by the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester
That different groups live alongside each other in Britain, but never meet, has been flagged up as a concern, over several decades, most frequently in response to an outbreak of community disorder in our cities. It’s presented as a problem of poorer communities inhabiting parallel worlds. Official responses are directed towards bringing the different parties together, so that they can learn about each other and come to a point of mutual respect, trust and friendship. Much good work has been done, not least through initiatives such as Near Neighbours, a project conceive and initiated by the Church Urban Fund. But the core analysis has been that living in isolated bubbles was a problem for the poor. A problem they needed to be helped by us to solve, so that they could become more like we whose wealth and security allow us to move comfortably with others equally fortunate, whatever our diversity in other ways. Meanwhile the comfortable classes remained blind to their own bubbles.
In another part of the social inclusion sector, I was chairing a meeting a few years ago that brought together agencies involved in helping people back to employment in a conversation with people living on estates with low levels of paid work. After all of the service providers had in turn set out the marvellous opportunities they had to offer I turned to the residents and asked them, “Is that how it feels from your perspective?” Immediately, we were in a different world; one where fear was the dominant emotion and even the physical layout of furniture seemed designed to intimidate rather than welcome. I coined the phrase that, “If a service is not being accessed, then it is by definition not accessible”, as a way of suggesting that the problem, and hence the solution. may lie more with the provider than the service user. I suspected it was the first time many of the agency staff had been challenged to see things from the viewpoint of the other side of the reinforced glass partition, to enter the other’s bubble. It has coloured the way I have engaged in such programmes ever since. It underpins the “co-production” strategy of working with those who are “experts by lived experience” on which the work of the Manchester Homelessness Charter is founded.
And yet as 2016 ends, I’m beginning to realise that the problem of living in bubbles goes much wider in our society. A striking piece of research has shown that one the biggest differences between those who voted for Britain to leave the EU and those opting to remain was in the brands that they feel most positive about. Be it a preferred news source or a favourite food product, not a single item appeared in the top ten list for both groups. We are not simply encased in our bubbles by the social media networks we inhabit but by a wide range of aspects of our lives. I suspect someone will soon produce a comparable piece of research based on the US presidential election, and show similar results.
The majority response from those on the losing side of Brexit has seemed to be that society ought to educate “them” better. And meanwhile somebody should censor the “post-truth” blogs and websites that feed them the lies “they” are so eager to swallow. Less prevalent, but equally missing the point, has been the view that the moral weight of any majority, simply by virtue of being a majority, is such that we need to accept it on its own terms. Yet neither of these projects would get us out of our bubbles. We would continue to live parallel lives, accepting or rejecting each other’s views, but still disconnected. Rather the call to engage, to engage in the way we have often demanded of just the poorest in our society, is a call to all of us, not just those for whom it is professionally desirable. We need to befriend not to berate, to love those we have been tempted to see as the enemy. These are the qualities that I see time and again in the lives and work of clergy ministering in inner our cities and outer estates. Maybe our New Year Resolution for 2017 could be to behave a little more like them.