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FRANCIS, POLITICS AND URBAN MISSION

 

We know from the stories of Francis’ life that in his time Europe was undergoing significant changes. Although Muslim and Christian armies would continue to fight over the possession of the holy sites of the Middle East for another century, away from the battlegrounds, transport was becoming safer, trade was burgeoning, and merchants such as Francis’ father were beginning to displace the old aristocracy as the most significant secular figures in society. Wealth was steadily shifting away from the landed farming estates towards production in the cities and towns. A new societal order presented an opportunity for a new form of the religious life.

Francis was the man God called to bring it to birth. Instead of following the traditional monastic pattern by withdrawing to remote locations and building a monastic economy on agriculture, he set up small urban households whose daily needs were met by begging. His friars’ life was centred upon preaching the Good News to the townspeople through simple words and direct acts of kindness.

Was Francis an astute politician? I’m sure he would have been appalled at such an appellation. However, he managed to be one of the greatest critics of the way the church was failing his generation, whilst remaining lauded as one of its most loyal servants. He was equally adept at negotiating with the papacy, using his friends and allies at court, as he was at grandstanding outside luxurious banquets, in some of the earliest examples of a one man political demonstration. His simple authenticity and Christ-likeness allowed him to build bridges across the greatest divides, even to the extent of crossing the Crusader battle lines at Damietta and befriending Sultan Malik al-Kamil in his own tent. Francis proved that true revolution often comes from within the structures, not without.

The Five Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion are designed to help us to engage with the largely urban and deeply politicised society of our present century whilst being true to the gospel. The life of our founder saint, who sought answers to such questions in his own day, can help us along our journey.

One of the Five Marks of Mission is ‘to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth’. As a newly appointed bishop I was taken to visit a garden centre, where there was a display of many different shapes and sizes of Francis, variously accompanied by birds, tame wolves, or other flora and fauna. Yet Francis’ commitment to loving the creation for the sake of its Creator went far beyond preaching to the birds or picking up worms from the footpath. He offers us a true theology of creatureliness. This does much more than dismiss exponents of millennialism that would have us exhaust the Earth’s resources so that Christ would return sooner. It is equally critical of the inherent dualism of many theologies of stewardship, which place humanity over and against creation rather than locating us as fully part of it. We are more than God’s gardeners; we are part of the fruits of the garden itself. Here is the basis for a greener theology, and it poses for us a sharp question that I find myself wrestling with both as a bishop and as one of the governors of the Church Commissioners with their £7 billion plus of investments. How do we address, in God’s name, a society that consumes no more than one planet’s worth of resources? 

Another of the Anglican Five Marks of Mission is that we should ‘respond to human need by loving service’. The hallmark of Francis’ poverty is that it was freely chosen. He freely embraced the need to rely on others to provide even the most basic daily necessities, and pressed that same rigorous poverty upon his communities. However, his attitude to the need he met in others was markedly different. This latter poverty he sought to counter in whatever way he could, even if that meant tearing his cloak in two or giving up what little had just been given to him. Whilst choosing to beg alms was a spiritual discipline, being forced into poverty was degrading and dehumanizing. Just as much medieval theology assumed that those who were destitute were being punished for their sins, so today those who beg in our streets, or turn up at our foodbanks, are ranked among the guilty. Either they are culpable for their plight, through profligacy, addiction or fecklessness, or their poverty is presumed to be pretence. In the years after the First World War, a number of devout Anglican men were called by God to minister to the wayfarers who were pushed from town to town every few days in desperate search for jobs that their wounded or shell-shocked state kept ever beyond reach. It should not surprise us that they turned to Francis for their inspiration and began what we know as the First Order. How do we proclaim, in God’s name, a society that no longer seeks to blame and punish the poor, nor to make the innocent suffer for fear that anyone might be pulling a trick on us? 

I still draw regularly on Francis’ meeting with the Sultan at Damietta as a sign of how, even at the most difficult times, it is important to maintain communications and mutual respect. But this wasn’t the only example of the saint working for reconciliation. He famously added a verse to his Canticle of Brother Sun to commemorate his calling together of the mayor and bishop of Assisi, to heal their divisions. And my favourite story for telling in school assemblies is of how he reconciled the Wolf of Gubbio and the townspeople, so that both might have a better and happier life thereafter. Helping people to see beyond their own immediate interests and perceptions, and to look at a situation through the eyes of another is probably even more vital today than it was when Francis began to practice such skills 800 years ago. It, too, links to one of our Five Marks of Mission, ‘To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation’. How do we proclaim, in God’s name, a society that grounds justice and transforms itself through reconciliation?

Whilst I’m told that the famous phrase often attributed to St Francis, ‘Preach the Gospel. Use words if you have to’, is of less than certain origin, it’s easy to see how it became attached to him. Both in his daily life and in the Rule he wrote for his first companions, he sought to be a living example of gospel living. Again and again, when he was expected to preach, instead he performed some memorable action, more profound than any words. When we read the first of the Five Marks of Mission, ‘To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom’, we learn from Francis that the most powerful words we use will be those that are in harmony with the things that we do. The disillusionment that many in our society have towards both politics and religion is, I believe, grounded in the accusation of hypocrisy. We are not seen to behave in line with what we preach. How do we proclaim, in God’s name, a faith that is authentically revealed by our deeds and our words?

The last of the Five Marks of Mission is, ‘To teach, baptise and nurture new believers’. Its emphasis is on the process of formation, which follows on from conversion and begins the lifelong task of growing into holiness. Monastic communities are, at their very heart, formational communities. My role as chair of the Advisory Council of the Church of England, working with both traditional and new monasticism, is centred on enabling our Religious Communities to be places where such formation into holiness can most effectively take place. Francis nurtured his companions with both a firmness of purpose and a deeply pastoral gentleness. He challenged the brother who wanted to own a prayer book, but voluntarily broke his own strict fast in order to eat with a member of the community who was distraught with hunger. Such ministry is essentially relational where, in the human encounter, side by side,  we explore God’s call upon us. It has been my privilege to act as a novice counsellor to a number of new tertiaries over the years. Together we have talked, studied, reflected and discerned what it means to follow Jesus after the example of St Francis. In a complex urban society we often find ourselves members of a number of separate communities such as parish, family and workplace, which are seeking to form us in different ways. In setting up the Third Order, Francis gave weight to this multifaceted living in a way that no one had previously done. He found a way in which those inspired by his charism could be formed not just for living in community but for living beyond it. How do we proclaim, in God’s name, a way of being community that nurtures and forms us into those who can transform society? f

Copyright Paul Heyes Photography Limited.
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The new Bishop of Manchester, the Right Rev David Walker, outside Manchester Cathedral. Picture by Paul Heyes, Wednesday June 5, 2013.

David Walker TSSF is the Bishop of Manchester and Chair of the Advisory Council for Religious Communities.