Over the last few years I’ve noticed several key strands emerging in relation to thinking about the nature and role of ‘Church’ in the 21st century….At one end of the spectrum we find attempts to re-assert a ‘church-centric’ postmodern Christian vision which arguably eschews serious engagement with the social sciences and is wary of faith groups partnering with government. We could think of this as an ecclesiology of/for the ‘big society’, a new ‘Christendom’ or what has become known as ‘radical orthodoxy’ (seen for example in the work of John Millbank). At a grassroots level it’s possible to see some linkage between these ideas and what has become known as ‘emergent church’. At the other end of the same spectrum we see the emergence of an alternative ‘post-secular’ theological narrative within which ‘Church’ finds its space as part of a network (or perhaps rhizome) of narratives of meaning in a society that has become increasingly suspicious of organized religion of any sort. We might call this ‘third space’ ecclesiology (seen perhaps in the work of Chris Baker) – more ‘Occupy’ than ‘big society’. As the place of faith in the public sphere has once again become a central political question the Christian community in the UK finds itself at a watershed moment. These two strands of political theology continue to stimulate challenging discussions about the future for faith in the 21st century. And yet both approaches leave me feeling uneasy for three reasons.
First, whilst at a personal level those associated with these perspectives are often involved in ‘hands-on’ activism both narratives appear disengaged from the raw underside of contemporary urban society, from the disturbing and creative messy stories within which grassroots communities find and make their own meaning. The urban theorist Leonie Sandercock speaks about the ways in which organic humanistic spiritualities emerge from the backstreets of our urban world. I think that’s what I’m looking for – a ‘bottom-up’ political theology for the 21st century that is more interested in people than dogma.
Second, I’m uneasy because the big debates I very briefly hinted at above don’t seem to engage with the real lives of a huge chunk of UK society – people who have got no time at all for organized/formal religion but are not ‘post-secular’ because they were never ‘secular’. Let me explain quickly what I mean by referring to my own experience. For the last 18 months I’ve been working alongside unemployed 16-24 year old young men on a large housing estate in Birmingham. The so-called ‘N.E.E.Ts’ (not in employment, education or training) that provide convenient (but flawed and one-dimensional) symbols of what David Cameron has called ‘broken Britain’….The young men that I’ve got to know have got no time for organized religion – that’s for other, older, richer, more powerful people, not them (they say). And yet these young men do not reject the possibility of ‘God’, just Her/His presence in their neighbourhood (one of the 2% most deprived in England in 2011). Theirs is a spirituality characterized by solidarity, anti-racist inclusivity, resistance, creativity and hope. It is no more ‘post secular’ or ‘third space’ than it is ‘radically orthodox’ but it’s the world and the narrative of meaning of an urban world that ‘top down’ theologies just don’t touch.
Third, I feel uneasy with current theological narratives because their carefully honed and thoughtful arguments fail to connect with a ‘post-literate’ culture where truth, meaning and identity are more often encased within images and the oft-derided popular culture as Gordon Lynch has argued. Yes, of course popular culture can be reduced to the bubble gum pop of X Factor or to the tabloid TV of Big Brother, but it can also be a vehicle for the exploration and expression of alternative narratives of meaning and ‘bottom-up’ protest. Over recent months I’ve been thinking more and more about images – the part they play in the life of the city, in our definition of who we are and in spirituality. Might it be the case, as Tom Beaudoin wondered that popular culture may, in fact, represent a ‘surrogate clergy’ in the 21st century?
As part of my work alongside unemployed young men we have drawn on their use of graffiti art to explore their ideas about social exclusion, identity, truth and resistance to negative stereotyping. Working alongside the Muslim graffiti artist Mohammed Ali the young men have created a huge ‘Bromford Dreams’ cube which juxtaposes images of exclusion, powerlessness and a sense of being forgotten with images of hope, solidarity, prayer and resistance. The cube which has sat proudly on the Bromford estate for the last month has now been brought to the campus of the University of Birmingham. We have brought the urban edge into the urban centre. The art of young men who are often written off now stands alongside the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. The art of young men who say ‘God doesn’t live round here’ will be seen by the Archbishop of Canterbury as Rowan Williams visits the University to give a lecture – the edge meets the centre…
In the face of debates about the place of faith in a plural public sphere and discussions amongst advocates of radical orthodoxy and post-secularism the aerosol icon created by unemployed young men offers an alternative model of urban spirituality that is messy, unfinished, organic and subversive. Might such a narrative present a more disturbing, challenging and creative ecclesiological future than big ideas, however well argued?