A Street Theologian in Whitechapel

There are at least two stories of interest in the November 25 Times. First, Simon Caldwell writes about the Most Rev Pius Ncube, Archbishop of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. Much of the story is sadly predictable as it discusses the malnutrition, poverty, AIDS, and the tyranny of Robert Mugabe that have reduced Zimbabwe’s life expectancy rate to 34 for women and 37 for men. Archbishop Ncube’s lament that “We cannot compete for attention in a world fixated by events in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Sudan and elsewhere” cannot be unexpected either. But the Archbishop’s “leonine courage” might surprise and inspire us. The article ends with Caldwell’s claim that, while Ncube waits for the end of Mugabe’s long and destructive reign, “he will need the patience of Job and the inner peace that only God can give.” Amen.

The Times also has an excerpt from a new book by the Anglican theologian Kenneth Leech entitled, Doing Theology in Altab Ali Park, which recounts his efforts to be a Christian priest and theologian “in an area which was mainly Bengali, mainly Muslim, and mainly disconnected from the Christian community in its institutional form.” What was he to do? Here is an excerpt. I doubt that many of us will agree with every single one of Rev Leech’s provocative suggestions – perhaps, for example, his suspicion of “centralising tendencies.” Please feel free to comment below:

It seemed, first, to involve being what Christian theologians have called a “sacramental presence” within the area, in this case within, and in a lived tension with, a historic system of colonisation. For the East End of London was one of the major areas to have been colonised by both the Church and the monarchy, in the reign of Queen Anne, and later by Oxbridge, and by the Oxford Movement, in the 19th century.

There is no question that this colonising movement did much good, as well as much harm, but those days are now over — though the consciousness and the mindset remain in much church thinking. Today the Whitechapel area is mainly Muslim, while the white working class remains fairly disconnected from the Church. So what I was envisaging was a very lowly and small-scale attempt to work in a different way and on different models. I was influenced in my approach by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, Charles de Foucauld and the Little Sisters and Brothers of Jesus, and, later, by the new generation of Anabaptists, with their emphasis on prayer, presence and commitment to the local area and its people.

I was also aware that much theology is actually done in the streets though it may not use theological language, or call itself that. During the struggles of the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960s, a key location was the UCLA — not the University of California at Los Angeles, but the “University at the Corner of Lennox Avenue” in New York. This corner played a crucial role in rooting radical Christian thinking at street level.

There are similar street corners in London and elsewhere which have become focal points for what can be called “street theology”, places where people engage in debate and struggle about major questions of life and death. Tower Hill in East London is one of many sites where such questions were debated.

The two people who drew the largest crowds were the Methodist Donald Soper and the East End Jewish communist Solly Kaye. Altab Ali Park is one of these sites too, and many debates on burning issues have taken place on this spot, usually in the course of marches and demonstrations, for which the park has been a favoured spot.

Secondly, being a Christian theologian in such a context seemed to involve trying to engage with the relatively new Muslim population, drawing on the areas of common ground between Muslim and Christian understandings of the role of theological reflection and action. Christians — or at least many of them — and Muslims share a common view that religion can never be “private” but must affect the public realm. This engagement has become more important over the years, although my own role in it was fairly minor.

Thirdly, it seemed important to try to engage with the overwhelming mass of the population for whom the Church and religious institutions in general were largely irrelevant, though they often (but not always) retained a strong affection for them. This affection, where it existed in relation to Christian churches, had been built up over many years of pastoral ministry. We needed always to be aware of the enduring work of those who had gone before us, and whose influence remains.

Fourthly, it involved trying to help along, rather than begin, a process of seeing the Christian community in a new way, not as a hierarchical structure, organised by men (almost always men) from distant parts, but as a real koinonia, a common fellowship, locally rooted, small-scale, gentle and flexible in approach, modest and humble in strategy — in fact, a rediscovery of the grassroots Church. This was, of course, in conflict with the centralising tendencies of much Christianity, most marked within the Roman communion in the papacy of John Paul II. It had more affinity with the “base communities” which grew up in Latin America in the 1970s and with the ecclesial vision of the Anabaptists, whose revival is much to be welcomed.

Fifthly, it was essential to deepen my involvement with, and to try to encourage and strengthen, forms of thought, reflection and critical engagement with issues, local, national and universal, in a way which was rooted in the experience of the local communities.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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