We interviewed former MP for Leeds West and community activist, John Battle, about his passion for community, social justice and the Church. John Battle will be the main speaker at our event next month ‘Livable Communities: Broken and Beautiful’.
A brief question about you and your background. It is well documented that you are a former MP, have a Roman Catholic faith and are deeply rooted in your local community. How did you become an MP?
I grew up in Yorkshire. I was training to be a Roman Catholic Priest but realised it was not my vocation. I became involved in community development through working with local tenants groups. After attending university I worked to set up Church Action on Poverty having been involved in local politics at the same time. Living in inner city Leeds, I was asked to stand for parliament and was elected MP for Leeds West serving for 23 years. I still live and am active in the same community.
How does your faith inform your practice i.e. what you do day to day?
My faith is about having faith in people. I believe that everybody can change and that you cannot write anybody off. Similarly the Gospel is good news and I believe that there are some great things happening at local level which need to be shared.
There are many Christians and theologians who have informed my faith, including Thomas Merton, a monk whose key passion was ‘Contemplation in a World of Action’, Thomas Aquinas whose key message was to write nobody off and Archbishop Óscar Romero of San Salvador, who once said that the Christian task is ‘to tell the truth about reality and accompany the people’.
I noticed that housing is a particular passion of yours, why is this?
For me, housing and poverty are inextricably linked. We have made housing part of our economic system when it is not; it is part of our social values and community.
We aren’t simply talking about houses we are talking about homes. That is why something like the Bedroom Tax is so wrong.
If you don’t have housing you can’t access your benefits similarly you can’t register to volunteer unless you have proof of address. There is a large group of people who are disenfranchised from society and housing can help to tackle this issue.
One of the solutions to this is to expand the cooperative system. We have a cooperative in my local area and the key is to serve the needs of the local community by matching the right people with the right homes at an affordable rent.
How do you think the Church has responded to the issue of housing?
The Church has recognised the problem but needs to use a different language; it’s not simply about housing but about rebuilding communities. The Church needs to coax people out of their isolation.
This is not just restricted to rural settings; isolation takes place in council blocks. For example, in the community where I live there is a high suicide rate among men living in the tower blocks. They were not coming to the local community café in the area, so we decided to go to them.
We need to meet people where they are. We need to go and listen not just talk and this is not just for church workers to do, this is a command to everyone in the congregation and parish, it’s an imperative to everyone who hears the co-mission.
Why is community of such importance then?
We live in a world of ferocious individualism. We need each other much more than we think. There is this malevolent dynamic that we should be on our own living in consumerist pursuit, forget about helping your neighbour. We are living longer than ever before but we are not living well. Issues such as dementia, sharing care of children, looking after the elderly and the sick, would, in the past, have been the responsibility of the extended family.
We all need to share in the care of these groups. It shouldn’t just be pushed to the local councils. The question is: how do we build a new partnership between local council and the people to provide better public services? Similar to how a charity shop is run, there are new models where you have paid and unpaid staff working side by side for the public good.
There is a culture of fear which is preventing localism from flourishing; we need to build up trust in the local community.
How important do you think it is for churches to advocate with and on behalf of marginalised people to challenge power structures?
The Church can be afraid of challenging the unjust structures although it has been good on speaking out recently on the food poverty issue, helping with Food Banks, for example. However we need to be more outspoken and to challenge laws and budgets that hit the poor hardest. We need to be compassionate and prophetic at the same time.
The Archbishop of Canterbury taking on the loan sharks is a great example of the Church beginning to do this. I believe advocacy, ecumenism and inter faith dialogue play an important part; we all need to work together to challenge structural injustices.
Lastly, with a declining Christian population in the UK but an increase in vibrant, multi-cultural, urban based faith groups – would you agree that the future of the local Church seems mixed?
The Church shouldn’t panic, but they should reach out. The early Church went out to where people were and met them at their points of needs and that is where we need to be.
I am positive about the future of the Church and the role faith communities play in the UK. They tend to be sources of hope and are anchored to a vision which the world is longing for.
Politics is so short term and doesn’t offer hope; there is massive fear factor in politics. Faith communities are the antidote preaching the gospel of love and community and sowing the seeds of hope.
‘Livable Communities: Broken and Beautiful’ is taking place on Wednesday 18th March at Highway Church, Stratford from 10.00am-4.00pm. To find out more information and to book tickets click here.