A history of afflicting the comfortable

July 28, 2006

Huw Richards attends a 'witness seminar' on the Church of England's radical 1980s report on inner cities

Although the term was not widely used then, the Church of England's Faith in the City (FITC) report, published in 1985, was a victim of spin-doctoring.

No reference to the report passes without the additional information that, leaked to the Conservative Government, it was rubbished pre-publication by ministers as "a Marxist document", a characterisation cheerfully broadcast by a compliant press.

The memory of that attack weighed heavy on the seven members of the FITC inquiry gathered together, with seven others involved in some way with the report, at Senate House this month. They were brought together as part of the Centre for Contemporary British History's witness seminar programme - a series of sessions in which participants in historical events are brought together to reminisce, debate, explain and reanalyse.

The FITC seminar was organised by Liza Filby, a PhD student at the Institute of Historical Research - to which the CCBH is affiliated - who works on the CofE's involvement in politics in the 1980s. She started the session with an overview of the period. The vital role of convener, putting questions into play and moving discussion along, was played by Hugh McLeod, professor of modern Church history at Birmingham University.

The "Marxist" jibe made little real sense in 1985, and was more part of a political tradition of heading off discussion by name-calling. It made still less sense 21 years on, listening to the recollections of those involved.

The one person at the seminar who admitted to being seriously influenced by Marxism or liberation theology was not a member of the inquiry. Dan Cohn-Sherbok, professor of Judaism at Lampeter University, explained that he thought of himself in the 1980s as a Jewish liberation theologist. He had attacked the then Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits, when the latter criticised the FITC report for not calling on modern inner-city immigrants to follow the Jewish example by raising themselves through self-help rather than expecting state or charitable assistance. Twenty years on, Cohn-Sherbok admitted: "I have changed my mind. Norman Tebbit (then Secretary for Trade and Industry) was right when he said people should get on their bikes and look for work. We live in a society where immigrants develop by self-help." This evoked the rejoinder, when discussion was thrown open, that,"A lot of people did not own bikes, or did not know how to ride them."

There were reminders of the roots of the inquiry in the inner-city riots of the early 1980s, the Scarman report that followed and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie's, pledge in a 1982 House of Lords debate on Scarman that "we will not abandon the inner cities". David Skidmore, the former general secretary of the Church Board for Social Responsibility, remembered that the Archbishop was frequently reminded of that pledge when visiting cities. A letter to The Times from Canon Eric James, warning that the Church was retreating into suburban comfort, may have prompted the Archbishop to set up the inquiry and charge it with looking not merely at the Church but at the entire condition of the inner cities.

Committee members had to be found. Inquiry member Ruth McCurry said: "I was told of the urban bishops sitting in a circle throwing names in."

One debate was whether it should be an ecumenical or an entirely CofE body.

Skidmore recalled that Bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard, wanted an ecumenical group, but was overruled by the Archbishop: "He said that if it were a church body, the Church would have to respond. Making it ecumenical would have let them off the hook. History has proved him right."

There were three non-Anglicans, but as one of them, Robina Rafferty, chief executive of Catholic Housing Justice, said: "I had no doubt I was there for my knowledge of housing, not as a Roman Catholic."

Sheppard, a former England cricket captain who had written trenchantly on conditions in his diocese, was vice-chair of the committee and the name most often recalled in association with it. Inquiry member John Pickering recalled that his critique of "comfortable Britain"was "not always helpful".

What was evident was the immense importance of the committee chair, Sir Richard O'Brien, previously chair of the Manpower Services Commission. Sir Richard, now 86 and wheelchair-bound, was present at the seminar but could make only minimal contributions. Rafferty recalled him saying: "Where are the facts?"

"He made sure everything in the report was backed by evidence. It meant that nobody was ever able to criticise the report on a factual level,"

Rafferty said. Linbert Spencer, a Salvationist and one of three black inquiry members recalled, said: "I realise how junior I was, but I was never made to feel it. Sir Richard and David Sheppard both had a great social ease, and were excellent at making you feel they valued what you had to offer."

Ray Pahl, research professor of sociology at Essex University, remembered inquiry secretary John Pearson, a seconded civil servant. "A lot of work was done by putting notes in to John, who had the civil servant's gift for pulling things together quickly."

Most important, though, was the decision that the inquiry should do much of its work on the road, going into the inner cities, seeing conditions and meeting the people who lived with them. Rafferty and the Rev Dr Anthony Harvey, an inquiry member, recalled the impact of their first visit to Merseyside. Harvey said: "We became determined that whatever else the report did, it must change things."

If there was some surprise at government hostility - looking back Pahl admits that he underestimated how powerful new Right ideas were becoming - thoughtful politicians took notice. Former BBC religious affairs correspondent Rosemary Hartill remembered Tebbit saying: "No, it isn't a Marxist document. If it were, they might have produced something interesting." But Douglas Hurd, then Home Secretary, was impressed by their conclusions on crime while (then Secretary of State for Defence) Michael Heseltine told the Archbishop: "Your bishops have it wrong. Conditions in the inner city are much worse than they say."

The report was important for the Church. Pickering noted that it showed the inner-city church to be rather more active than the suburban and rural one.

McCurry and Hartill pointed to the immense importance of the Church Urban Fund, set up after the report, which has funded thousands of inner-city projects. Harvey said: "The CUF was not a spin-off, but fundamental. The Church had to show it could practise what it preached."

As to the seminar itself, McLeod did not believe there were any spectacular revelations, but historians would learn something, he says: "It confirmed both that the underlying motivation was not Marxist, but a much more straightforward humanist concern for social justice."

Pahl confirms that bringing people together again can spark memories but noted the extent to which comments may still be guarded public statements.

"The thing to do would be to take two or three of the more vocal contributors aside with a bottle of wine and talk to them about the dynamics of the group: who was awkward, who kept them up late and how many compromises were made simply to get an early night."

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