Bishop Peter Price opens Synod Debate on last summer's riots

Monday 9th July 2012

Caption:Image from the riots of August 2011

Bishop Peter Price introduced the report on last summer's riots entitled 'Testing the Bridges' at General Synod yesterday. The full text follows below:

"Some of you may be wondering why a Bishop from a largely rural diocese is introducing a debate on the urban disturbances that took place last August. The people of Wells did not take to the streets, and properties in Bath were not looted or set on fire. What is all this to do with me?

The simple answer is that I was one of those who pressed for this debate to take place. But the more interesting answer is simply this: that the disturbances of last summer are the business of all of us, and the actions of the churches in those areas contain lessons for everyone.

When the College of Bishops shared their experiences from the areas where disturbances took place, it was immediately clear that our clergy and laity – and indeed some of our fellow bishops – had demonstrated something particularly important during those dangerous and troubled nights. Others, we knew, would be investigating the causes of the uprisings and making recommendations about how future trouble might be met or averted – and I draw your attention to the joint project between the Guardian newspaper and the London School of Economics, entitled “Reading the Riots” – it is mentioned in the report before you and the second tranche of data was published throughout last week. But what was striking about the churches’ witness was the imperative Christians felt to be ministering on the streets when violence and looting were taking place, and in the aftermath – and how exceptional that witness was in areas where other structures of community and neighbourhood were pretty hollowed out. Part of the purpose of this report, and this debate, is to share our appreciation of those clergy and lay people who did their duty as ministers to all the people of their place.

In the section of the report headed “Christians, Churches and Communities”, you’ll see one reason why the witness and ministry of the church on those streets was significant. We live in an age when the public perception of religious belief is often woeful – and most woeful, sometimes, among influential people. Religion is perceived as irrational and therefore socially useless, if not undesirable. What we have tried to highlight in the report is the way that the things Christians believe shape the way they act, and how their actions demonstrably support the good of all. In another document before Synod you will read about progress on our quinquennium goal of serving the common good. Last August proved that serving the common good is what a lot of Christians do, almost instinctively, even in hard, dangerous and frightening circumstances. Of course, Christians were not the only ones by a long way who were influential on the streets, but it is significant that being a member of a faith community seems to have been a major factor.

I hope you have read the report. There is much that is inspirational and challenging within it, and I don’t propose to recite it all now. But I do want to put it in its wider context.

The significance of our debate today is not just to look backwards and congratulate ourselves. The harder lesson is this: it is an indictment of the state of our society today that that kind of emergency ministry we have seen practiced is needed at all.

None of us need reminding about the financial crisis that has been the background to all our politics and policies for the last four years. It is perfectly reasonable to empathise with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and those responsible for policy, recognising the immense pressure they are under from the financial markets and credit rating agencies, and at the same time, sound a clear warning note about the social consequences of austerity measures which hit the most vulnerable hardest and leave the very rich unscathed. When the nation tightens its belt, inevitably the least resilient are those who suffer most.

Back in the 1930s, there was a famous poster showing a group of men, one above another on a ladder rising out of a pond. The man at the top wears a top hat, the one below him a bowler, the next a trilby and finally, in his cloth cap is the unemployed man whose head is only just above the water. And the man at the top is saying, “Equality of sacrifice, that’s the name of the game. Everybody take one step down!” What appears as minor retrenchment to some is life and death to the poorest.

I have no intention of being sentimental about the people, mainly young people, who took to the streets last August and destroyed property, ruined other people’s lives and walked off with looted trophies. Riots embody appalling evil and criminality and those who get drawn in often display great wickedness. But as the Passionist priest, the late Fr Austin Smith, said after the Toxteth riots in the 1980s, rioting can be, literally, an ecstatic spiritual experience. Something is released in the participants which takes them out of themselves as a kind of spiritual escape. The tragedy of our times is that, once again, we have a large population of young people who are desperate to escape from the constrained lives to which they feel and appear to be condemned. Where hope has been killed off and with no prospect of escape, is it surprising that their energies erupt in antisocial and violent actions? In a consumer society, is it surprising that lusting after high-status goods is seen as a way to find meaning?

If our response is simply to denounce the government for its policies, or to make impassioned speeches under the guise of “being prophetic”, I fear we will be open to the charge of self-indulgence. No. We are called, not simply to speak, let alone denounce, but to act. The report before you shows how some of our brothers and sisters acted at a time of great social stress. Their actions addressed the humanity in everybody who was caught up in those disturbances: not just the young people who offended, but the emergency services who were often extraordinarily hard-pressed as events unfolded faster than they could anticipate; the victims of crime, and all those who were shocked and afraid and remained so for a long time afterwards.

But the report also shows us how vulnerable that witness was, how ill-prepared the clergy and church members felt themselves to be, and how much they were inventing a response on the hoof.

If similar outbreaks of disorder happen this summer, or next, or the summer after, we will be asking ourselves why we did not learn more quickly and thoroughly from the churches which were caught up in last year’s events. Pray God that there will be no such repeated trouble. But, make no mistake, social tensions will not go away and hopelessness in our communities – yes, our rural and suburban ones, as well as the cities – is something we are all called on to address, preferably before the cauldron bubbles over.
The churches in the riot areas last year could act in inspirational ways simply because they had invested time and love in the communities they sought to serve. As one priest put it, “…we sometimes wonder what we are doing going round having conversations and connecting – but maybe that’s the thing: there’s something quite profound that we mustn’t stop doing.” Another incidentally gave our report its title when he described the events in his area as a ‘testing of the bridges’ – the relationships which had been developed over the years had taken the strain, and might prove able to hold as new challenges arose.
We talk often about sacrificial ministry by our clergy and laity. I suggest that part of the sacrifice is about investing time, energy and love in the whole community of the parish without knowing what will come of it – even in the face of one’s own doubts – but trusting in God to turn our investment of love, in his own good time, into good news for people under intolerable social stress.
I ask Synod to take note of the report, “Testing the Bridges”. But, more than that, I hope we will learn from it and become a church that is well prepared to serve our increasingly fragile and sometimes dangerous communities whatever the immediate future holds."

General Synod continues in York until 10 July.

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