Church of the Poor?

A report on the Annual Day Conference of CHURCH ACTION ON POVERTY, Manchester, by Christian on the Left Hazel Palmer.


The conference title poses a question to which the answer is all too often ‘No’. 

So how can we listen to the poor and turn the No to a Yes?

A worker for Urban Christians, Halifax, introduced two men, till recently homeless, who shared the inspirational changes in their lives.  

At least, presumably.  This participant heard little of their contribution, since the otherwise excellent venue had provided no sound system.  More confident and articulate speakers had no difficulty in making themselves heard.

An acted parable?


The conference’s tone was set by four people who had experienced poverty.  One of their poems said:

   ‘Poverty is ignored and abandoned.  It’s sanctioned and sectioned. 

       It’s late payments and early deaths.’  

(Church Action on Poverty newsletter, ‘Spark’, Winter 2017.)

We were about sixty participants from different denominations, across the age range.   As mentioned, speakers treated us to examples of inspiring practice.  Highway House, formed by a black church in London, gives homeless people of all skin colours somewhere to sleep. One night, the pastor himself bedded down on the church floor.

Clare McBeath has been working for Openshaw Connection, Manchester, for 16 years.  She and the other leaders have followed liberation theology, building ‘Baptist base communities’.

Starting with two white working class families, the groups are now bigger and multicultural.  Meetings take place over meals with Bible readings; they do café and messy church styles, but no hymns or Sunday School.  There are also no grants, so no paid ministry; the leaders do paid work elsewhere and church members are being trained to lead.

The Openshaw team don’t regard themselves as ‘helping’ but being part of the community.  Their vision is incarnational: sharing their lives and not walking away.  Clare can now not afford to move out of the neighbourhood.

Listening to poor people has to be done ‘over a long period,’ she said. ‘Go out and be humans.’

As someone commented, ‘Poor people aren’t empty vessels for us to fill.’

Even where churches are sited in deprived areas, their manses/vicarages may be in more affluent ones.  A conference delegate recommended a ‘sister church partnership’ between congregations in well-off and poor districts, worshipping and doing mission together.

From a Christian Aid worker, we heard about a technique used in poor communities in Nigeria.  The participants identify who has power in their community.  Based on this, they decide how they, the participants, can make a difference to the issues facing them.

We also heard a summary of ‘Church for the Poor’, a report commissioned by Church Action on Poverty, Jubilee+ and Word on the Streets, covering most denominations.   It noted that Pope Francis challenged Christians to build ‘a poor Church, for the poor’.   Congregations in deprived areas, it found, were doing a great deal for the residents, but complained that church structures were not helping.  Elsewhere, it was the other way round.

We divided into small groups to discuss, ‘How is my local church building a church of the poor?’ and ‘How does my church need to change?’

The afternoon panel session criticised the anti-poor media.  As Clare said, ‘Bring a newspaper into church and compare it with Scripture!’

Another of the three panellists was Paul Morrison, of the Joint Public Issues Team, an inter-church group responsible for booklets like ‘Truth and Lies about Poverty’ (2013).  They found that churchgoers’ views on sexual behaviour (not discussed in the above) diverge considerably from those of the general public.  But in the case of poor people, they share the widespread negative attitudes.

Martin Charlesworth of Jubilee+, co-author of ‘The Myth of the Undeserving Poor’, confirmed this divergence.   Also, after the Channel 4 series ‘Benefit Street’ started, they spent a month studying media coverage of poverty.  In 78% of cases, the voice of the poor was totally absent, particularly in The Sun and the Mail.    

Paul Morrison emphasised that someone needs to create ‘an attractive story’: an overarching explanation of poverty to challenge the Daily Mail’s.

The film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ would fit in to such a narrative. However, John Battle, former Labour MP and founder of Church Action on Poverty, complained that it did not channel people into organised action.

The day ended with a short worship time.

In summary, to be a church of the poor, we need to listen long-term, understand where power lies and counteract the media. 

The situation challenges us all.

Post topics:
Do you like this post?

Showing 1 reaction

commented 2017-05-17 14:17:42 +0100 · Flag
My MA in Sociolinguistics opened my eyes to who has power and who doesn’t and I thoroughly appreciate this summary of The Church of the Poor. I’m yet again challenged to put my thoughts into practice especially in not accepting stereotypes of poverty. (Jackie Gooding)

Related posts on Society

The issue of abortion and crisis pregnancy more generally has been back in the news in the last few weeks. In the midst of the inflammatory language and virtue signalling from both sides of the debate it is sometimes difficult to have an adult conversation about the issue. This means for many of us, our understanding of such a complex subject is fairly superficial. Christians on the Left is curating the thoughts of some of our members and referencing some hopefully helpful background reading.

More topics: