So my last blog-post described my experiences of the March 26 March in London. You may have gathered that it wasn’t an entirely successful day on my part, and you may have heard others questioning how effective the march was or might be in influencing policy. Contemplating it all in church on Sunday morning, I got thinking about it all as a big metaphor. Someone else might say ‘God spoke to me about it’. I rarely say such things out loud, but if there’s anything deep in here, God probably deserves the credit.
I considered the march as a metaphor for the Church in the UK. Maybe even internationally, but it was certainly more than just about my local congregation. The large organised groups of union members felt like the established denominations across the country. They had their own identities, their own banners and shirts and badges. They had their own time and place to meet and they weren’t necessarily actively recruiting new members. Some of them included family groups and people from diverse backgrounds. Others had a more specific demographic, but they all had enough in common to come together with a common purpose, a shared mission. Whether this came across to the media or the wider public is less certain. Many of these groups also spent a lot of time waiting patiently before going anywhere.
Then there were other less formal groups of people who were also part of the protest but less focused on the march – I saw these as less traditional church groups. Some of these were actively recruiting passers-by to join them. Some had fancy costumes and instruments – they were perhaps more creative than the average marcher. Others of these groups were seen as more dangerous, particularly by outsiders. Perhaps the more extreme end could be considered cults – they certainly had their own separate agendas.
In my faffing about, I didn’t really feel part of any of the groups. I’d travelled to London on my own and have not made a commitment to join any particular union. I felt some affinity with the UKUncut group having protested as a student in the past, but no-one actually spoke to me and I didn’t make the effort to introduce myself. As I drifted around the city I wondered if there was any point to me being there. This echoes a lot with parts of my faith journey in the past. I wasn’t sure I really fitted in to various different churches and I didn’t feel welcome in others. I also questioned the point of it all.
Thinking about the march – from my perspective on the day there were three main problems. Firstly I didn’t think the message came across that clearly. The message was that there was an alternative to the cuts, and when I listened afterwards to the speeches given by the union leaders, this did come across. The trouble was that the media focused so much on the rowdy few that the speeches and motivations of individual marchers weren’t given that much media attention. I think some of the arguments about the need for a transaction tax (Robin Hood tax) and targeting tax avoidance by large corporations do add up to a sizeable alternative, but I don’t think this was communicated effectively.
Secondly, the march didn’t appear to be going anywhere. Of course, I know it was, and impressively large numbers of people made it to Hyde Park in the end. However, when I contemplated joining in with the large union groups, or waiting at the end of a feeder queue with the UKUncut group, it really didn’t look to be moving at all. I was not prepared to stand and wait patiently as some of the union groups were doing (for over two hours). Call me lacking in persistence or dedication but I didn’t join a march to stand still.
Thirdly, I didn’t feel welcome. The clear branding of some of the union groups made it feel like I couldn’t be part of them. I actually had friends from work at the march but I hadn’t discussed it with them and wasn’t a member of their union anyway. While I accessed information about UKUncut and their plans on the internet which seemed to invite everyone to come along, no-one approached me when I loitered nearby. Despite being a fairly confident person, I didn’t take the initiative to talk to someone and ask how I could take part. I also wasn’t quite sure what I would have been letting myself in for (Fortnum and Masons, kettling and arrest anyone?)
I think these same three issues are challenges for the Church in the UK (and probably beyond). Do we express our message clearly? Do we take our shared mission seriously enough to tell people about it in a way that challenges them to respond? How do we react when rowdy individuals who may hold very different beliefs get all the media attention? Secondly, are we going somewhere? Do we appear suitably dynamic and purposeful? While patient waiting may be required at times, are we inviting passers-by to join an exciting and life-changing journey? Finally, are we welcoming others who might be interested to join us? How can we be more accessible and open, approachable and hospitable? Are we seeking to protect people who might be vulnerable to abuse by cultish groups (or Police, hmm… figures of authority who may abuse their power?) And what do we do next?