Religion, politics and the Housing Bishop

6 Aug 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 6 Aug 2021

Bishop Guli Francis-Dehqani. Pic: Church of England

Next month the Church of England’s first Housing Bishop will be officially installed at a ceremony at Chelmsford Cathedral.

Dr  Guli Francis-Dehqani  is tasked with driving a radical new policy aimed at addressing the housing crisis which the CofE regards as a “national scandal”.

It is the latest example of a church boldly entering the political arena to campaign for social justice.

Last year Scope reported on Pope Francis’s encyclical Fratelli Tutti, which argues that universal brother/sisterhood is the foundational principle for society, attacks the notion that the market provides solutions to social problems and questions the very notion of private property:

“The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property”.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is also not afraid to take on political issues, indeed he regards it as a duty. Two years ago, in a sermon to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, he said: “Do not accept, do not teach and do not believe the lie that the church has nothing to do with politics. For politics is the science of how we live together and if we have nothing to do with that let’s tear out two thirds of the New Testament.”

But why housing and why a bishop and not a developer?

First Christians have been providing social housing for many hundreds of years. In ancient times this was through almshouses, a movement which still flourishes today. The oldest surviving almshouse in England is the Hospital of St Oswald which was founded in Worcester in 990 during the reign of Aethelred the Unready. In that sense the interest in housing is the revival of an ancient tradition, and nothing new.

And it is led by a bishop because the policy is guided by a theology that defines the mission of Anglican clergy as being to care for the whole of the life of a community, not just its spiritual wellbeing.

The document Coming Home which lays out the church’s housing strategy states: “Good housing builds community, bad housing destroys it, and with it, the human flourishing that comes from strong social bonds.”

And it goes on to quote the Book of Revelations: “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them … He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Secular minds might find this astonishing, even slightly alarming. You’ll certainly not find that kind of language in the mission statement of our Housing Executive or any Housing Associations, but it does explain the bishop.

It goes on to propose foundational principles for housing, grounded in Christian theology. These are that our homes need to be safe, offering privacy and security. They need to be stable and affordable – meaning we can stay in them for as long as we wish, protected from the precarity of the volatile private rental market. Housing should be sociable which means that schemes should facilitate community life. It should be environmentally sustainable and it should be satisfying – a great place to come home to.

Coming Home has a vision of “a place where God is finally at home with the creation in a way that brings delight and wonder. It has rivers and trees, streets and walls, a combination of natural beauty and human ingenuity.”

You do not have to believe in the day of Resurrection to agree both that all of these are sound principles on which to build homes, and that current housing provision so often falls short on all these measures.

But the big question is not so much about all these fine words, but what it plans to do to help tackle the housing crisis, at least in England.

First it is one of England’s biggest landowners. Big enough to not know precisely how much it owns, but its best guess is 200,000 acres. Half of that is controlled by the Church Commissioners and 6,000 acres of its holdings are categorised as being suitable for housing.

The rest is held by dioceses and individual parishes, and much of that is “glebe” land whose incomes go to support clerical stipends. There will be rural glebe land not suitable for development.

But this still leaves a lot of land and the church is already kicking into action.

One example is in Keswick in the English Lake District which is one of those places where local people are being priced out of living locally by wealthy second homers whose absence out of the holiday season has a significant negative impact on the local economy.

The local vicar offered a piece of church land to the local community, a Community Land Trust was formed. It built 11 houses on the site and has followed up with three more developments. Half the homes are for shared development the others are rented out at truly affordable rents – ie as judged by local earnings, not market rents.

Ironically one of the most formidable obstacles Bishop Francis-Dehqani faces in helping the church release land for affordable housing is enshrined in charity law.

She has a mandate to “tell the gospel through bricks and mortar.”

The report explains that providing affordable housing will involve sacrifice for the church: “ In Christian faith, resurrection and salvation only come after, and not without, the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross. Lasting change does not come without sacrifice – the sacrifice of privilege, of power, and of potential profit.”

Yet charity law requires that charities should dispose of assets on “the best terms reasonably available” which is generally interpreted as meaning “the best price.”

Following that dictum has caused a number of controversies for the parishes across England, selling property to developers without regard to community interests.

Whilst all church assets are there to provide income and financial security for the church, selling to the highest bidder without regard to the social purpose of new developments has made the church vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy.

Coming Home states: “The result is an external impression that the Church is money grabbing and self-interested when we are called to be sacrificial and outward looking.”

The bishop and her team are working with the Charity Commission in England to provide clarity to parishes on how  to interpret “best terms reasonably available” in the light of the wider Christian mission

This incursion into housing policy by such a large and influential landowner which also has nine seats in the House of Lords will be followed with great interest.

Its proponents may see this as taking steps towards building a world which “has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal”, a place where the risen Christ would feel at home. Many others will still welcome what the church is trying to achieve if it means everyone has a safe, stable and comfortable home in a supportive community and is prepared to sacrifice some of its wealth to achieve it.

 

 

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