Jonny Baker, director of Mission Education at Church Mission Society, recently reviewed the first two books of the Mission in Marginal Places series, The Theory & The Praxis for Anvil, a journal of theology and mission.

RS40062_United_Kingdom_Staff_98434-scr-300x300These two books are the first in a series of six books exploring mission in marginal places. It is an ambitious and welcome project and has real bite to it. That comes from a number of things that combine together well.

It is practical theology driven by real questions arising from a struggle to live out a life of faith and mission at the margins in challenging contexts in communities that seek to bring challenge to the powers and hope in the midst of struggle. What does it means to be a community of Christ followers that live out of an alternative imagination in such places? In other words it is not simply a theoretical exercise – it cuts much deeper than that and the stakes for the writers are much higher, they are about how to live life itself. But the theory engaged with is plentiful, at depth and is informed like nearly all the best missiology from a number of disciplines – theology, biblical studies, mission studies and the social sciences. These are set in conversation with one another and with the lived experience and it is this mix that is energizing. The engagement with the social sciences draws on very current ideas and conversations in a very helpful way. As you might expect with a range of views from the edges there is plenty of critique offered of current ways of framing mission, theology, ecclesiology with its tendencies to create binary oppositions and obsession with growth and sustainability.

Language makes the world in particular ways and one of things I found particularly interesting is how at pains the writers are to speak appropriately about and within the places that are marginal. Tone and posture counts for so much. Power and domination and how they are handled are a huge part of mission. This concern for speech leads to some delightful insights and theologizing. For example in the second book the way of speaking about Christ, mission and church in relation to the environment and making church on brownfield land is creative and profound. I also appreciated that this is a British series and the places and practice do not come from the USA or elsewhere. It’s grit Brit mission which is refreshing!

The titles of the two books are actually somewhat misleading as both engage significantly with both theory and praxis.  But the first is in three sections exploring mission and marginality, mission and neighbor, and mission and God (though I thought it was as much about how to live, how Christian faith is practiced) with a range of authors and then the editors discussing that section by way of a reflection on it. The second tackles five realms in which mission praxis is considered – ecomonic, political, social, environmental and creative/artistic. Each section has a more theoretical chapter followed by a couple of case studies and then a reflection from the editors.

It is clear that there is beneath this series a learning community who are researching and reflecting seriously on an area of mission practice together. There is huge energy and insight here for those with ears to ear and I hope it is not simply read by those living in marginal spaces because it is as much a book that is relevant to the wider  changing landscape of post welfare, austerity, post truth, challenges around immigration and so on that affects us all seeking to follow Christ whatever church and place we are part of. I am looking forward to the rest of the series which engages with stories, spiritual landscapes, the powers and living the peaceful way. In a word brilliant!

More info on how you can purchase these two books can be found here.

My Cathedral City

bb1 One of the exciting things we do at Urban Life is organise Theology-to-Go groups in cities across the UK. These groups allow urban Christian practitioners to get together with other practitioners in their area and theologically reflect on various issues their local context are facing.

Bob Baxter, one of of our Theology-to-Go participants in Glasgow, has been creative in his reflections as he wrote a poem about it. You can hear his poem  My Cathedral City here:


Some notes on the poem provided by Bob:

Jenny Geddes (c. 1600 – c. 1660) was a Scottish market-trader in Edinburgh, who is alleged to have thrown her stool at the head of the minister in St Giles’ Cathedral in objection to the first public use of the Anglican Book of Prayer in Scotland. The act is reputed to have sparked the riot which led to the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, which included the English Civil War

The first use of the prayer book was in St Giles’ on Sunday 23 July 1637, when James Hannay, Dean of Edinburgh, began to read the Collects, part of the prescribed service, and Jenny Geddes, a market-woman or street-seller, threw her stool straight at the Minister’s head. Some sources describe it as a “fald stool” or a “creepie-stool” meaning a folding stool as shown flying towards the Dean in the illustration, while others claim that it was a larger, three-legged cuttie-stool. As she hurled the stool she is reported to have yelled:De’il gie you colic, the wame o’ ye, fause thief; daur ye say Mass in my lug?” meaning “Devil cause you colic in your stomach, false thief: dare you say the Mass in my ear?”.


Launching New Book Series

Missional in Marginal Places - The Theory

Missional in Marginal Places - The TheoryUrban Life is pleased to be launching a series of books in conjunction with Paternoster Press. The books in this series will explore doing mission in marginalised places.

To celebrate the launch of the Mission in Marginal Places series, we will be releasing the first book in the series, Mission in Marginal Places: The Theory in Birmingham on Saturday 15 October at the Urban Expression Community weekend held at the International Mission Centre. For more info about the weekend, go here.

Introducing the Mission in Marginal Places series

Christian mission is facing critical challenges. Diverse, complex and rapidly changing contexts raise fundamental questions about the theology and practice of mission. The vision behind this series is to engage afresh with these questions in a way that will help to equip Christian communities of all kinds to develop mission in their own particular location.

The series incorporates a number of distinctive elements that it sees as critical for contemporary mission. Firstly that Christian mission must give priority to those on the margins of society and that questions of ‘difference’ must therefore be a guiding consideration in all aspects. Secondly, mission must be predicated on a practical or ‘lived’ theology which grapples with the actual experiences of life in a broad range of contexts. And thirdly, to be both rigorous and credible, mission studies must be in dialogue with the social sciences where much can be learned about the context for mission in relation to, for example, globalisation, shifting experiences of ‘place’ and ‘space’, self-other relationships, urban studies and changing patterns of marginalisation.

At heart, our intention is to help readers ground such theology and understandings into their own personal journey; to reflect on the character and spiritualities needed to sustain such an embodied and highly contextual approach to mission; and to help develop rhythms and practices to enable such engagement.

Forthcoming books in series:
  • Paul Cloke & Mike Pears (eds), Mission in Marginal Places: the Theory (2016)
  • Paul Cloke & Mike Pears (eds), Mission in Marginal Places: the Praxis (2016)
  • Paul Cloke & Mike Pears (eds) Mission in Marginal Places: the Stories (2017)
  • Paul Cloke & Mike Pears, Exploring Spiritual Landscapes: Mission in Marginal Places (2017)
  • Mike Pears, The Peaceful Way: Mission in Marginal Places (2018)
  • Mike Pears, Placing the Powers: Mission in Marginal Places (2018)


Seven Years Living on Knowle West Estate – Bristol

Mike Pears, director of Urban Life, takes some time to reflect on being a faithful presence on the Knowle West Estate in Bristol with others.

Daventry_Road_03We are just celebrating seven years of living on the Knowle West Estate. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this is that a bunch of us are still here and trying our best to be some kind of Christian community. Much has happened and we could tell many stories. One thing we find ourselves reflecting on is the ongoing sense of surprise about how much living here has changed us – after seven years some of us are not sure we could stomach a move back to the ‘leafy suburbs’! (although we wouldn’t say no to a few more leafy trees in Knowle) It has changed the way we listen to the news, the things we prioritise, the way we see other people and the way we see ourselves. Significantly it has also changed the way we understand Jesus and seek to follow him.

So living on the estate continues to challenge and teach us. It raises fundamental questions about life and faith and certainly leaves us with a sense of uncertainty about where this journey will take us in the next seven years.

It has been really great to connect with lots of people from around the country living on similar estates (or in Scotland ‘schemes’). It was fascinating to be with a group of about 20 people this week from estates across Birmingham. In conversation we identified six key areas that are a common part of the experience for those seeking to minister estates; the language might be a bit awkward, but if you are involved with an estate in any way you will catch the sense of what is being expressed here:

  • challenges of investing in ‘local’ people in the hope they will take on leadership when they themselves are often facing so many serious difficulties.
  • how to respond as a Christian in the face of multiple, complex needs (physical and mental health, finance, housing, relationships).
  • how to think about change or the transformation of people’s lives. Comments were made that ‘change is very slow and it is difficult to be patient’ and it is difficult to know how to talk about conversion when faced with such pressing immediate needs.
  • how are estates changing? We know they are not all the same, but they are changing in ways that bring new unknown experiences and added anxiety to daily life.
  • work-load of ministers and priests in estates; ministers often have two or even more estates to ‘look after’ with low levels of financial and people support.
  • questions about how do we ‘do church’ on estates when it ‘feels like things are not moving’ and ‘people not becoming Christians’. Do we need to rethink?
  • w do we imagine the kingdom of God in estates? What does hope look like here? What can estates teach the wider church about the kingdom?

Of course, none of these points are easy to address and they are the kinds of questions we are learning to live with. At the same time we find ourselves inspired from a range of (sometimes surprising) directions. One such inspiring and very insightful source has been the writings of Lynsey Hanley, especially her latest work ‘Respectable: the experience of class’. We would like to reflect on the way in which her insights might help us explore the questions we are living with. With this in mind, if anyone out there would like to do a book review to help us on our way, we would be very grateful.

Further Reading:

Lynsey Hanley, Respectable: The Experience of Class (2016)

Helpful Guardian article:

Lynsey Hanley on Radio 4 (Start the Week):

Urban Life Celebrates Two Years!

Urban Life celebrates two years!

Urban Life celebrates two years!Since launching in June 2014 Urban Life has started to deliver learning experiences around the country, and develop resources for learning and research. The work has been facilitated by a growing group of experienced and innovative facilitators.

Here are some milestones Urban Life celebrates:

LEARNING JOURNEYS: Tailored learning experiences delivered to groups based in tough contexts. About 30 people involved in 3 pilot courses in Leeds, Stockport and Birmingham.

Theology to GoTHEOLOGY-TO-GO: Advanced course in practical theology and incarnational mission. About 55 people have joined TTG groups in Birmingham, Dundee, Glasgow, Bristol and Leeds. New groups starting in East London and other locations from September 2016.

CREATIVE CONVERSATIONS: Introduces new depth to the way we listen to others in our day-to-day encounters and fosters a deeper sense of neighbouring with those in marginalised situations. We have worked with about 60 people through three gatherings in Oxford and Bristol during 2015-2016.

Tea in Syrian TentTAILORED LEARNING AND RESEARCH OPPORTUNITIES: Support and supervision is given to practitioners to research their own context in order to critically review and develop their practices, deepen their understanding of issues faced and nurture ongoing theological reflection. We have supported 4 people in this way (Exeter, London, Calais Jungle) and are able to extend this to a further 6 people in the coming year.

ONLINE RESOURCES: A growing resource to support mission in deprived urban contexts: seminars and webinars by practitioners who draw on their experience to explore key themes in mission (estimated 800 views); blogs; on-line learning resources

Urban Life booksMISSION IN MARGINAL PLACES: Six books drawing on theology and social sciences to explore key issues in mission and marginality.

RESEARCH DEGREES: Delivering four new modules which explore the key areas that are coming to the fore in terms of mission in marginalised urban contexts. Presented in partnership with International Mission Centre (Birmingham) and Bristol Baptist College.

RESOURCES FOR INDIVIDUAL PIONEERS, ASSOCIATIONS, COLLEGES AND MISSIONS ORGANISATIONS: Urban Life has delivered a range of training and consultation across the country to colleges, missions organisations, Baptist Associations, incarnational communities, conferences, church planting forums, individual pioneers etc.

A longer version of this report can be found here.

Book Review: Eating Heaven: Spirituality at the Table

9780987428639Helen Pears from Bristol reviews Eating Heaven – Spirituality at the Table by Simon Carey Holt. (Victoria, Australia: Acorn press, 2013)

As many small Christian communities, including ours in south Bristol, gather around the table as a central feature of life together, I was intrigued by the title of this book and what it might have to offer in terms of helping our understanding of some of the dynamics at work around those tables.

Carey Holt speaks of his motivation for writing the book as arising from the conviction that “it is important that we value what takes place at our tables, finding ways to embrace them more intentionally and intelligently than we presently do”. He wants to encourage us to live with more awareness of the sacred in the everyday and to note the connections between what we eat, the way we eat it and who we eat with, and what we value.

To help explore these themes, Carey Holt invites us to spend time thinking about what he terms, the various “tables of daily life” that “play host” to our eating. He identifies eight common places of eating: the kitchen table, backyard or garden table, café table, 5-star restaurant table, the work table, and the festive, multi-cultural and communion tables.

The author, based in Melbourne, Australia, is both a trained chef and a theologian – a combination which, for an enthusiastic cook such as myself, sounds wonderful to start with! Although his professional interest in food and the kitchen is evident, this is not a book specifically aimed at those for whom cooking is a passion and food a primary interest. Nor is it a book with a romantic view, unaware of the complexities and tensions that exist around the subject of food. Under each ‘table’ heading, Carey Holt tries to tease out some of the questions that each setting might ask about identity, cultural values and human behaviour, as well as acknowledging the role these tables also often play in terms of power, injustice and exclusionary practices. Asking us to be mindful as to who is not at the table is a recurring and important theme of the chapters too.

It is a book that wants to remind us that eating is not just a functional or biologically necessary act, incidental to the ‘important’ bits of living, but how we practise it is a way of grounding, or fleshing out, “some of the most important aspects of what it means to be human and what it means to live a grace-filled life in communion with each other and the earth”. Carey Holt employs many lovely turns of phrase which act as encouragements that within the small and normal actions of everyday life we can find possibilities for transformation. He speaks, for example, of vegetables harvested from a back yard as helping “to overcome the environmental challenges of the world table one meal at a time”. Or of a café table acting as a “place that tames the city”, a way of finding orientation and focus within the complex flows of the large urban sprawl.

It is not as deeply theological as I had perhaps expected, and there are a couple of weak chapters where the opportunity to press the questions are not followed through as well as I would have hoped. Sadly, this included the chapter on the communion table where the idea of connection was well made and then, I felt, somewhat undermined by the story of two cafés which seemed to epitomise disconnection and separation instead of embrace. Similarly, many of the issues raised are probably ones that many of us are already aware of and might like the discussion to go further as to the sort of ways in which we might approach them.

However, the book is very accessible and the idea of tables is an imaginative way of inviting us to take a good look at our own neighbourhoods and communities, and their ‘performances’ around food; to think about where our ‘tables’ might be, and to keep our eyes open enough within the familiarity of our eating to question the “seating arrangements”; and to rise to the challenge of living creatively with the shadowy side of table life that speaks, for example, of inequality, self-indulgence, painful relationships with food and drink, or contested time and spaces. The chapter on feasting is particularly interesting in this respect.

Eating Heaven is definitely an interesting read and as a little food for thought, I’ll end with a quote from page 133:

A life-giving spirituality of the table flourishes best when my life at one table is connected with my life at all tables, and when the way I sit at each table flows out of my deepest commitments, whatever they may be.


Take This Bread

For an inspiring story of the transformative nature of the communion table and of how generous and radical welcome there spilled out into wider community engagement, I would also highly recommend the book by Sara Miles, Take This Bread ( New York: Ballantine Books, 2007).

Sara Miles has spoken quite widely across the UK and at events such as Greenbelt, so this may already be a familiar story to many of you. The book is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking account of her first, and very literal, ‘taste’ of Jesus and the subsequent disruption this caused to the course of her life. A well-written, good read!

Interview: The Rent Trap

renttrapThere are roughly 11 million people who rent privately from their landlord in the UK. According to analysis from the New Policy Institute in 2013,  4 million of those renters live in poverty. Ten years most ago, most of the poorest people in the UK lived in social housing. If one rented, they were the least likely of all tenures to be in poverty. But after a decade of dizzying rent hikes, selling off social housing and  unregulating the property market, more and more people found themselves pushed into private renting and more and more renters into poverty as they find themselves trapped. Now private renters are more likely to be in poverty than any other housing tenure.

Samir Jeraj along with Rosie Walker recently published The Rent Trap: How we Fell into It and How we Get Out of It, exploring this growing phenomenon. The book offers a critical account of what is really going on in the private rented sector and expose the powers which are conspiring to oppose regulation. Samir Jeraj, a journalist who specialises in housing issues and former city councilor, recently took some time to answer some questions for Urban Life.


Samir_Jeraj_edaaa95c3aaefccb13e2edf13b442be4What is the rent trap and how did we find ourselves with this situation?

The rent trap is the situation of being a private renter, with increasing rents, poor protection, and no security; and not being able to change that situation through social housing, owner-occupation, or improving renting to address these issues in the first place.

How does the rent trap affect the communities we find ourselves in?

It means those communities may cease to exist, or at the very least become strained to breaking point. Renters are only ever a few months away from being asked to leave, where there is no guarantee where they will be next year, and almost certain the next place will be more expensive. Forming communities and maintaining relationships in this environment is extremely hard. This insecurity has an impact on health and wellbeing, particularly for children who are more likely to be living in rented housing than ten years ago.

If the rent trap is not dealt with, what are some of the long term ramifications we could see?

The worst-case scenario is that we move back towards Victorian levels of inequality. 120 years ago, 90% of people were renters, but they still spent a smaller proportion of their income on housing than we do today. If an ever growing number of people cannot afford to live where there are jobs, there will be large rises in unemployment, more of us will be living in poverty, and the rich will continue to get richer. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimated that real rents would rise by 90% by 2040 unless something changes.

Recently, the controversial Housing Bill was passed in Parliament. How will this bill affect those who find themselves in the rent trap? Will we see more people finding themselves in the rent trap?

Overall the Housing Bill (now the Housing Act) will be a disaster for housing. It is important to note that there were a few improvements for private renters, such as a national ‘rogue’ (i.e. criminal) landlord database, strengthen other means to tackle rogue landlords, and changes to rent repayment orders. However, these will have little to no effect as the dismantling of social housing will mean more renters competing for housing. Similarly, Starter Homes are unaffordable for most people in the rent trap, and still rely on the logic of housing as a commodity rather than a right.

What are some practical ways that faith communities can respond to this growing issue?

Faith communities have a long and proud history of work on housing. As we know, faith organisations often provide help and support to those who have nowhere else to go. Many of the early philanthropic and community housing projects set up to tackle poverty and slum housing were faith-based. Organisations such as Housing Justice and the YMCA continue to campaign for decent housing for everyone. On an individual basis, I have met people of faith who participate in resisting evictions – putting their own wellbeing at risk to protect others. Rediscovering that housing activism on a mass scale could change housing in the UK.

Faith organisations and institutions have the power to create change on a grander scale – if the leading faiths of the UK set up a cooperative to build decent, secure housing, they could challenge the big private developers. In Sweden, this happened when the trades unions and tenants organisations founded two cooperatives to provide housing for people rather than profit – today, cooperative housing makes up more than 20% of housing in Sweden. 

Book Review: Blessed are the Poor?

image001Andy Delmege reviews Blessed Are the Poor? – Urban Poverty and the Church by Laurie Green.

Laurie Green has long been at the forefront of urban ministry in Britain as parish priest, bishop, theologian and practitioner. I was really looking forward to reading Blessed are the Poor? and can wholeheartedly recommend it as a resource for anyone engaged in urban ministry, and particularly for those involved in outer housing estates.

It is the fruit of several years Bishop Laurie had spent visiting, being in and listening to estate people and their churches since his retirement and is a practical working out of the method he describes in Let’s Do Theology. The first part of the book explores what poverty is and the context of British housing estates. This is not just theoretical, it is interwoven with the stories and words of the people who live on them; something that those who minister in them know to be of vital importance.

The book then looks at two of Jesus’ key teachings, The Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes through the lens of people living in urban poverty and estate churches. This breaks open the Gospel, allowing us to understand deeply some of Jesus’ key insights. It then returns to the stories of estate people to reflect on what this all means for the Church. This section contains a wealth of imaginative, hopeful and sensible ideas and reflection for estate churches. It is also profoundly challenging for the wider Church which is often in a suburban captivity.

If you are engaged in estate ministry, this book will give you hope, comfort, energy and challenge; it will certainly make me a better estate priest. If you want to make deep sense of the heart of Jesus’ teaching, you will find much to live with. I pray it leads to estate churches being ever more alive and flourishing.

This review was orignally published by Andy on his blog which he kindly allowed us to republish.


Adventures in Community Gardening

Rob Elliot shares his experiences of being involved in community gardening on an estate in East London.

087Previously the site of the ‘Forever Young Garden’ had been a small rough patch of grass, burned up bench and litter trap which was home to sparrows, dogs and the occasional person topping up with intoxicants. It is situated on an estate where I had begun in London as a Pastoral Assistant for an Anglican church.

This garden, the change – in people and place had a big impact on me. It ticked so many boxes; environmental – having local, national and international positive side effects), people – it changed people’s minds and bodies, theologically – it cared for creation, ‘kingdom’ and redemption wise – we were making part of the earth more heaven like.

This garden was located on the neighbouring estate, Clapton Park, where I lived and shared in church with others. Nervously and anxiously, I felt stirred to go for a walk around the estates where I lived.

A large pair of metal gates I hadn’t really seen before stood out and seeing they were slightly ajar I walked in. The bare rectangle plot of grass hidden between the block of flats and the Community Centre was to become a Community Garden.

My mind alerted to this task as God spoke to me ….‘Boom’!

While volunteering with the Forever Young at the nearby Kingsmead estate, I had met a wonderful man called John. Over the last 7 or so years prior to us meeting he had been working away gradually, bit by bit, employed to care for the green spaces on the 3 estates which make up the Clapton Park estate (the other two being called Nye Bevan and Mill Fields) already having rescued some spots and making them lovely.

He asked me if I may be interested in trying to chase a bit of funding for green spaces (mainly bits of nondescript grass – of which there were many) on the estates where he worked and I lived.

So I filled out what was to be the 1st of a number of funding applications. The first application was for a grant for £500 from the Co-op. John brought professional skills and knowledge and I had a willingness to learn new things and to engage with my neighbours.

IMG_0785The plan was simple. Knock on the doors of a row of houses and ask to see if they would like to do design plant and grow a garden together. It turns out that 8 of the 10 households were up for participating in the community garden idea. Being warmly invited, we sat down together in a neighbour’s kitchen to drink some tea and make a plan. In the coming days, we took some gardening tools and began to plant some trees as well as some flowers and herbs to the garden that was beginning to take shape in front of their homes.

Over the next 2 and a half years this was followed by a number of other projects, events, workshops and schemes. We were able to start 7 brand new community garden spaces in various places on the 3 estates, improve 4 gardens that had been previously created, plant 50 sizeable fruit, nut or native trees and  added a pergola with climbers in a local park.

One of the highlights was annually taking part in the Chelsea Fringe festival in which we created a local map on which ‘green highlights’ are highlighted, led a walking tour of the 3 estates as well as host people from a number of estates and councils.  Additionally, we were able to design and distribute Clapton Park’s very own packaging for wild flower seed mix designed by a local child, as well as running growing and environmentally focussed fun activities and educational workshops for people of all ages.

We persuaded the local church to let us use their rather unusual indoor balcony as a ‘green house’ on which we grew seedlings which were shared out with anyone who wanted some. Because of this the church was included on the green map and featured as a stop on the walking tours which meant loads more people got to know where it was.

When we first started, we were knocking on doors but eventually people were coming out of their way to find us. One of the many things that came out of the community garden was a community meal which quickly became a monthly occurrence and often featured fruit, veg and herbs which had been grown locally in our gardens. The community meals spawned a lot of local baking sessions including random picnics which groups of residents put on as a way of welcoming visitors to their estates whenever there was a tour of the community gardens.

DSC_0036 (1)A conservative estimate of people who were directly  involved in one way or another  would be about 1,000. This number doesn’t take into account the 4,000 people who live on the estates or the number of people who came from other places to have a look. The ages of people involved ranged from toddlers to senior citizens whose nationalities included Turkish, Polish, Portugese, Turkish Cypriot, English, Somali, African Carribean, New Zealand, Scottish, Bosnian, Iranian, Bengali, Czech, and American. Many of these people are still involved in the community garden project as they consider the place is their home.

Each time when we started a community garden project, the reaction from neighbours were mainly positive. We would often adjust our ideas and actions depending on what the project it and how it might have an effect on people. Every time, we sought to give priority and leadership to the people who lived closest to the space or grass involved.

Sure, we were simply growing veg or planting trees together, right? Wrong!

We were helping people to understand and realise and accept that they had every right to have a say about what happens to the land on which they live and the streets where their kids play. We were helping to grow local democracy, as people shared opinions with growing confidence about a patch of grass they grew in confidence about bigger issues on which they could share their opinions as well.

Loads and loads of people have been enabled to realise a stronger sense of feeling at home after having received any number of smiling welcomes in an area which had been known for its crime stats and poverty. Clapton Park Estate has increasingly become known for the riches which it generously shares with others.

I think we were helping to grow the communion table as well as the community meal, all of it on common land.