My Twitter feed can throw up an interesting concoction of views. This morning, in the space of 10 minutes I read tweets about the 300,000 social housing units lost during the coalition government (including a drop of 11 per cent in one year) and a thought from the Bishop of Burnley about moving Church House from its place in the gothic quarter of Westminster.
Isn't the closure of the Houses of Parliament the perfect moment to sell Church House and move CofE headquarters to the north of England? It would free up millions for mission.— Bishop Philip (@BpBurnley) February 1, 2018
Rt Rev Philip North said: 'Isn't the closure of the Houses of Parliament the perfect moment to sell Church House and move CofE headquarters to the north of England? It would free up millions for mission.'
I can very happily add an 'Amen' to Bishop Philip's thinking. Retaining a hugely expensive building on some of the most expensive land in the world is arguably sinful. It certainly speaks to me of the Church of England's existential dilemma about who we are. We remain committed (or at least present) in the poorest communities in our country, but we also feel drawn to respectability, power and influence. That tension lives side by side in our communities but also has an increasing north/south element that reflects rather than shapes the national debate.
So, yes we could sell, relocate to Bradford or Burnley or Birmingham (other letters are available). This would bless a whole host of church staff for whom getting in and out of London is a costly exercise. It would release cash for mission. It would get us out of London and help us to remain a Church for the whole country.
But I wonder if there is something more fun that could be done, that goes beyond serving the scarcity crisis that besets the Church of England. I wonder what it would look like if we were to move out of Westminster and turn Church House into affordable housing.
Westminster City Council sold 28 social housing units in 2016-17 and 42 the year before. This is a comparatively low figure, as much of the housing stock went early on in the experiment. At the end of 2016 it was vilified for buying housing further out of central London to house people who cannot buy. When questioned, the council suggested that it was trying to deal with its own housing crisis.
The Church of England could help. The church (in its fullest sense) has done well at involving itself in the edges of our current national crisis of scarcity and wealth. We sit in the heart of many foodbanks, emergency night shelters and holiday hunger programmes. There is a lot of local commitment and sacrifice that goes unseen. In Westminster we add weighty words and genuine experience to debates in the Lords, and have helped in the fight for implementing change in a just way.
Sometimes, though, I wonder if we find ourselves in the place of the rich young ruler. We are well versed in all the things that we should think and do, but we are challenged when asked to put our money and wealth on the line.
So – yes, let's leave Church House. Let's leave it to become decent, affordable and kind housing for London residents so we can keep diversity at the heart of London.
Rev Jude Smith is the team rector of Moor Allerton and Shadwell in North Leeds.