Last week I took the saddest funeral I have ever taken. It’s a funeral that was entirely preventable. If I was the Registrar of Deaths I think I might have been tempted to write just two words under ’cause of death:’ poverty and isolation.
I minister in a decidedly Middle England market town parish and yet over the last couple of years I have ministered time and again into the effects of real and damaging poverty. Poverty in our market town is largely dispersed and hidden but it’s there. Whatever the politicians say poverty really is in our midst. It might be disguised, it might be hidden, but it’s there and its awful. Real poverty, as I have learned to my shame, costs lives.
The poor of middle England tend to be dispersed, isolated, even forgotten. This came home to me last week at my ‘saddest funeral.’ Normally I prefer to go and visit the family of the bereaved in their home. On this occasion one of the daughters, a daughter who lived in the family home, said she would prefer to come and see me, with her sister. The reason was simple and straightforward: in the family home there was only one chair. The family home is on a 1960’s development and is surrounded by what might be thought of as Middle England semis and bungalows. The deceased had fallen into hard times when her husband had left her thirty odd years ago. For thirty years she had tried to eek out some form of living as a cleaner and had lived with anorexia. She had lived in our very midst and as one of the eight people who attended the funeral said ‘we had simply forgotten about her.’ To die forgotten must be about as sad as it gets. How many poor and forgotten people are in our midst? I suppose the only honest answer must be that we have literally no idea.
Recently we hosted a service to help live ‘with, through and beyond depression, fear and anxiety.’ The service was well attended and largely by people I don’t know. I can think of only two other occasions (apart from the occasional offices) when its likely that I might not recognise a large proportion of the congregation: Christmas and Easter. And, yet at the mental health service I didn’t recognise at least 50% of those who attended. I still know nothing of their stories, the reasons for their attendance, or the reality of their daily lives. But, I do know this, struggling to live with poor mental health, like poverty, is endemic. I also know that poor mental health is a growing reality and is no respecter of age, gender, social class or any other human identity marker. Poor mental health is, furthermore, contagious, inter-generational and ‘viral,’ and isolating. The loneliness of poor mental health has to be experienced to be understood, and the sickening perversity is that sufferers can feel totally alone even when they are living alongside others. Oh, and one more thing: like poverty it takes route and sometimes hides right in the midst of us.
What has become clear to me over the last few years is that experiencing isolation isn’t necessarily a function of geography. The isolated, marginalized, alienated and forgotten are often to be found right under our noses, in our neighborhoods, in our very midst. Which brings me on to mission.
Last week I attended two diocesan events: Bishop Steven’s day on renewing catechesis (his favorite word!) and the Oxford Diocesan Synod at which we discussed the role out of the diocesan strategic investment plan. I appreciated the discussions that were held at both events. I deeply support (but not without a few reservations) both initiatives. In my own context I take the notion of growth in number and in holiness extremely seriously.
In our table top discussion at diocesan synod several people talked with passion and lamentation about the apparent inability of the church to connect with young adults. I happen to share this worry. However, I also worry that the Church of England is spending too much time worrying about demographics as opposed to the conditions that affect, for the worse, every demographic. Poverty, isolation and mental health are, for sure, no respecter of straightforward demographics. Could it be that by concentrating on the universal we arrive at the particular?
The gospel time and again ask us to take seriously the claims of the poor and the sick. Jesus mandated his disciples to make sure that they invited those who have no capacity to issue a return invitation to the wedding banquet (Luke 14, 7-14). He also told his disciples to search for banquet guests in the hedgerows (Luke 14, 23). The pursuit of justice for the poor and marginalized is a consistent and major biblical theme. The healing miracles always seem to me to be as much about restoration, the re-incorporation into community life, as they are about physical healing.
If we are serious, as a church, about mission and evangelism my hunch is that we do well to spend less time worrying about demographics and refocus our energies on being the gospel to the poor, sick, marginalized, alienated and forgotten.
Where do we find them? As I have learnt (to my shame) in our very midst.