We want a church that’s on the side of the poor and the persecuted.
By Matthew Taylor
Excitingly, Matthew Taylor proposes a new British Liberation theology as a way forward for the church to get back to where it belongs; in the community. There are precedents for a British Liberation Theology. Matthew Taylor argues that ‘Benn was also a proponent of Christian socialism and it is within his Christian socialism where we see this example of Liberation Theology at work in Britain.’ He points to Justin Welby’s opposition to austerity, and the progressive politics of Rowan Williams, Welby’s predecessor.
When we consider the theology of liberation, we mostly associate it with the continent where it was born, Latin America. It all began in 1968, where Roman Catholic bishops met at the Second Episcopal Conference of Latin America, which was held in Medellín Columbia. Their purpose was to interpret the outcome of the Second Vatican Council in the regional context of Latin America.
The mid-twentieth century was a time of much cultural change. The conference was at the time of the Swinging Sixties, the Cold War, and neo-colonialism. Many of Latin America’s countries were trying to forge their own economic, political and social paths free of the influence of the dominant imperial power in the region, the USA.
Liberation Theology enabled people in academia and the clergy to call for justice in a world where it seemed there was none
This new direction in theology was part of a broader struggle centring around issues of poverty and inequality. In most Latin American countries there was a social divide, with high rates of poor living conditions and poverty. At the same time, wealthy Latin Americans enriched themselves even more. In other countries in the region there was political unrest that resulted in dictatorships and military governments such as Peron in Argentina.
These issues were the concerns of the bishops, who met at the conference. That summit marked the symbolic birth of Liberation Theology, It was a theology which provided justification for many in academia and the clergy, to call for justice in a world where it seemed there was none.
Liberation Theology was opposed fiercely by the regimes it spoke out against and by the USA. Even people who you would think would be on the same side opposed the Liberation Theologists on the grounds that the church should have no role in politics. The Roman Catholic church itself was divided over the question of Liberation Theology and there is a famous picture of Pope John Paul II berating a Latin American priest . Many liberation theologians were silenced or censored or even martyred. St. Oscar Romero and the UCA scholars were assassinated and martyred.
… it is in this unjust world where Christianity finds its role, purpose, and mission in the contemporary era.
In the 21st century however Liberation Theology has become more accepted, even influencing the role of church leaders. Much of Pope Francis’ work and many of his remarks and comments resemble the ideas put forward by Liberation Theologians. Liberation theology has given the church relevance in the modern world. When Liberation Theology arrived in North America it inspired feminist and black theology.
Although, prior to the birth of Liberation Theology, there was the work of Mary Cady Stanton and The Woman’s Bible. Liberation Theology is a now considered to be a popular tradition in the contemporary church.
The church after all has a history of patriarchy, enforcing gender roles, inspiring social discrimination against the LGBT community, supporting colonialism and slavery (as well as financially gaining from it) persecuting indigenous peoples, and inspiring attitudes such as antisemitism.
Much of the work in theology we have seen over the past century has questioned how the Christian faith should respond to an ever-changing world. Christianity must change and adapt. Theology must respond to historical context and be practical.
Gone is the time when theology was the queen of the sciences. Gone are the days when the church was part of the British state. Gone are the days when the church had significant influence and privilege in society. Gone are the times when the people relied on the church for guidance, council, education and even healthcare.
Christianity is no longer mainstream in the UK, with many questioning its relevance in modern society; Christians are side-lined.
Nowadays, in the UK, Christians are side-lined. In an era of scientific enlightenment and progress, religion is pushed back and many regard it as mere superstition and myth. The church has become starved and stretched socially, politically, culturally, and economically. Modernity seems to have truly turned the tables on religion. Capitalism shows no sign of ending. In fact, we are in late-stage capitalism, which encourages the growth of individualism and thrives on selfishness. Capitalism creates great social divides. However, it is exactly here, in this unjust world, where Christianity can find its role, purpose, and mission in the contemporary era.
The church has become starved and stretched socially, politically, culturally, and economically
As secularisation marches on, the church joins the poor, the starving. Church members link arms with the oppressed and the ignored. Yet, despite the fact that the church is now actively derided and sidelined and despite the fact that it has such limited resources, it is still portrayed by some as a source of injustice.
In part, this image of the church is justifiable. The church of the 20th century has a dark side: more recently – and more difficult to forgive – there was the uncovering of the abuse scandals in the church. The church, after all, upheld the patriarchy, enforced gender roles and inspired social discrimination against the LGBT community. It supported colonialism and slavery, and even benefitted financially from it, it persecuted indigenous peoples, and inspired and tolerated antisemitism.
In the UK, the Christian church – religion in general – is regarded as a prime cause of many social evils, and its critics support secularism and the disestablishment of the church from the state.
The increasing distance between state and church in the UK makes religion less influential, but it also protects the church from the corruption that goes along with collaborating with the British establishment. This is the stance of many pro-secular Christians. They do not want the church to cosy up to power.
There is a window of opportunity here for us to develop a theology to explain the reasons for secularisation and coexist peacefully with it; a theology that attempts to come to terms with the controversial past of the church and to understand what Christianity’s current place is in a world that is increasingly against it, or indifferent. Such a theology is the theology of liberation. This theology provides the answers to the questions asked about the church’s place in the British society in the first quarter of the 21st century.
Towards a new British Liberation Theology
Early Christianity was not the Christianity of grand cathedrals and political influence which people commonly associate with the established church today. There were no paid positions, either. Jesus and the apostles congregated in each other’s homes. No one bowed down to them. Christianity’s early leaders lived in the same streets and alleys as the poor and the outcasts. Their ministry was practical, reaching out to those in need, teaching and healing.
The Christianity of the New Testament was poor, homeless, and persecuted.
It was the life the disciples chose; to give up their possessions and follow Christ. It was an uncomfortable life. Christians in the early church needed each other, supported each other and reached out to others who were also suffering and cast out. The early church was a community, a family, a collective. The central figure of the faith, Jesus, was born poor, yet he said things and did things that astonished and moved everyone. Then, unjustly, Jesus was betrayed, humiliated, tortured and executed for his message – which was love.
It has to be asked, has the church gone in the right direction? Is this the church that Jesus would recognise? Have we become the Pharisees whom Jesus warned his disciples against?
The early church was poor and downtrodden and the early church was with the poor and downtrodden. This was the church of the New Testament. When the church became a prestigious, wealthy and powerful institution Christianity departed from its humble beginnings and the problems began. To quote Mark Twain “If Christ were here there is one thing he would not be – a Christian”. Christianity, as a whole, lost its way. Jesus taught that his followers should be willing to lose their life (Mark 8:35, NRSV) and sell all that they own, to follow him (Matthew 19:16 -30, NRSV).
… is this the church that Jesus would recognise?
But, in the end, the power and influence of the church didn’t last. Over the past several decades, it has seen a rapid decline. Churches in the UK are downsizing, relying more and more on their congregations – members of the laity – to help at services. The church is closing and selling off many of its buildings, buildings which are being converted into luxury flats and office space. The church is considering drastic changes and cuts.
Practically and financially, the situation is no longer viable. Now it is time for the church to return to the way it was when it started. We must live in the community and be a part of it. We must share the suffering of the poor. We must practice liberation theology.
It’s happening: the Christianity that began with nothing but a community and its faith is going back to that model again. In the secular age, the church is returning to its New Testament roots; it is going back to being as it should be. In the 21st century churches are used as homeless shelters, food banks, Covid test centres, vaccine centres; as places for group counselling and for a range of community outreach organisations and support groups.
Today, the church is starting to return to its original mission; it is reaching out to the community again. Where before the church was seen to be asserting its authority, now it is offering practical, psychological and spiritual aid.
if the church identifies itself with the Jesus of history then it is obliged to side with the poor and marginalised.
Although the UK was the first country to industrialise, and despite the fact that it is the 5th or 6th richest country in the world, in 2020, 14.4 million people in Britain were living in relative poverty. In 2019 Shelter reported that 280,000 people in Britain were homeless. According to the National Literacy Trust, 16% of adults in Britain are illiterate, and life expectancy has stopped falling.
Since 2010 Britain has had successive conservative governments who introduced austerity measures and made cuts to public services. These cuts have caused such poverty, that many people need to rely on food banks in order to feed their children.
Most notably, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has spoken out against the Conservative government’s austerity measures. Since he became Archbishop in 2013, Welby has criticised austerity measures, and voiced his concerns over welfare reforms and the lack of social housing. In fact, Welby provided the government with an ambitious plan to help solve the UK housing crisis by building houses on church owned land. Welby also caused controversy by speaking at the 2018 Trade Union Conference, saying:
‘justice is who God is……The bible is political from one end to the other……Jesus was highly political, He told the rich that they would face woes. He criticised the King of the time as a fox. He spoke harsh words to leaders of the nations when they were uncaring of the needy’
Christianity has often come out in defense of the poor in the UK. Welby is not the first Archbishop of Canterbury to be outspoken. I also noted his predecessor Rowan Williams spoke out on the issue of poverty in Britain. We could add St. Thomas Becket and High Chancellor St Thomas More to the list of religious people who opposed arbitrary and unjust power. William Wilberforce was a devout Christian. Chapels played a strong part in the foundation of trade unions in Britain in the 19th century.
Since he became Archbishop in 2013, [Justin] Welby has criticised austerity measures, voicing his concerns over the consequences of welfare reforms and the lack of social housing,
Welby is part of a trend. Pope Francis and the established clergy, are now more accepting of Liberation Theology and open to discussing it and even implementing it. In the same Trade Union Conference speech given by Welby, he referred to a time when the Church of England opposed Trade Unions and then he delivered the arguments of Archbishop Tait in 1879 century who urged the church to accept and support the Trade Union movement.
Today’s church has been active in society, supporting communities and fighting poverty. Increasingly, this is becoming the visible role of the church in British society. The Church of England’s current leader clearly thinks that one of his most important missions is to combat poverty..
… the church must now embrace this new place, whereby it may no longer be on the side of power and wealth and instead on the other side, with the poor and marginalised.
Tony Benn is best remembered as a socialist writer, a Member of Parliament, and Harold Wilson’s Postmaster General. He was also a pilot during the war. Benn was an eloquent supporter of socialism, but, at the same time, Benn was also a proponent of Christian socialism and it is from the example of his Christian socialism that we see a modern day Liberation Theology at work in Britain. Benn was the son of Margaret Wedgwood Benn, a feminist theologian who quarrelled with the Church of England over its then views on women in the church, particularly its opposition to women to in positions of leaderships.
Tony Benn’s mother was also President of the Congregational Federation and a member of the League of the Church Militant. Benn was a committed Christian. Benn viewed Jesus as a political figure. Benn focused on the figure of the carpenter who was the Jesus of history who called for social justice and equality. According to Benn, a Christ of faith divorced from the Christ of history is often used to justify power and wealth. Focusing on the Christ of history, makes Jesus more relevant, according to Benn. From Benn’s Christianity we see that if the church identifies itself with the Jesus of history, then it is obliged to side with the poor and marginalised.
Welby and Benn each provide a separate contribution to make up the whole: Benn demonstrates that such thinking exists, and Welby proves that it can be put into practice. Together they exemplify the British Theology of Liberation.
British Liberation Theology emerges from the Latin American tradition.
In Latin America, Liberation Theology, struggles in a world where there are gaping social divides. Britain is economically developed, yet many citizens lived in poverty here and here too there is a great social divide between rich and poor. Therefore, British Liberation Theology can emerge and develop from the Latin American tradition; it addresses the same issues of inequality, but in a different, more developed context. Addressing the genuine issues faced by a society in specific contexts as they emerge is the heart of Liberation Theology.
Welby and Benn are not the only figures in British Liberation Theology, there are many others. Britain prides itself in having a long and diverse history and heritage, so it is also rich in this contemporary Christian tradition: Trevor Huddleston, Emily Davison, Elizabeth Fry are all figures of the church. They are also important to British theology. They had a faith in Jesus Christ. They were inspired to work towards a better world and we Christians should follow their example.
I have attempted to explore the church’s place in this new Great Britain. If Christians want to have an active yet positive impact, then the direction for the church to take is liberation theology.
Archbishop of Cantebury.org. (2018). Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech at the TUC. Retrieved from https://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/speaking-and-writing/speeches/archbishop-canterburys-speech-tuc
Channel 4. (2015). Tony Benn on Jesus [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8qC8KKdkeU
Boseley, S. (2020). Austerity blamed for life expectancy stalling for first time in century. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/feb/24/austerity-blamed-for-life-expectancy-stalling-for-first-time-in-century
Cady Stanton, M. (2012). The Women’s Bible. Hamburg: Tredition. (Original work published in 1895).
Cox, J.M. (2002). Mark Twain: The Fate of Humour. Columbia, MI: Missouri University Press.
Shelter. (2019). 280,000 people in England are homeless, with thousands more at risk. Retrieved from https://england.shelter.org.uk/media/press_release/280,000_people_in_england_are_homeless,_with_thousands_more_at_risk
Welby, J. & Tomlin, G. (2021). Justin Welby: Only A Shared Long-Term Vision Will End Our Housing Crisis. Retrieved from: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/housing-crisis_uk_60353a07c5b66dfc1021d8f5
Matthew Taylor lives in North Wales. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from University of Chester. Matthew has an interest in the humanities and current affairs and which he writes on. He is an active member of Christian, voluntary and campaign groups.