“Be signs of hope in tribal Britain”: Columbans attend National Justice & Peace Conference

Columbans from the British and Irish Regions – ordained and lay – attended the annual Justice and Peace Conference in Derbyshire over the weekend 26-28 July 2019. The conference theme was, ‘Forgotten People, Forgotten Places: Being Church on the Margins’. There was a Columban stall, and a workshop on using social media for JPIC work run by Columban JPIC.

A Birmingham-based scholar in the practice of Black Theology in grassroots communities challenged justice and peace activists, “to resist xenophobia and be signs of hope in tribal Britain”. In his talk: ‘Theologising Brexit: Deconstructing the myths of racial purity, White marginalisation and urban poverty in Britain’ Professor Anthony Reddie warned about the narrow factional nationalism of Brexit and felt increasing polarisation in the months ahead will damage the poor most. Wearing a tee-shirt, ‘Black History is British History’, he urged his listeners to “tell a new story about ourselves as British people, and not one focused on the imagined glories of the past”.

Professor Reddie told more than 200 people, attending the 41st National Justice and Peace Network (NJPN) gathering in Derbyshire, that he found hope in grassroots church communities whose faith has prompted them to broaden their outlook and be more inclusive of people on the margins of mainstream society. “The Churches are more seriously engaged with social justice now than they were 30-40 years ago” he said. Former MP John Battle, Chair of Leeds Justice and Peace Commission, chaired a lively panel discussion with beacon churches in Birmingham and Sunderland that accompany isolated and vulnerable people, particularly refugees and families living in poverty.

However, at the conference Mass, Fr Peter Scally SJ, of the Catholic Chaplaincy of Manchester University, lamented that, despite the leadership of Pope Francis, the mission of Justice and Peace is sidelined in the Catholic Church in Britain. The example he gave was of the Archdiocese of St Andrew in Scotland that “got rid of its J&P post”, but, in England and Wales, the dioceses of Brentwood, Portsmouth, Shrewsbury and Wrexham are amongst those that have also dispensed with J&P fieldworker posts in recent years. His view that J&P voices are pushed to the margins in the Church received nods of agreement around a hall of people from nearly every diocese of England and Wales and many representatives of missionary societies and religious orders. It should be said that the Columbans have provided steady support to JPIC work in England and Wales over the past three decades.

Justice-focused liturgies throughout the weekend were led by Colette Joyce, parish catechist in Hounslow Parish, Westminster Diocese. John Battle highlighted how Pope Francis and St Oscar Romero, a patron of NJPN, are huge inspirations for positive action in favour of the poor and vulnerable. In a final session John Battle highlighted “leaves” on a tree poster which identified priorities for J&P work in the future. These included: ‘Keep churches open in poor communities’, ‘Church needs to support social action projects and structural change’ and ‘Plant more trees and more ecological education in seminaries’ and ‘Ensure parishes have active parish councils’.

The ‘Just Fair’ hosted 23 organisations including York Ecumenical J&P, Medaille Trust, Missio, Pax Christi, SVP, and Columban JPIC. Fairtrade, Palestinian and eco-friendly goods were on sale. New participants were invited to sign up to membership of NJPN. In line with NJPN’s eco-commitment, the conference was largely vegetarian, and the use of re-usable mugs was encouraged.