Field Notes article

Contending Modernities in East London

In its religious intensity and diversity, east London is an exciting testing-ground for the Contending Modernities (CM) project.  R. Scott Appleby has summed up the project’s vision thus:  to explore the interaction between Catholicism, Islam and secularism, treating them as “three distinctive, internally plural, and overlapping traditions that have operated both apart from and in dynamic interaction with one another, thereby giving shape to the contemporary world we all inhabit.”

Contending Modernities & the Quest for a New Cosmopolitanism

The first phase of the east London project is entitled “Community Organizing, Migration & the New Cosmopolitanism.”  East London is an area with a long history of migration, and the religious and cultural diversity it brings.  Brick Lane Mosque in Tower Hamlets is a case in point: it was initially a Huguenot church, then became a Synagogue, and is now a mosque that caters largely to Bengali worshippers.

How do migrant communities with diverse religious and cultural identities shape a common life?  Professor Vincent D. Rougeau has argued for the possibility of a “new cosmopolitanism,” rooted in a faith and culture and also committed to the dignity of all human beings — and, in consequence, willing to work with neighbours of other faiths and cultures to negotiate and pursue a shared vision of the common good.

Applying this vision to his own faith and context, Rougeau writes that a “Catholic cosmopolitan” will be “a loyal citizen” who is also

rooted in a faith tradition that knows no political boundaries and is committed to the dignity of all human beings. The Catholic cosmopolitan should approach American society from a position of critical distance, and this means assessing American social, economic, and political life as a Christian first.

The east London project will consider the relevance of such a “cosmopolitan” vision to migrant communities in our local context.  Catholic and Muslim migrants have historically both been treated with some suspicion in the UK — in part because their faith involves loyalties that reach beyond the nation-state, to an avowedly international Church or Ummah.

The experience of Catholic and Muslim engagement in broad-based community organizing runs counter to such suspicions.  Community organizing harnesses precisely the “problematic” quality of these faiths — above all their loyalty to a truth that transcends the nation-state, and a “critical distance” from the status quo — as a means of working for justice in the local area. Many other forms of political engagement treat religious truth-claims as a problem, demanding, for example, that citizens frame all political demands and arguments in ways that make no reference to such “dogmas.” This move looks deceptively neutral.  In fact, it effectively silences those for whom religious faith is inseparable from wider moral and political commitments.

By contrast, community organising offers a way in which divergent ethical and spiritual worldviews — including Catholic, Muslim and secular — can be more fully expressed. For example, Citizens UK, Britain’s community organizing movement, seeks to build relationships across these “contending modernities” — relationships that lead to common action on issues where convictions overlap.  To give two recent examples, Catholic churches, mosques and secular trade unionists have united to campaign for a Living Wage and for an earned amnesty for undocumented migrants.

Community Organizing & the Wider Dialogue between Contending Modernities

In the context of community organizing, there is an “agreement to disagree” on more contentious and divisive issues.  It is hoped that the very process of building solidarity and trust through common action can lead on to a more constructive and peaceable conversation on these contentious issues.  This is illustrated by the way community organising has engaged with the practice of Scriptural Reasoning.  ‘Scriptural Reasoning’ is the communal practice of Christians, Muslims and Jews reading their sacred texts together — holding together explicit disagreement about their status with a desire to deepen relationships, grow in mutual understanding, and share with the others’ that which each believes to be true.  In churches, mosques and synagogues involved in community organizing, Scriptural Reasoning does not come at the start of the conversation across faiths; rather, it grows out of common action.  This leads first to discussion of the Scriptures that inspire such action and then to more difficult passages and issues.

The research in the east London project is being conducted by the Contextual Theology Centre (CTC), under the supervision of its Senior Fellow and recent Notre Dame faculty member, Professor Vincent D. Rougeau.  This collaboration grows out of an earlier research partnership between CTC and Notre Dame on Christian social action in multi-faith contexts.   The new programme involves research into the motivations for Christian, Muslim and secular engagement in community organizing, and the way these different worldviews negotiate the basis of a common life.

The research team is exploring these issues via a literature review and a series of structured interviews with Muslims, Catholics (and other Christians) and secular participants in community organizing efforts, in order to explore their aspirations and motivations in collaborating across religious and cultural divides for justice.  With additional funding from the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey, we are also undertaking a wider assessment of the state of civil society in these neighbourhoods in the wake of the summer riots.

The project has begun at a hugely eventful time.  The contribution of faith to a peaceable and just society stands at the heart of Britain’s political debate.  In the last month, we have been reflecting on the role of faith in the responses to  the London riots and the financial crisis.  Churches were at the heart of the local response to the riots as well as the ongoing debate about its causes.  The Occupy LSX Camp at St Paul’s Cathedral has the church at the heart of our national economic debate.  CTC’s research team has been equipping local churches to engage in that debate .  We have also been contributing to the ongoing public conversation, informed by our previous research on faith and community organizing, arguing in particular that engagement with Islamic and secular campaigners can in fact help the Church become more faithful and effective in its public witness.

Events continue to unfold at considerable speed. You can follow developments on our Faithful Citizens blog.

Angus Ritchie
Canon Dr. Angus Ritchie has ministered in East London since 1998, throughout which time he has been an active leader in London Citizens.  In 2005, he became founding Director of the Centre for Theology & Community.  He is an occasional contributor to The Guardian, and His first book, From Morality to Metaphysics: The Theistic Implications of our Ethical Commitments, which explores the theistic foundations of morality, was published by Oxford University Press in November of 2012, and his subsequent publications can be accessed at The Centre for Theology & Community.

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