Cathedrals and Social Justice – National Cathedrals Conference

Cathedrals should be at forefront of their communities, righting social justice, and caring for those who are most vulnerable, the second National Cathedrals Conference heard.

Cathedrals and Social Justice – National Cathedrals Conference, Newcastle Cathedral 17th May 2022

This morning’s presentations (Tuesday 17th May) were collectively titled ‘Cathedrals: Arks, God’s Mission and Social Justice’.

Journalist, writer, and papal biographer Austen Ivereigh began by referring to how the Pope’s social teaching can help churches and cathedrals, considering how people on the fringes of society have been affected by the socio-economic fallout of the pandemic.

Having worked with Pope Francis on a book about his vision for a post-lockdown world (‘Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future’), Austen cited Pope Francis:

“From a crisis like this, we can only come out better or worse; we can’t come out the same.”

“In a crisis, institutions face the same temptations – withdraw into themselves in an attempt to do what they were planning to do, uninterrupted, in which case they corrode, they decline. Or they’re capable of self-transcendence; of going out and being changed by the suffering they see – and so create a new future.”

Dr Selina Stone, Lecturer in Theology at St Mellitus College in London, considered the role of social justice in the scriptures and reflected on cathedrals as ‘spaces’ for telling diverse stories – Biblical, historical, and contemporary.

“If we want to have a full picture of our world and our reality as it is, we need to make room for multiple stories. We must recognise that multiple things can be true. We don’t have to choose one story over others but have a heart and an openness to listen and to hold together those tensions and nuances, as we try to understand this complex world we are now living in.”

Referring, like Austen, to the pandemic, she surmised:

“There are multiple forms of power and exclusions at work in our society at the moment that have become ever more evident.”

As Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, Mark Russell was able to talk specifically about some of the challenges facing children today, including unhappiness brought about by poverty, hunger, and worrying about the future. He reflected:

“No child in 21st century Britain should need a foodbank or a professional, inspirational footballer to ensure they have enough to eat.”

He quoted abolitionist leader and author Frederick Douglass in saying:

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults”.

Mark suggested to delegates: “[People feel they can wander into a cathedral, which makes you a crossroads for your community, and [gives cathedrals] the potential to be a gathering place for communities. You can put on events; invite speakers, invite your MP; invite young people, to put these issues on the radar of your cathedral; to open up debate and galvanise support. To be passionate about changing the world for children.”

The presentations were bookended by Dr Anne Richards, the Church of England’s National Public Policy Adviser (Society, Spirituality, Apologetics).

She drew comparison between the idea of ‘sanctuary’ and that of the Biblical Ark and considered ‘How is a cathedral a beacon of social justice?’.

“This conference is about exploring the tremendous potential of our great cathedrals as publicly accessible spaces. As places that people are drawn to; great arks of sanctuary and holy places where the healing love of God can be found.”

“The pitch that goes on the ark keeps the rain out and glues the whole thing together… [The pitch] turns a piece of wood into a place of sanctuary and hope which can whether any storm.”

“Sometimes we pretend it’s not raining. It is raining; it’s raining hard […] We have to be agents of social justice by acknowledging that a hard rain is going to fall and it is falling. It’s drowning people. And we need to go upstream and find out why people are being drowned.”

Different Country Different Church, Second National Cathedrals Conference, Newcastle Cathedral, May 16 – May 19

All the news from the National Cathedrals Conference can be found here.