29 September 2016

A reflection by the President of the Methodist Conference on housing


A reflection by the Revd Dr Roger Walton, President of the Methodist Conference, at the Christians on the Left prayer breakfast on housing
at the Labour Party Conference 2016.

5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  6 Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." John 4:5-7 


Last Sunday I was participating in Harvest Service.

We took our theme from the Relief and Development Charity All We Can, whose focus for Harvest is Make a Splash.  It is particularly focused on access to clean water and we used information, stories and videos from Uganda.

Their suggested reading was the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan women in John 4.  Re-reading this passage with the issue of access to water in mind meant that I read the passage differently and noticed different features.  I realised that question of ownership is central in the passage.  Whose water is it? Who has the water and who doesn't? Who owns it? Who can give and who needs to receive it?

In begins in the opening verses - whose well is it?  Samaritans or for all children of Jacob?

It was also the church's Jubilee Year- 50 years since it was built.

In the Hebrew scriptures, the Year of Jubilee was a special year.

It was the year after 7 cycles of 7 years.

Years were grouped in units of 7.

For six years, people worked the land, in the seventh year, the land was rested. There was no sowing or reaping. The land had a sabbatical, so that the earth could replenish itself, so the poor could glean, and so wild animals could roam and graze. It was an environmentally and socially sensitive year.

But after 7 cycles of 7 years, it was Jubilee Year.

Jubilee Year was extra special, because not only was the landed doubly rested but all debts were cancelled and all those who had become enslaved because of debt were released.  People remembered that the land was gift from God and no one owned the land other than God.

In relation to housing the issue of ownership is central too.

  • When I worked in the north east of England, the Church of England did some outreach work on the new flats down by the Quayside in Newcastle. Many flats were bought and deliberately held empty‚Ķso that with ever increasing house price rises, the owner could sit on an ever more valuable asset. They didn't want people to live in them. Yet, you would walk from the quayside into the centre and meet many homeless people.
  • What a contrast with my visit to Fair Isle in the Shetlands, where the National Trust owns the Island and everyone rents from the National Trust.

The Greek word for house is Oikos. Interestingly, we developed some fairly key words from it.

  • Economy = the rules of the house - the way we rule the household
  • Ecumenism = which tends to be thought of churches cooperating but its actual meaning is much more inclusive and means the whole inhabited earth. All who live in the house
  • Ecology = the word or discourse about the house - which in modern usage is about how we treat the planet, all creatures and one another.

For Christians, these three words are deeply connected and inform one another.

The biblical tradition holds that inclusive, responsible stewardship informs the way we develop our economy, and that the economy has a creativity loaned by God to be a benefit and blessing for all.

The day of Pentecost resulted in a community that was radically different in its holding all thing in common.  This leads Norman Kraus, the Mennonite theologian to write:

"In the new order of things life is no longer lived for one's private advancement. Selfishness and greed are now recognised for the idiocy they are! Life is together. Individuality finds fulfilment in a community where personal relationships are more important than individual achievement. Each brother and sister's worth is perceived in their reflection of God's grace, not their economic utility or social role.

There is space in the biblical tradition for each to have his or her own space (for example Micah 4.4 talks of each person sitting under their own fig tree and vines).  But true fulfilment is found in the interaction of all in a diverse and rich world in which everyone has a place. 

Housing is one signal that we have such a place. 

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