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Housing Justice Launch - St Martin-in-the-Fields, London

Thursday 27th November 2003

A sermon from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, delivered at a service to celebrate the launch of Housing Justice. The Archbishop spoke of the shared commitment of all Christians to tackle homelessness and housing injustice. The service was held at St Martin-in-the-Fields in central London.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Computer imaging has reached great heights of sophistication but probably one of the less sophisticated bits of it that we are most familiar with is the ability to abstract the image of a person from the background. You take someone's moving image away from what was originally filmed and transpose it into another context. And that's something which computer imaging can do that real life can't, and one of our biggest mistakes is to imagine that real life somehow can.

There are no human beings without backgrounds. We do not pass our lives against a dead white background, acting the void, acting hope. We are who we are because of who we're with and where we are. That background which makes us the people we are is, of course, a background of ordinary human relationship. But it is also a background of what we do with our environment and what we make of our environment.

Human beings are to a greater or lesser degree nest makers. They make the neutral space around them recognisably theirs. As the parent of a teenage child I'm very conscious about how very freely and creatively human beings make spaces instinctively their own! But we all do it. We create our own distinctive forms of mess around us.

And when we talk about homes and homelessness we're not talking simply about a physical backdrop but about how people make or are not allowed to make a physical environment their own. A person who is homeless is a person who is in some important degree deprived of having that background that makes them in other people's eyes, fully human. They've not had the full freedom to make part of the world theirs, to put the print of their humanity upon it. And that's a reminder, of course, that the homeless person is not simply a person without a roof over their head. The homeless person is someone who is deprived in the area of relationship. Something has gone badly wrong in relationships – stripping them of that human background of love and friendship and that execrably leads to all those tangles and problems that occur when there is no physical background, no literal home for them to make their own, no space that's theirs.

Jack, let's say, is a man of 43. He's had a series of difficult relationships and difficult working environments. His wife left him some years ago. He's lost another short term job. He hasn't seen his son for ten years, and he suffers from severe clinical depression. It's not entirely surprising that you meet Jack on the streets, and it's a long task to find what a home would mean for someone like this because relationships have been shattered. It's more than a matter of putting a physical roof over their head.

And if we as churches are concerned about homelessness, it is I hope and trust not just because we would like to see people, as it were, tidily housed and taken care of. It's because we sense someone living with deep breakages in their relationships is someone whose deprivation and suffering, alienation is something that eats away at and compromises our own humanity as well.

Churches are or should be in the business of mending relationships. So when as churches we try to think through and the enormous challenge posed to us by the homeless in our country and our cities, we do so because of that basic non-negotiable demand upon us as churches that we give ourselves to the business of mending relationships.

In other words we try to see a person who is homeless, not as a case of someone who hasn't got a roof over their heads, but as someone whose present situation comes to being through a complicated record of broken relations – and we try to address their humanity at every appropriate level. Not to imagine that we solve the problem by tidying them away. On the way here today I was speaking with a colleague about the way in which in many of our cities, when the tourist season comes along, people are tidied away from one bit of the city to another, even from one town to another. Moving the problem, refusing to address the question of human as well as material background, the background that makes us human. And we live too, in an environment where there is or seems to be an immense gulf between the needs of ordinary people, the stable background that helps them to be human, and the way in which the property market operates, which seems to have very little to do with human resource, human need or human dignity. And that leads me to a significant issue about what we are trying to address in the creation of Housing Justice.

I belong to that generation whose awareness of homelessness was first raised by Cathy, Come Home in the 60's. I imagine I'm not the only one here for whom that is true. A generation who shared something of the sense of urgency in addressing the crisis because of that; a generation that has certainly learned a lot from the Simon Community as it was in those days, the Cyreneans as it later became. And nothing will take away from the priority of addressing human issues, human crises, through direct response, as Shelter and the Cyreneans and other such charities do. At the same time as churches we are not simply in the business of binding up wounds but in the business of asking sometimes awkward questions about why wounds are inflicted in the first place. We can't avoid raising the structural questions, political questions about housing and homelessness, and we need to do that as believers together.

The gospel today, the gospel we heard a few minutes ago, tells us in the bluntest possible terms that we do not mend our relationship with God unless we mend our relationships with others; and that in the mending of our relations with those who are most deeply and dramatically in need, we begin to live our way into that mending of relationships with God which Jesus Christ has made possible for all.

And it's important to say too on an occasion like this that we also begin to mend our relationships with one another as believers. To begin to pick up the challenge of housing and homelessness together as churches is to admit that our relationships with one another as believers are flawed, broken, sometimes even bitter; to come together and recognise that first we need to mend our relations with those most in need is perhaps the surest way of letting ourselves be driven deeper as believers, to ground the root of our unity in the life of Jesus Christ. So to address these matters ecumenically is more than just convenience, a matter of singing from the same hymn sheet in the social as well as theological context. It is a matter of finding out how we are healed, how we are mended as believers – as we turn our attention, our energy, our imagination, and skill and enthusiasm to addressing the needs of those most at risk and making sure that wherever there is no voice for them in the public arena, we are prepared to be that voice, speak with them – not just for them – with them in the public arena.

So on this occasion we are committing ourselves together to that plain and basic task, recognising that homelessness is a matter of more than just physical alienation or distress – a matter that appeals to the very heart of what human beings are about. We are committing ourselves to recognising the connections between broken relations and the physical stress that is attached to homelessness. We are committing ourselves to raising a voice together in the public arena reminding everyone who will listen that the relation of the homeless person with the whole social and political environment is also a question of urgency. We commit ourselves to finding in all of this new ways of being at home with one another as believers so that we may more effectively witness to that ultimate healing relationship spread upon the earth by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

G K Chesterton in one of his slightly lesser known poems includes a meditation about Christmas, which includes the words 'To an open house in the evening, home shall all men come'. As if we can't think about healing or wholeness unless we think about what it is to be 'at home', and have access to an open house. The church has not always been good at being an open house, and yet we speak of inviting people home in our proclamation of the gospel. This afternoon we're simply faced with the question of whether we mean what we say about inviting people home, about recognising that only in the costly, difficult and prolonged healing of relationships, will our gospel be credible.

May we then do what we can in the years ahead, as Housing Justice evolves, to mend relations at every level, to see people against the missing background and ask what we can do to supply what is lacking in relationship or trust. May we not be backward when challenging the assumptions of a society which does seem to regard so many people as basically dispensable, capable of being cleared off the manor. May we speak credibly about the house, the home that God's love has made to dwell in the midst of the human family.


© Rowan Williams 2003

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