An article of great relevance to radical, liberal religious communities by John Harris in "The Guardian"
|The Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Emmanuel Road, Cambridge|
This much we know: since the start of the neoliberal era in the early 1980s, the great economic changes that have ripped through western economies have led to an erosion of traditional communities. The factory towns and secure mass employment of yesteryear are long gone; institutions such as trade unions and the church – even the local pub – are locked into long-term decline. In the place of the collective spirit they underpinned has come a quicksilver individualism that just about benefits those who manage to keep up, but renders millions of lives unpredictable at best, untenable at worst.
Even in as prosperous a place as Cambridge (quite unlike the situation in Lincolnshire about which Harris specifically speaks in his article) neoliberalism is succeeding in ripping out the heart of our local community. I've been the minister here for seventeen years I see this happening in two major ways.
The first is in the morally outrageous current price of the many small houses that form the majority of dwellings in the "Kite" area of the town where the church is located and my wife and I live. This means that there are fewer and fewer people living here who are committed to the long-term well-being of the locality. Property is being bought up for investment purposes and the people to whom they are then rented are often only here for short periods with little time, or interest, in committing themselves to the building up of a sustainable, meaningful local community.
The second is the "quicksilver individualism" mentioned by Harris. What counts here is not commitment to some social body/group which is able to articulate, sustain and build upon mutual, shared interests but, instead only temporary flirtations to those things/bodies which will feed a person's instant, short-term desires. So, in my role as a minister I find myself dealing more and more with people who come to me just wanting immediate, personal crisis-driven help, right there, right now, whether it is centred on issues connected with mental illness and generalised depression (rampant in Cambridge) or the death of a friend or a loved one. I'm happy to do this — I may be an atheist minister but I'm a Christian atheist and that brings with it the call to serve those who come seeking help in times of need — but it is clear that I, and this church community, are for the most part now being treated like most people treat any impersonal, profit driven "service industry". Immediate thanks are often effusively given (for which I'm grateful) but there comes with the encounter no loyalty to the community, nor even any real if only temporary generosity (in either physical or financial help). When the "job" is done, that's often it, they move on without a by your leave leaving you more knackered than before and still facing the brutal truth of being, again as Harris puts it, "locked into long-term decline." It's clear to me that if things don't change a few more years hence and we simply won't be there to offer this kind of open-hearted help.
Let me tell you a single tale that illustrates the kind of thing that this can result in.
A couple of years ago the English Defence League held a series of marches to protest at plans to build a mosque in nearby Mill Road. The third of these marches crossed the beautiful green space opposite the church called Christ's Pieces which lies at the heart of the Kite area. On the day of the march I thought it would be a good thing to open our church doors so people could come in and quietly light a candle to demonstrate their commitment to keeping Cambridge the liberal open and inclusive place it (likes to think it) is. I didn't expect hoards of people (I'm not a total fantasist) but because the local radio reported positively on the initiative and half a dozen local politicians got on board I had hopes for a couple of dozen visitors. Despite letting the local community know about it directly as well only nine people came in during the whole day. However, the following week, at a meeting in the church organised so that people could meet with the council to discuss the difficulties of local parking, one-hundred-and-fifty people came.
Protesting about a neo-Nazi march through your neighbourhood — 9
Getting angry about your personal parking — 150
Don't get me wrong, parking is an issue to be concerned about but so, too, are neo-Nazis trampling through your neighbourhood, yes? Well, apparently no. Why? Well, it looks to me that this is because this isn't any longer a local community for most of the people who now live here, it's simply the temporary place where quicksilver individuals live for a brief moment of their lives. Again and again I'm forced to ask myself how on earth is one to build strong resilient communities against such a background? I'll keep trying (what else is there to do?) but, I admit, it feels like one of the labours of Sisyphus and my heart goes out to all those whose situation is infinitely more difficult than mine.
This story, I know, can be recounted in many similar ways, often involving situations unimaginably worse than what is going on here. But my point here isn't to get your sympathy, instead it's about alerting you to the fact that what has happened to the poorest regions of our country, such as Lincolnshire, is also happening more and more even in one of the wealthiest and most privileged cities in the UK. I'm sure you all know Martin Niemöller's (1892–1984) famous and chilling words:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
It seems to me that Niemöller's words hold true today in our own context because, as I hope my words above reveal, neoliberal ideology and its utterly destructive consequences is successfully working is way through every level of our society, even unto the heart of Cambridge. It's time to speak out because, unless we do, I guarantee that it's going to get you soon and then there may be no one left to speak for you.