Thursday, 18 April 2013

Cull of J&P workers continues despite election of social justice Pope

The news that Leeds Diocese has got rid of its Justice and Peace worker, with Wrexham reviewing the situation came through just as the very social justice orientated Pope Frances was being inaugurated in Rome.

The extinguishing of the J&P position in Leeds confirms a recent trend. Shrewsbury got rid of its worker last year with Salford and Portsmouth terminating the role before that. It’s not all one way traffic though with Nottingham recently appointing a new worker.

There are now 10 workers, mostly part time, in the 22 diocese across England and Wales. So is there a concerted effort to remove J&P from the Church landscape by the death of a thousand financial cuts?

The move seems strangely timed coming just as we see the election of probably the most openly committed social justice Pope for many a decade. Pope Francis hails from Latin America, the home of liberation theologians like Gustavo Guittierez, Jon Sobrino and Helda Camra. He has been famed for his humble style of living, taking the bus and cooking his own food.

Less well recognised in this country is that the justice and peace movement in the UK was a manifestation of the very same source as the liberation theology of Latin America.

In the modern epoch, social justice activists worldwide took their motivation from Vatican II. The justice and peace movement in Britain came to epitomise the call from Pope John XXIII to open the windows of the Church and engage with the world. The J&P movement brought through some of the leading social justice activists of the past 30 years.

Leeds Justice and Peace Commission for instance was the place where former Labour MP John Battle and former CAFOD director Julian Filochowski cut their formative teeth in social justice. Former Progressio executive director Christine Allen was J&P worker in Liverpool. Bruce Kent has always been a close ally of J&P from his days as a priest in Westminster. The list goes on.

In the early days, activists set about creating a network across the country, helped immensely by CAFOD, which funded workers and commissions. Under the guidance of Mr Filochowski this relationship blossomed, with CAFOD in exchange for the funding gaining a ready-made network of activists on the ground to do its work. There was also adult education and formation going on at this time.

Notably, in the light of what has happened recently, diocesan funding was lacking for the work, with bishops happy to sit back and let CAFOD pick up the bills in many cases.

A crucial development in the social justice structure was the creation of the National Justice and Peace Network (NJPN). This became the co-ordinating body for justice and peace work across England and Wales. A co-ordinating and development point for workers and commissions across the diocese.

Part of its mission was running the annual conference. This brought together activists from across the country. It remains one of the biggest gatherings of Church people in the UK, offering a unique networking opportunity for those involved in social justice.

The conference takes a different theme each year. The focus last year was on China, prior to that dignity in the workplace, food security and migration featured.

The conference though has an equally important solidarity role providing an opportunity for everyone gathered together to realise that they are all banging their heads on the same wall – just in different parts of the country.

When NJPN was set up, the conference was just to be part of its work. Unfortunately, over the ensuing years, the conference has come to dominate the NJPN agenda. It is a huge undertaking requiring much effort by a small number of people but should it be the central focus?

There are now quarterly speaking meetings between conferences but there is the lack of any coherent programme linking it all together.

Perhaps after each conference the NJPN ought to set up a standing committee to take the work on that area forward. This would take resources but over a period would lead to a body of knowledge and expertise being created that was not available elsewhere.

Remarkably, the attitude of NJPN to actions like the cutting of J&P workers seems to be to issue regretful statements and carry on. There is never a discussion about what the network is about, how it should respond etc. When was the last time we saw a picket of diocesan offices protesting about the removal of J&P workers?

A major problem with NJPN is that it does politics but is not political. As a result it seems the network is being chipped away at by those in the Church hierarchy who control the purse strings.

Notably, the NJPN application for funding from the Plater College Trust this year was turned down, despite the theme being “leadership for the laity, particularly in the area of social justice and social action, to equip individual Catholics to apply Catholic social teaching and play an active role in the Church’s mission.” The £183,280 was considered better spent elsewhere.
The hierarchy seem to believe that social justice work can be done better, via the likes of Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN). There seems to be no shortage of money to support CSAN, with individual diocese like Westminster and Salford employing their own workers.

The hierarchy no doubt see CSAN as something that can be more easily controlled but they might also believe it does more in a measurable sense regarding social justice work.

Whatever the truth of the matter there is a clear preferential option for CSAN operating among the hierarchy of the Church.

Something though that has been surprising is the rapidity with which justice and peace seems to have been moved into the position of outlaw status. This ofcourse could be the movement’s salvation, as it realises what is happening regarding the institutional church, it may discover a stronger prophetic voice. There may ofcourse also be a sea change emanating from Rome, now that Pope Francis is in charge.

What is for certain is that if NJPN wants to remain as a serious player in the Church structures then it will have to start becoming political pretty quickly, just continuing with this head in the sand attitude as one J&P worker after another falls can only in the long term lead to elimination from the scene.

see also -

18/4/2013 - Guardian diary: jobs gone; more in peril. No sanctuary in the Catholic church

Tablet - Who will speak out for the threatened Justice and Peace movement

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