Dear England, Build communities: the letter of Archbishop Stephen

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Human beings are made for community, the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, told a Religion Media Centre online briefing.

And God is also community — and love, a place where there is reciprocity of giving and believing.

He found himself trying to explain this to a young woman who was queuing with him for a flat white at Caffè Nero at Paddington station, while he was on the way to a conference in Wales.

While the initial question was straightforward enough: “What made you become a priest?”, the answer moved into a discussion about God, Jesus Christ and changing the world.

He caught his train, but the idea was born as to how he could properly communicate his beliefs, convictions and experiences to someone outside the church but keen enough to ask a question.

In his book Dear England: Finding Hope, Taking Heart and Changing the World” he says God is not a created thing, nor a set of ideas. God is the source and origin of everything that is.

He told the briefing that this was a predictable and orthodox Christian way of describing God.

Faced with a society where many have abandoned such ideas, his advice is to think of the experience of delight and wonder of love, observe a “stirring” in your self, suspend disbelief and join a journey with Christians to explore the idea.

For the archbishop, being a Christian is not about understanding ideas so much as living in community, experiencing a sense of belonging with other people and working towards justice.

For this reason, he wants to change the world. In his book he speaks of the consensus following the Second World War, where leaders including Archbishop William Temple worked to achieve a welfare state, NHS healthcare for all and free education.

Movements towards justice could take place again, though he realised it would be much harder in the current climate because the Christian story does not have the same purchase on the imagination as it did 70 years ago. But he saw the campaign for housing justice and the faith in the city report as projects which had a significant impact.

He also made clear that the belief in a nuclear deterrent is morally flawed. He expressed serious concern at the news that the UK is to increase its stockpile of nuclear warheads, reversing previous policy. He would continue to argue that we should disarm and support movements for disarmament across the world.

He thought the church could take a lead on the overwhelming campaigns for the safety of women against male violence, following the horrific murder of Sarah Everard. And as a matter of principle, he continued to support the banning of conversion therapy.

Because he believes in community, he said the doomsday scenario where failing church finances would, mean only wealthy churches could afford a priest, would not happen on his watch.

He had been heartened by the growth of online communities during the pandemic and predicted that the future would be hybrid — mixing face-to-face with online activities.

Moving back to the north of England, he had become aware of great discrepancies of wealth and opportunity in the nation. His vision for a church of the future is to be a church for the poor.

View the RMC online briefing on our YouTube channel here

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