Why should the church care about Housing?

Around 90% of churches have engaged in some way with meeting needs around food poverty; in contrast, less than 20% have engaged with local housing need and, where they have, such engagement has tended to focus on emergency and crisis intervention to support those who are homeless, rather than approaches which seek to prevent homelessness occurring. Conscious that 8m people are living in substandard, overcrowded or unaffordable accommodation across the country, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Housing, Church and Community has called for this to be a major element of the church’s mission in coming years and are encouraging a culture change that sees engaging with housing need as a creative and natural way to engage with our local communities. 

In advance of a HeartEdge webinar exploring ways in which all churches can get involved in housing need locally and the theological basis for doing so, The Rt Revd Dr Graham Tomlin, Bishop of Kensington, has written the following article explaining why the Church should care about housing. Register for the webinar, to be held on Monday 26 April, at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/why-the-church-should-care-about-housing-tickets-146911208379

Why should the church care about Housing?

The COVID pandemic has revealed in stark clarity some of the real divisions in our society. One of those is in the realm of housing. If you've been living in a reasonably large, comfortable and good quality house, long periods of lockdown have probably been OK for you. However, if you've been living in overcrowded, poor quality accommodation with no outside space then the last year has probably been a really difficult time.

Shelter is one of our most basic human needs, and most of us spend more time in our homes than we do anywhere else (and have done even more during this past year). Unlike many other social or ethical issues, housing affects every one of us, because almost all of us have a place we call home. If God cares for all human life, then he cares about our homes because they matter to us. Housing matters to the church because it matters to all of us.

Clergy know this. Housing issues lie beneath so many of the pastoral and social problems that people face and clergy come across up and down the country. So often, issues of social justice go back to housing, whether mental health issues exacerbated by poor home conditions, dysfunctional relationships aggravated by cramped and overcrowded housing, families struggling to pay the rent or the mortgage, or social segregation due to differentiated land values. Rather than being involved in cure, churches can, if they choose, get involved upstream in prevention, by getting involved in the kind and quality of houses built that might prevent many of these problems in people’s lives.

Yet it’s not just that housing is a pastoral need. In fact, the themes of houses, home and land are central to the story of the Bible. That story begins with God creating a home for humanity in the garden of Eden, and yet very soon, they are sent into exile from that home, cast out of the garden because of their refusal of God’s hospitality and generosity. Then starts the long Story of the journey back home again. Abraham leaves his home, to travel to a promised homeland, a venture that eventually dissipates into slavery in Egypt. The people then return to the land, with in time, the ‘House of God’ as its heart in the Jerusalem Temple, only again to be exiled to Assyria and Babylon centuries later. The Old Testament ends with a return to the land, although more of a trickle than a triumphant homecoming, still awaiting true liberation and waiting for a proper home. The New Testament depicts Jesus, born as a refugee, later leaving his home in Nazareth to set up a new home in Capernaum, from which he launches his vision of the Kingdom of God. The first churches met in homes, and are described as a ‘spiritual house’ (1 Peter 2.5). The story ends with a vision of God making his home with us (Rev 21.3) - the end of all our longings and wanderings.

The story of the Prodigal Son - of a beloved child rejecting his parental home, going off to a far country only to find it much less satisfying than he had hoped, and then returning back to home with an extraordinary welcome, is in fact the story of the entire Bible.

The church is the community that God has called together to remind the rest of the world, through its words and actions, that one day God will ‘make his home with us’ (Rev 21.3). One of the ways the church can give people a taste of that Kingdom of God here and now, bearing witness to God’s past act of salvation and future promise, is to initiate projects and argue for policies that give people a taste of homes that are, like the home we once lost, and are promised in the future, homes that are sustainable, secure, stable, sociable and satisfying. It is possible to tell the story of the gospel in bricks and mortar, in the creation of homes that can serve as an echo of our true home with God.

The Rt Revd Dr Graham Tomlin

Bishop of Kensington