve both faced the challenges and the rewards of bringing up a family in the inner city. We’ve both experienced the blessings and the heartache of London life. In Mike’s time in London’s east end, he has seen the church he started, grow and multiply into three churches. He has also learnt loads of lessons about culture, class and the church living in Hackney and also having church members spread across east London.

A little while ago, Mike wrote about some of his observations of inner city church life, with particular reference to class diversity.  With his permission I’ve reproduced those blog posts as one article here with a few small amendments, again with his permission.

The greatest challenge an inner city church faces in London is how to be a socially diverse, yet integrated community.

We are in an area with multitudes of the old working class families living in council and housing association flats, the gentry – who comprise young and mobile middle classes – living alongside in the same flats and newer purpose-built gated communities and the wealthy upper class in the few houses and penthouses around.

Add to that cultural mix, the large proportions of Asian, African and Caribbean groups as well as the growing Eastern European and Middle Eastern communities and, hey presto – you have inner city London.

Nowadays a church could well congratulate itself on being culturally diverse and yet still be socially homogenous. Postgraduate Nigerians will have much more in common with other university types (of whatever nationality) than the white English bricklayer has with a white English doctor or schoolteacher.

We need to understand that there are massive differences between the wide variety of social groups represented in the church. Those differences are seen in attitudes to education, raising children, attitudes in marriage, working and careers, spending, saving and handling money, housing, church life – the list could go on!

And then you’ve got huge cultural differences too in all these areas. The challenges are such that a clear decision has to be taken that this is the direction in which a church intends to move – to become a truly diverse church of ‘Jew and gentile, slave and free, male and female’ – (Galatians 3:28). Of course a church can be called to reach just one group – this may reflect the gifting and calling of the leader – But scripture clearly sets out a challenging mandate for real diversity.

Major changes in how we ‘do church’ will be needed if we are to work towards true class diversity. Major adjustments in style will be the order of the day for many churches who intend to work towards this goal. In this country, we are so used to Churches led and attended by the middle-class and educated. What then becomes normal is to focus on university students; to harness the gap year group; costly short term mission trips for youth and the emphasis on a book culture. All these are not wrong in themselves but they do undergird and make patent the focus of the 21st century UK church scene: middle class.

To build a diverse church we need a socially and culturally diverse leadership; a programme to serve non-student youth and a culture that encourages all to seek God and that doesn’t require a university-educated mindset to progress. For many, this will be a huge challenge, the question is: are we up for it?

If not then let’s forget about national revival because if God moves on our nation, more than half the youth will not find a home in our churches and neither will their families.

Surely such diversity is in the heart of God, and surely the Holy Spirit will help us. But – do we want this change? Are we ready for the pain?

It will make for very different churches where I no longer go to meet with my sort of people but rather to face the challenge of sharing life with others not like me! Up for it?

Three Biblical Values

What is the biblical way to build a culturally and socially diverse community? I can see three biblical values that I think we would all agree with in principle. With the Holy Spirit’s help, hopefully we can grow in them.

“Accept (or welcome) one another as Christ has accepted (or welcomed) you for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).

Acceptance of one another in Christ is non negotiable and possibly the theme that holds Paul’s letter to the Romans together. All have sinned, all are justified by grace, all are included in Christ, all have received the Spirit, all are one family in Christ (Jew and non-Jew) – therefore we are to accept one another. Sin is not acceptable but everything outside of sin is acceptable!

Failure to enforce a child’s homework regime; not reading books (including your Bible!); not understanding the preacher on Sundays; not being willing to employ a babysitter outside of the family for midweek activities; not giving by standing order; reading the Sun newspaper; talking during the church meeting and publicly commenting; wearing your money rather than saving it; smoking; wearing tattoos and body piercings; not being able to drive; doing the lottery rather than playing golf are, in the most part not sin and are therefore acceptable behaviour. These things are not to be frowned upon or seen as inferior in the Church. Are you an accepting church? Or would people who choose to live their lives like this find themselves on the fringe, isolated and with no one to talk to in your church?

“As it is there are many parts yet one body” (1 Corinthians 12:20).

One body many gifts – all are gifted so I need everyone. I am not the answer to all – I need others. I am not superior to anyone but have an equal part to play, as all do. That means no one is a ‘project’, though some might need more care and more serving. Despite this, they too have a part to play – and a ministry to me. I need them because I need their gifts as much as they need me even though they practice some or all of the above list. No longer should we speak over people or interrupt their conversations because we believe deep down that they are  inferior to us – nor do we go quiet because people are well spoken and appear cleverer, or have a better-paid job than we do. We are all redeemed sinners with the same Holy Spirit; we are all in the same body; we are all dignified by Christ alone.

“Prefer one another – count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).

This is a price all have to pay for diversity: ‘sacrificial preferring’. So the preaching is less academically stimulating so that all can access it, helping those who do not have English as their first language as well as the less academic thinkers – oh, and that affects worship too in understanding the lyrics of songs. The church meetings become less like school and more like family. But probably not your standard middle-class family. It’s one where people talk loudly, crack jokes and fidget without the headmaster’s stony glare! If school puts many off, then let’s pray church is less like school and more like the temple of the Holy Spirit. He is the one that unites us, not our conformity to a certain view of life. To prefer one another means no class or culture predominates but that Kingdom values set the tone. The ones I’ve outlined above might help with the diversity challenge.

 

Roy Vargerson: beating the bullies; fighting for justice.

 

Roy Vargerson

The history of the trade union movement in this nation has been heavily influenced by Christians. Back in the 1830s, the leader of the ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’, George Loveless, was a Methodist preacher. It was his faith that caused him to fight to see justice done. It led to him and others paying a heavy price as they made a stand against the pitiful wages they received as labourers. Their plight resulted in a national outcry. The fledgling trade union movement came together to fight the worker’s cause. People protested and petitioned parliament. The result was victory and eventually a pardon for the Tolpuddle Six.

Throughout the history of the trade union movement Christians have been some of the most influential; yet today the majority of Christians I meet are opposed to the work of trade unions. Many have an almost dispensationalist view: “We needed unions back then but things are different now.” One church leader commented: “back then the unions fought because of their need, now they fight because of their greed.”

It seems Martyn Lloyd- Jones was right:

Christianity in this country has become a middle-class movement; … far too often, as nonconformist men have got on in the world, and made money and become managers and owners, they have become opponents of the working classes who were agitating for their rights.

As I explored the changing sympathies towards trade unions, I spent some time with Communications Workers Union (CWU) representative, Roy Vargerson. I was keen to find out how Roy, a union rep. and therefore a bogey man in the eyes of many Christians, reconciled his role as a Trade Unionist with his Christianity.

I first met Roy Vargerson when he and his wife walked into church one Sunday about six years ago. I immediately felt at ease in his company. He’s a family man from south London, he likes a laugh and a pint. He’s a man who says it as it is.

Roy originally hailed from Catford, south London, before moving a few short miles to the sprawling 1920s built Bellingham Estate. Roy has worked as a postman in Bermondsey and Rotherhithe for many years and it was here that he became a Christian through the witness of a fellow postman.

‘I was on a BNP hit list!’ He hits me with that early on in the interview. He laughs as he recalls the time he was put on that ‘wanted list’ by BNP sympathisers, Red Watch on the ‘Ayrian Unity’ website. This came about because he had taken part in an anti-fascist march in Lewisham. ‘Red Watch’, presumably with the view of intimidating the individuals concerned, were asking for information on, among other people Roy Vargerson, so he made it easy for them. He phoned them. He told them exactly what he thought of them and told them exactly where they could find him, with an invitation to come round whenever they liked. They didn’t take him up on the offer. Probably for the best!

So how does Roy, a committed Christian, reconcile his faith with his role as a respected trade union official with the CWU?

Roy is genuinely surprised that people struggle to understand that he can be a trade unionist and a Christian. By way of explanation, he throws out a challenge like a boxer throws a left jab: “If you saw somebody lying in the road you’d help them up, wouldn’t you.” A statement not a question. Jab: “If you was at work and saw someone getting bullied you’re going to help them.” Another statement; another jab: “If the bullies are the employers then so be it. I’ll do my best to protect the victims from the bullies.” And over the years Roy’s been very effective at confronting the bullies.

He was warming up now, “What’s wrong with wanting to protect people and ensure they don’t live in poverty.” He gave the example of the well known leader of the RMT, “Bob Crow has negotiated a pretty good deal for his members to work over the Olympics and people complain! I say good luck to them.”

“Don’t tell me that as a trade unionist, I haven’t got the right to stand up for other people, ‘cos I have.” The punches find their target.

We talked about some of the recent changes in employment law. He came out punching again, “The laws in this country are stacked up against working class people.” He continued, “How can it be right that if you started a job after the 6 April 2012, you’ve got to be employed for two years before you can take an employer to court for unfair dismissal?”

“To get justice you have to be rich. If you do want to take someone to tribunal, first of all you have to find a deposit of between £150 and £200. They’ve now introduced what is called a pre-hearing, and if they decide there is a case the judge can make you put down a £1000 before it even goes to court. So if you haven’t got a pound note, that’s where trade unions come in, they can cover the cost.” He looks me in the eye, “Is that right or is that wrong?”

Roy went on to say that there are some fellow Christians who “just don’t get it” when it comes to his role but there are others who’ve gone much further and shown overt opposition towards trade unions. He gave a clear example from a number of years ago. An influential church leader was preaching at a summer bible camp when he stated unecivocally that the Trade Union movement is a tool of the devil!

“They’re a tool of the devil them trade unions, aren’t they?” said Roy with more than a hint of sarcasm. “Look what they’re doing – they’re helping people out!”

I was slightly surprised to learn that Roy hadn’t been interested in union involvement until AFTER he became a Christian.

“Within a month of getting saved I was involved in the union and within a year of becoming involved I was the local rep for Rotherhithe. And three years after that I was doing this job – the job I’m doing now.” (South East Regional Rep.) Roy has now been in that elected post for nearly twenty years, representing more than 3000 members – the majority are postmen, but there also Post Office counter staff, cooks, cleaners and retired members.

Roy maybe serious about his job but he’s  lost none of his sense of humour even after all those years of advocacy. Although it must be said that his humour is more ‘Old School’ than ‘Politically Correct’.

“You’ve got to have a sense of humour doing this job. Good union blokes have turned to alcohol, some have seen their marriages split up.” He paused. “They need Jesus.” Roy continued in this suddenly serious vein, “To so many Union reps., this job is their life. To me it’s more than a job but it’s not my life.”

We talked about the changes he’s seen over the years and with compelling logic Roy argued for a re-nationalised Post Office: “The Post Office in the country used to be a service;  non-profit making, any profit was ploughed back into the business and it worked. Now we have share holders and people have forgotten about the service. Now profit means everything. The only way to produce more profit is to reduce the number of people who work here – reducing the people who work here means a reduction in the level of service you get.”

I asked if the average Postman is better off today compared to twenty years ago?

“No, postman’s money in inner London now is something like £462 a week before stoppages. You can’t run a family on that. Years ago you could bump your money up with negotiated overtime but there are no incentives now. People were very quick to moan about the postman going home a bit early because he’d finished his work an hour or two quicker than was allocated. But it was a very long time before they started complaining about the Bankers working practices. And it was a long time before people started moaning about MPs fiddling their expenses?”

“Everyone is entitled a living wage, and a living wage ain’t £5.80 an hour.(the postmans lower rate) I’m surprised that so many people don’t see that I’m fighting for justice.”

He related an incident which still bothers him a bit: A church leader spoke to him once, laughing, “I see your boys are out on strike again.” Roy countered, “So you think that it’s amusing that people are losing money do you?” The man said no more, he turned on his heels and walked away.

“I know I joke a lot but representing people is a serious issue; defending people’s rights is a serious issue. And when people make stupid remarks like [the unions] are a tool of the devil and all that nonsense, they’re talking out of complete ignorance.”

I expect more of Christians I suppose, I expect Christians to be more sympathetic towards people’s needs and I expect them to at least attempt to understand when we withdraw our labour that it’s a last resort by people on low wages, in order to improve their lot. To say to someone who earns 400 quid a week, give up £100 of that this week and probably the same for the next few weeks, it’s a massive thing. Don’t believe what you read in the papers about the Trade Unions, if you do, you’re a fool.”

Roy Vargerson threw the ‘punch’ he used in the first ’round’ of our encounter: “If you saw someone kicking another person in the street you wouldn’t walk past them… would you?”

I’d like to think I wouldn’t walk past. I’d like to think I’d stand up for what is right. I’d like to think that, like Roy Vargerson and George Loveless, I’d stand up for justice whatever the cost.

Tommy Medhurst, Bermondsey Boy

Thomas Medhurst (front right) C H Spurgeon (front, 2nd left) 1888

When C H Spurgeon moved from rural Cambridgeshire to the sour streets of Southwark, no one could have forseen the furore he was going to cause or the instant impact his preaching was going have. Even at the tender age of twenty-two, thousands of Londoners were flocking to hear this ‘Prince of Preachers’. For decades his sermons were published on a weekly basis. By the time of his death in 1892, 50 million copies had been sold. His sermons were published in forty languages. He had a global impact long before the internet age.

Famously, as minister of the Metropolitan Tabernacle at the Elephant and Castle, he presided over what was then the largest church congregation in the world. But it was at the New Park Street Chapel close to Southwark Bridge, south of the river, where his London ministry began. Although a new building, the chapel, was surrounded by a mix of slum housing, enormous breweries, vinegar factories and boiler works. Spurgeon described the area as ‘dim, dirty and destitute.’

It was here that the young Spurgeon first gained renown and it was here that Tommy Medhurst first heard the great man preach.

Thomas William Medhurst grew up on the mean streets of Bermondsey, he didn’t get much in the way of formal education but schooling wasn’t really relevant to his work as a rope maker’s apprentice. As a rope maker Medhurst’s neighbours would have known his trade without having to ask him; rope makers always carried with them the aroma of the tar that they used to water proof the hemp ropes the made in those victorian rope factories. As an apprentice he would be ‘bound to his master’ for a fixed term, usually seven years. All for a few shillings a week and a pair of shoes each year if he was lucky.

Tommy Medhurst’s lack of schooling didn’t stop him writing to C H Spurgeon at New Park Street Chapel after hearing him preach, anxiously asking:

‘How am I to find Jesus? How am I to know that He died for me?’ Spurgeon took time out from his busy schedule to respond to his request. At the close of his letter Spurgeon said: ‘There is the cross, and a bleeding God-man upon it; look to Him and be saved! There is the Holy Spirit able to give you every grace. Look, in prayer, to … God, and then you will be delivered.’

Medhurst did indeed ‘look to Christ’ and receive salvation, to Spurgeon’s great delight. The two men met, and Spurgeon had the joy of baptising the new convert, who joined New Park Street. The year was 1854.

Immediately Medhurst began preaching on those grim, polluted streets surrounding the chapel. He was full of passion but some New Park Street members who heard him didn’t approve, they were shocked at what they called his ‘want of education’ and his standard of spoken English left something to be desired. They felt strongly enough to complain to the pastor Mr. Spurgeon. Medhurst should be stopped! they raged. when Spurgeon met to discuss their compaints against him, Medhurst’s response was to say: ‘I must preach… and I shall preach unless you cut off my ‘ead!’ Spurgeon was suitably impressed and it was agreed that decapitation wasn’t neccessary!

Soon, people were converted through the young man’s street preaching and joining the New Park Street congregation. Spurgeon took notice and told Medhurst he believed God was calling him to be a preacher and a pastor. The logical next step would be for Medhurst to go to college. However for many in the Victorian age (and today for that matter!), Medhurst would have been seen as unsuitable ministry material. Spurgeon, however, thought differently. He would train him and eventually the college he established would take many more like him. To this day, they equip them to serve churches and reach countless communities with the gospel.

Spurgeon, himself did not have any formal training before he became a minister. But he understood that he was an unusual character, and that others would benefit from some theological education. He certainly believed this was important for Medhurst. But what was the best way forward for his friend?

The outspoken Spurgeon was unimpressed by the various bible colleges of his day. In his view they downplayed the robust biblical theology which he adhered to. They were often too focused on the academic and not enough on the practical issues of mission and ministry.

For Tommy Medhurst, there would be additional problems. Colleges were expensive, and they assumed that their students would have already acheived a good standard of formal education. On both counts the rough young street preacher would struggle. Spurgeon decided he would train Medhurst himself. So, in July 1855, Thomas Medhurst began to study under Spurgeon’s supervision, with the pastor paying for Medhurst’s board and lodging out of his own pocket.

So, T W Medhurst became C H Spurgeon’s first-ever student. Medhurst didn’t remain on the grim streets of Southwark, his ministry expanded, he went on to pastor churches in Kingston, west London, Coleraine in Ireland, Glasgow in Scotland and Portsmouth on the south coast. During his ministry, the apprentice rope maker from Bermondsey, who’s standard of spoken English had so shocked the members of  his first church, had personally baptised almost 1,000 converts.

This acount of an almost anonymous character like Tommy Medhurst should challenge us today.

It would be gratifying to see more men and women emulating the young C H Spurgeon and be willing to exchange the comparative comfort of Cambridgeshire and similar places, for some of this nations neglected communities. Communities up and down the country from which Christians seem to have fled and then forgotten. Communites that are suffering because the traditional industries which the communities grew around have all but vanished. The jobs in which a man could take pride are hardly there any more. In some places we see generational unemployment. Little or no money; little or no hope. These communities are today’s equivelant of those vile victorian slums whose conditions shocked so many into action. Who will be motivated to go to them today with the same message of hope and good news that Spurgeon and Medhurst preached so passionately?

When it comes to potential preachers and pastors, let’s emulate the vision of C H Spurgeon and not discount people because of their lack of formal education, their limited vocabulary or their accent.  Preacher and blogger Lex Loizides put it like this:

We mustn’t overlook those who have been transformed into leaders by ‘grace and grit’, and who like Peter and the other apostles, might be considered ‘unlearned men’, or ‘unschooled, ordinary men’, as the Bible puts it (see Acts 4:13). We might be missing some ‘mighty men’.

We would have to put aside John Bunyan, Howell Harris, William Carey, DL Moody, Elijah Cadman, CH Spurgeon (perhaps the most remarkable example of self-education in a Christian leader), Smith Wigglesworth and a host of others – in fact, we might question God as to why He made His Son an apprentice labourer rather than a college lecturer!

Bermondsey Boy, Tommy Medhurst must have been an attentive student as he’d obviously taken on some of the traits of his mentor: Spurgeon once went to take a service at a place where Medhurst was well known, but where he himself had rarely preached. At the close of the service he overheard the following conversation:

‘Well, how did you like Mr Spurgeon?’

‘Oh, very well; but I would have enjoyed the service more if he hadn’t imitated our dear Mr Medhurst so much!’

Forty Years at the Fisher

Kate Hoey MP presents Steve Hiser with his well deserved award

I’m a trustee of Fisher Amateur Boxing Club and over the years I’ve developed a real affection for the club and those connected to it. The Fisher is a club with a rich and illustrious history; it has stirred emotions and occupied a special place in the history of Bermondsey for over one hundred years.

Ex-Fisher boxer, Tony Whatley, in his book ‘Ghosts of the Fisher’, reflected on his time at the gym in the early 60s:

“The Fisher Club in those days was considered to be a very good club with a reputation for producing some really first-rate boxers… To belong to the Fisher Club gave one a very special feeling…”

The current head coach Steve Hiser, boxed for the Fisher at the same time as Whatley. Hiser has been connected with the club for more than fifty-six years, first as a teenage boxer and then as a coach. He has a fierce love and loyalty for the Fisher. His staying power, servant heart and commitment to the club are a provocation to anyone involved in amateur sport or community work of any description.

Steve Hiser’s selflessness and hard work was publically and deservedly acknowledged recently at a charity boxing show in London’s east end when he was presented with the London Federation of Sports and Recreation Platinum Award for forty years of service to amateur sport by Kate Hoey MP.

In the world of football, Sir Alex Ferguson has few peers; he has been manager of Manchester United for 26 years winning trophies and plaudits at the highest level. But his longevity at the top of his chosen sport pales into insignificance when compared to Steve Hiser.

Steve is approaching his 40th year coaching at the highest level with the Fisher. His tenure has seen the club go through an extended era of success. Hiser has had national champions and England internationals throughout his incumbency giving him a reputation as one of the most respected coaches in the history of the sport.

Steve Hiser is as enthusiastic about the club now as he was way back in 1973 when he first started coaching: “I love it here,” Hiser said “The camaraderie, the atmosphere – it’s fantastic. It’s just one big family here.”

Hiser remembers his own career well. You only have to look at him to know he’s an ex-boxer. The nose took some punishment during his pro career as a promising welterweight – which was cut short by a gash above his left eye which refused to heal properly. “I thought I was pretty good”, said Hiser. “I won my first eight fights and in my ninth I was cut in the first round and my corner pulled me out. In my next fight the same cut opened. I gave it a rest, but I just never went back.”

Originally from Deptford, Hiser fell in love with boxing at the age of five, when he would crawl underneath the tarpaulin sides of a boxing booth on Evelyn Street enthralled by the spectacle. “I loved the smells of the resin, and the colours of the shorts and the atmosphere” said Hiser, “It was brilliant – I was hooked.”

He started boxing at 11, and in 1956, aged 15, he joined Fisher. He spent nine happy years there as a boxer. Then in 1973 after a spell coaching at Eltham, he was persuaded to return to his old club. Hiser accepted, and one of the first young fighters to come under his wing was a twelve year old from Walworth by the name of Lloyd Honeyghan.

“I liked the look of him,” said Hiser. “He looked very strong, and was very, very keen. He was always here when I told him to be and he was dedicated. We took him to a show inEssex, and he was brilliant. When Honeyghan was 16, I took him to face a guy called McGarry in Coventry in the Feds final. Their fighter was a red-hot local favourite, and we were really going into the lions’ den. Lloyd matched him and then beat him. It was a great performance.”

Honeyghan is in no doubt how important Hiser was to him: “I wanted him to be my trainer when I turned pro, but he is so dedicated to the amateurs he stayed at the club. He should have been made the national coach, and it’s a shame that never happened. He is so knowledgeable. He is without a doubt the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Four times world title contender Mickey Cantwell, is another big fan of the trainer: “he is a real character” said Cantwell who was with Hiser for four years from the age of 22. “I respect him so much because he’s been there and done it himself. He knows how hard it is. He is one of the best trainers inBritain, without a doubt, but he is one of the few trainers in the game who is in it for the boys.” “I boxed for England and fought for two ABA titles under Steve. He is a tremendous man,” Cantwell added.

Middleweight Jake Brown, 23, one of the current crop of Fisher fighters said of Steve,

 When I was sixteen, I wasn’t doing much with my life, I used to hang around outside the boxing club most evenings causing mischief. One evening Steve came out and told me I didn’t have any ‘bottle’. The next night I decided to go in the gym and prove him wrong. It was one of the best things I ever did. I loved the atmosphere of the gym and the boxing gave me focus and direction for my life and really helped to straighten me out.” Brown continued, “I’ve had some success with the Fisher: London novice finalist twice and represented London against the Army but I’ve come a long way since I first went in the gym. I’m happily married now with two children and working as a firefighter. Steve Hiser has had a massive impact on my life.

Hiser strongly believes that success as a coach is not just measured in winning titles but in young people’s lives positively changed by their time in the gym. Steve understands that the young boxers need to take the work ethic, respect for others and the discipline of the gym and use it to be successful in life. He will give equal time and respect to a raw novice straight off the street as to a national champion.

One incident sticks in my mind: When a visitor to the gym praised Steve for his successes, especially with Lloyd Honeyghan; Hiser pointed at one of youngest and newest boxers in the gym gruffly stating, “He’s just as important as Honeyghan”.

It is hard to think of Manchester United Football Club without Sir Alex Ferguson at the helm. It would be equally difficult to imagine Fisher Amateur Boxing Club without Steve Hiser; even though Steve is quick to say that no one person is bigger than the club.

Anthony Whatley described a nostalgic visit he made to the Fisher a few years ago:

I was so glad I made the sentimental journey to the Fisher Club as I feel that it has played an important part in my life. It has certainly played an important part in Stevie Hiser’s life. His love for the sport was indeed clear to see. He has truly earned the respect from the lads at the club which, in fact, was the first thing I noticed on entering the gym. 

The journey from Steve Hiser’s home in Welling up to the Bermondsey gym doesn’t get any easier. “It’s hard sometimes,” he says. “But working with these kids is a pleasure. And they are good kids… I love it here don’t I?”

What’s a Saveloy?

Saveloy and Chips

The other day, I was queuing in my local chip shop. While I was waiting for my cod and chips I overheard a conversation behind me that would have caused me to choke on my chips if they weren’t still in the fryer.

It went like this: One posh student type to another posh student type who needed a good haircut: “I think I’ll have a savaloy.” The response from Posh Boy Haircut: “What’s a saveloy?” WHAT’S A SAVELOY?! Posh Boy honestly didn’t know what a savaloy was! He had gone through twenty odd years of life not knowing about that particular culinary delight. I suppose that’s what happens when a community like Bermondsey experiences gentrification.

Jamie Keddie gave a helpful definition of gentrification in his paper “Spatiality in Gentrifying London: The Case of Bermondsey.” He desribed it as:

“where an influx of middle class residents to a working class neighbourhood brings shifts to the social composition, built form and consumption patterns.”

Advertising literature designed to promote Bermondsey to the thrusting, upward and mobile, speaks of “The vibrancy and creativity of the area” while at the same time reassuring the more prosperous prospective incomers that, actually Bermondsey is not like it used to be:

“Once the home of Dickensian villains, Bermondsey has reinvented itself and become the epicentre of an explosion of mouth watering culture.”

That promised explosion of mouth watering culture, in reality offers a luxury lifestyle that barely touches Bermondsey’s apparent edginess. This becomes obvious as the advertisers go on to mention the high end… “bars next to museums . . . a boutique hotel nestling next to a cinema”.  It’s all designed to appeal to the gentrifiers’ cultural collateral; not to the locals. Whereas the existing traditional shops that are unlikely to appeal to the tastes of the new residents are re-imagined as quaint novelties. Who of the middle class incomers would frequent Manze’s Pie ‘n’ Mash Shop?

The market stalls of Tower Bridge Road have all gone but the newly gentrified Bermondsey Square now boasts a farmer’s market, with stalls selling overpriced organic produce for the middle classes. Established communities are being displaced and diluted by the advance of gentrification. Displaced by people who generally don’t care for, or connect with the old working class ways. Diluted by people who work and socialise in a different way and in different places. Cultural apartheid?

Gentrification doesn’t stop with where people live or how they spend their money. We see gentrification in other areas of society.

In the UK we see it in an increasingly gentrified middle-class media who very effectively keep the working classes from choosing journalism as a career path by running extended intern programmes. These programmes weed out those who don’t have independent means to support them through those internships. Typically, the working class.

We’re also seeing the ‘gentrification’ of government. We have progressively posher politicians. Should we be surprised? After all, we have a government led by Old Etonians. The last time I looked there were twelve (including the Prime Minister) in cabinet posts who wear that exclusive old school tie. On top of that, according to one estimate, there are 22 millionaires in cabinet.  Recent research conducted by Policy Exchange seems to confirm that gentrification:

In 1979, almost 40% of Labour MPs had done manual or clerical work. In 2010, it was only 9%. Over the same period, the number of Labour MPs who were journalists and broadcasters more than doubled, and 11% of all MPs now have a background in PR and marketing (this was close to zero in 1979). Sixty per cent of government ministers, 54% of Conservative MPs and 40% of Liberal Democrat MPs attended fee-paying schools, compared with only 7% of the population.

Is it any wonder that our government and media often don’t seem to have a clue when it comes to the values and culture of ordinary working class communities.

Thirdly we see the impact of gentrification when we look at the church in this nation. Churches today are being gentrified in much the same way as the traditional working class communities: Wealthier people move in, resulting in the displacement of the poorer indigenous people. Church begins to cater for those wealthy, successful, influential types; this further increases the appeal to more affluent migrants while decreasing accessibility to the poorer. So often we gauge success by how many prosperous people attend our meetings and by our increasingly luxurious auditoriums, our high tech multi-media set up and professional musicianship. Church is getting posher, it’s being gentrified. Tim Chester in his blog put it like this:

Many of the divisions within evangelicalism are as much about social class as theological differences. Historically this was case in the split between ‘church’ and ‘chapel’. But it persists today: in one direction people are seen as vulgar; in the other direction people are seen as snobbish.

This class consciousness runs deep in British evangelicalism, Why does this matter? It matters because we are failing to reach the British working class with the gospel. Evangelicalism has become a largely middle class, professional phenomenon. When we invite people to our dinners and our guest services, we invite our friends, our relatives and our rich neighbours. We do not invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. What is at stake is the grace of God.

I was talking with a prominent evangelical church leader and asked him why more people did not adopt a household model of church. The church leader was candid in his reply: ‘Because people like me come from professional backgrounds and we want churches that reflect our backgrounds. I don’t want to be opening my home to people. I don’t want to get involved in people’s lives. I don’t want needy people in my church. Before people like me went into Christian ministry we were lawyers, doctors, businessmen. And when we get involved in ministry we bring those values with us. We want to lead growing churches with professional people, church administrators, healthy budgets. We want church to be a well run organisation with polished presentations.’

A friend of mine described the gentrification of the church she is part of. A church that mutated from being a community of people, meeting in rented halls and being accessible to the poorer and marginalised in society, a bit rough round the edges; to a professional looking conference centre full of mobile middle class Christians.  They raised the money to buy a new building on the outskirts of town and spent lots more money to renovate it. They achieved the desired image. An image that appeals to the professional classes. The bespoke parquet flooring, the hardwood doors the cool lampshades. The poorer people in the centre of town can’t or won’t travel the extra distance to meetings. The result? A gentrified church.

There’s a wide spread idea (often churned out by a gentrified government and regurgitated by large sections of a gentrified media) that the old working class has collapsed into some morally debauched, feckless, workshy mob. This is a myth that needed exposing. It’s as if the real working class culture and values are being airbrushed out of existence.

As Christians, we must not relate to the working classes in the same way as the ‘gentrifiers’. They either completely ignore working class culture or are condescending and patronizing toward it. Most churches today find little problem in accepting the reality of different racial and ethnic groups. So why should we find it difficult to accept the reality of different social classes within our own British society?

Society in modern Britain is acutely divided by wealth and power.  Haves and have-nots. Country Estate and sink estate. Why does the church in modern Britain seem to focus it’s best efforts on the financially secure? Why do we consistently go to the nice areas and the ‘nice’ people? Why do we think we’ll change the culture of the nation by only attempting to influence business leaders, politicians and media moguls?

By the way, according to the ever reliable wikipedia, saveloy is a type of highly seasoned sausage, usually bright red in colour, which is typically available in English fish and chips shops… The word is assumed to originate from the Swiss-French cervelas or servelat, ultimately from the Latin cerebrus; originally a pig brain sausage … Mmm nice.

 

My Two Square Miles of London (Parts Two & Three)

Abbey Street 1925, the Star Cinema is on the right.

Can’t you people wait? Patience is a virtue you know!  Because of the unprecedented pressure from people clamouring to read the next instalments of ‘My Two Square Miles of London’, I’ve posted both the remaining sections on here. I’ve been really pleased with the fantastic feedback received for the first part. Like a lot of people, I would love to see this book out there in a printed format. In the mean time we’ll have to be content with the virtual version while we put the pressure on to get it published. Happy reading!

My Two Square Miles of London (Part Two, chapters 11-16)

Open publication – Free publishingMore bermondsey

 

My Two Square Miles of London (Part Three, chapters 17-20)