Rebuilding Jerusalem for the Poor

Stephen Platten: Rebuilding Jerusalem

The primacy of the church's mission to the poor

An extract from: Rebuilding Jerusalem: The Church’s Hold on Hearts and Minds (Stephen Platten, SPCK, 2007)

There is no doubt of the authenticity of the Church’s primary mission to the poor.[1] It is clear from the gospel narratives both of Jesus, and of his instructions to his own followers, so, for example: ‘Go your way; behold I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.  Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.’[2] And then later: ‘Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with pauses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail.’[3]

It was presumably St Francis of Assisi’s embracing these comments literally that led to the remarkable flowering of the Friars Minor and indeed the Franciscan Third Order, even during his own lifetime.  Francis believed himself called to ‘rebuild Christ’s Church’ and this entailed, as a primary imperative, a mission to the poor.  This is a mission which has been renewed frequently down the ages.  Just a few recent examples may suffice.  In the 1920s and 1930s the depression brought huge levels of unemployment and suffering to many.  It was this that convicted Brother Douglas S.S.F. to found what would eventually become the Society of St Francis working with ‘wayfarers’ and other victims of the depression.  So too, in the same period, was established ‘The Brotherhood of the Way’.  This again had a Franciscan ethos. The brethren wore civilian dress, no habit, but they too preached widely and worked with the poor; they lived on a shilling a day (sic: now five pence!) spending the nights sleeping in church porches, bus shelters and the like.

Or, and largely within the Roman Catholic Church, there is the work of the Comunita da Sant Egidio.  Following the Second Vatican Council, and with the support of Pope Paul VI, Dr Andrea Riccardi and a number of colleagues set up the Community.  It is a lay community where each member is committed to daily corporate prayer and also to work for the poor and outcast in the world.  Beginning in Rome it has now some 45,000 members worldwide. In Rome it runs, amongst other things: a residential home for children born with AIDS; a language school for impoverished immigrants; a soup kitchen for that same group of people and food parcels which are taken to those living rough.  Alongside this work, locally, which is paralleled in their communities across the world, the community has also engaged in work of a more international nature.  The peace agreement in Mozambique was brokered using the Comunita da Sant Eigido, and there continues to be an annual international and ecumenical gathering focused upon prayers for peace.  The Papal gathering of religious leaders from across the world faiths in Assisi in 1986, hosted by Pope John Paul II, was orchestrated by the Community.  The Community sees its task as living out the gospel and never allowing prayer and work for the poor to become divorced from each other.  Perhaps most remarkable of all is that highly qualified, professional people give up much of their free time, often up to five half days a week, in working for the poor.

Two other examples may fill out this part of our argument a little further.  In 1983 the Bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard, published his book Bias to the Poor.[4][nbsp] In a lifetime of Christian ministry, including eleven years in one of the poorest parts of east London, Sheppard produced a manifesto for bringing Christian care for the poor and the under-privileged to the heart of the Church’s witness.  Sheppard himself lived out that vision and was not frightened of unpopularity when he took stances that ran counter to prevailing fashions in either the Church or in politics.  Then, some eleven years later, was published Faith in the City,[5] commissioned by Robert Runcie, then Archbishop of Canterbury, following the spate of urban riots in Britain in the early 1980s.  One of the most serious riots had erupted in Brixton, in South London, just two miles down the road from the Archbishop’s official residence at Lambeth Palace.  Faith in the City was a rigorous sociological and theological analysis of the state of English cities, with a particular focus on what the report called ‘urban priority areas’.  The report was addressed to both government and Church.  It would be no exaggeration to say that of all reports produced by non-governmental organisations during the second half of the twentieth century, Faith in the City had more impact on the then Conservative government and on its New Labour successor than any other report.  Its impact continues to be felt now, and the Church Urban Fund, established in the wake of the report, has distributed more than thirty million pounds to Church-based and other social projects over the past twenty years.

The significance of these different initiatives has been enormous, and returns the churches in England to the heart of the gospel. 

© Stephen Platten

The Rt Revd Stephen Platten is Bishop of Wakefield, and Chair of the T4CG steering group. He has authored and edited numerous publications, is a member of General Synod of the Church of England and a member of the House of Lords. During the 1990s he was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Secretary for Ecumenical Affairs, serving Archbishops Runcie and Carey and was also the Anglican Co-Secretary of ARCIC II (the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission). He chairs the Governors of the Anglican Centre in Rome. He is a member of the Association of Teachers of Moral Theology. He is Chair of the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission and is a member of the Cathedrals’ Fabric Commission for England.

This extract is from “Rediscovering the poor”: Chapter 10 “Reversing Entropy” pp 168-170, Rebuilding Jerusalem: The Church’s Hold on Hearts and Minds (Stephen Platten, SPCK, 2007)


[1] Tim Gorringe in Furthering Humanity. Ashgate, Aldershot.2004 makes this point forcibly in a number of places. cf especially pp.129ff. and Ch.7

[2] Luke. 10:3.

[3] Luke 12:33

[4]  David Sheppard, Bias to the Poor.  Hodder and Stoughton. London. 1973.

[5]  Faith in the City.  Church House Publishing. London. 1984.

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