The executive leader of Church Mission Society, Philip Mounstephen, ponders whether poverty in parts of the UK is worse than Uganda
“Poverty in parts of the UK is worse than in Uganda.” That was the proposed headline for a Church Mission Society press release, as we sought to attract attention and maybe some funding for our mission work in Britain. It certainly sparked a lot of discussion in the CMS office! Should we use it? Was it true? And even if in some sense it was, did we risk belittling the very real economic challenges many in parts of Uganda face? I’ve been to parts of northern Uganda which are still recovering from years of LRA activity and life there can be very, very tough.
Yet those contentious words have some significant credibility. They come from the Revd Jenny Green, a CMS mission partner who worked for 20-years in south-west Uganda and who is now ministering on the Faxfleet estate in Bradford. In Jenny’s words: “In Kisoro, almost everyone has someone. Although so many are struggling, there is help from extended family networks and the local community. But in Faxfleet, as in many other parts of the UK, community and even primary family structures are so broken that many find themselves destitute.”
Contrast that with the work of Church Mission Society’s sister organisation, CMS Africa, whose strapline is “Renewed Mindsets; Transformed Communities”. One very significant mindset renewal they seek is to change people’s minds about poverty and wealth, to help people in Africa see that they are not in fact poor, but blessed, and therefore rich, and therefore not victims of their circumstances but people who, under God can change those circumstances.
In thinking about these issues I’ve been hugely helped by Walter Brueggemann’s paper “The Liturgy of Abundance and the Myth of Scarcity.” His contention is that much of the world (especially in the West) has bought into a “myth of scarcity” and no long believes in the abundance and generosity of God. As he puts it: “the real issue confronting us is whether the news of God’s abundance can be trusted in the face of the story of scarcity.”
That’s a sharp question not just for Africa. The “myth of scarcity” has a significant hold on the church in the West where we all too easily buy in to a belief that decline is inevitable. It’s for that reason that Church Mission Society is encouraging churches to engage with the Partnership for Missional Church process. It’s a process that has much in common with CMS Africa’s approach – and not least a conviction that change is much more than a matter of technique or strategy. It’s about mindset and belief: what we believe about ourselves and what we believe about God.
So, yes, we can find real poverty in the UK – and real wealth in Africa too.
I think the challenge for us is to see both wealth and poverty not simply in material terms. Of course the material issues matter – but as part of the whole. It’s surely significant that Matthew 5:3 expands Jesus’ words about the Kingdom of Heaven belonging to ‘the poor’ by describing them as ‘the poor in Spirit.’ And I do think that is an expansion, not a contraction. It is not to spiritualise poverty, but to express it in fuller terms than the simply material.
Both poverty and wealth are multi-faceted. The most apparently poor communities can be truly wealthy: the most apparently wealthy the most poor. Jesus addresses the church in Laodicea with these words: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing’. But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Rev 3:17).
There are forms of both poverty and wealth to which we are blind. We need to have our eyes opened to see both in their breadth. And we need to place our trust in our creator and creative God who is always in the business of bringing blessing and abundance out of nothing.
And how did we settle that office discussion? Perhaps it was a cop-out, but we turned it into a question: “is poverty more profound in UK than Uganda?” Cop-out or not it’s a good question to ask, and our calling, our mission, is surely, in the name of Jesus, to challenge poverty, wherever we may find it, and whatever form it may take.