What defines the people of Britain in 2013? What passions push us, what motivates our activity, what things give our lives meaning and satisfaction? I think these are important questions, ones that each generation need to ask, particularly those who have faith. We do this not just to understand, but also to respond in one of two ways;
- To celebrate what is good- to participate, to encourage. To enhance the flavours by the sprinkling of salt. To shine light onto good things
- To protest and critique when things are bad- where the image of God is trampled, where people are oppressed, where creation is being damaged, where violence rules
This is part of a series of posts in which I will try to grapple with some of these things within my country.
I live in a quiet seaside town, in a large house that was built back in the early Victorian era. Our house overlooks the sea and has lovely high ceilings and an open fire place. If you do not look too close at my rather rudimentary DI, usually done on a minimal budget it might be seen as a place that is the centre of what we British people all long for.
A large house, with views, sort of in the country. If we could have this, life would be happy. We would find fulfillment. We know this because the TV is full of programmes that tell us so. Location/Escape to the country/Grand designs/etc etc.
There has been a major change to all this within our lifetimes. In 1918 just 23 per cent of households owned their home. This figure began to rise quickly from 1953 and by 1971 equal numbers owned and rented the property they lived in. In the 1980’s however, Margaret Thatcher introduced a ‘right to buy’ scheme for people who lived in council-owned property (which was itself a massive reaction to slums owned by private landlords, reflected in a massive post-war house building boom.) Thatchers idea spread like wildfire for whom would not want to stand on their own piece of little Britain?
The introduction of the right to buy in 1980 saw a fall in social housing tenants, while the proportion of people in private rented accommodation fell steadily from 76 per cent in 1918 to a low of 9 per cent in 1991 before climbing after that. Prices have been booming and despite the other problems in the econom, they remain high, even climbing still.
Since then, there has been a slight dip in the proportion of people who own their homes; it currently stands somewhere around 65%. Hardly surprising given the current state of the economy. Our aspirations have not changed but in this country the rich are getting richer and the poor are falling through the cracks.
Also, the high price of homes makes those of us who own property feel very smug and safe. We are sitting on an appreciating asset with that wonderful word ‘equity’. However this means that other people, particularly our kids, will find it next to impossible to join us on that over-used phrase- ‘the property ladder’. The bottom rung is out of reach for most ordinary people. This enforces a sense of social injustice; what seems like a natural right for some is a distant dream for others.
The questions that started me writing this post however is less about the economics of all this, and much more about what this trend of property worship says about us.
Let me tell you a couple of stories from the boundaries of my garden.
On one side there is an argument about the road access, and ownership of some land that has been a commonly used path for generations. Solicitors have been engaged, damage has been done, threats and violence resulted in the police being called and charges leveled. We have kept out of it all and tried our best to remain in relationship with both sides.
More recently another neighbor applied for planning permission to convert property to offer as a holiday let. This was refused at pre-planning stage because of various reasons, primarily the increase in traffic on our little access lane. They protested that their neighbours (us) were doing all that they wanted to do and more, and raised a complaint to planning about our micro enterprises. We had some sympathy about the apparent lack of fairness but tried to remind them that our house used to be a 9 bedroom hotel, and that what we were doing was relatively low scale compared to what it had been previously. However, their response was to engage a high powered planning consultant who is now engaged in a campaign to close down what we are doing. It is all very stressful, but the real pressure on us is an inability to understand how any one can be so apparently vindictive.
A couple of streets away, another friend is embroiled in another dispute over boundaries. Mistakes made by surveyors and land registry people have now meant that her house has been built partially on land owned by another. He has no use for this land whatsoever, it is a strip of waste ground on the edge of a vast piece of other ground, but this man began a campaign of harassment in the courts and in person, trying to extort thousands of pounds from various parties. It seems likely that he knew of the error all along and was biding his time to make an issue of it all.
What is all this about? It is possible that some of the people involved (like the man in the last story) have some psychological issues, even to the point of anti social personality traits. However I also wonder if what we are seeing is an emerging consequence of the spirit of the age.
To be a property owner is to stand on your own mini empire. This gives entitlement, privilege and exclusivity. But all empires need to be defended. Threats to the empire (real or perceived) promotes feelings of fear, insecurity, anger. And nothing angers us more than the sense that our rights are being infringed; that feeling when something that is ‘ours’ is being encroached upon by another.
Rarely do we see this for what it is- a passing delusion. A construct of our ways of living, ways of communing.
There is a long tradition within agrarian economies in which ownership of (or perhaps more accurately access to) the land is vital. It give access, identity, belonging, community, vitality. Alistair McIntosh’s book Soil and Soul captures these ideas brilliantly. In our post modern, post industrial economy, these things have become distorted by seeing land not as a resource, but rather as the ultimate consumer commodity by which we measure personal value.
What should our response be to all this as followers of Jesus? We have to start with the idea that Jesus had little time for storing up resources on the earth. The sermon on the mount was fairly categorical about all this. Simon Cross posted this quote on facebook the other day;
“The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”
Ouch. The call of Jesus was to build communities of love, and to eschew placing our security on earthly things. House ownership seems to run potentially counter to both of these calls on our lives.
Are we in the church less susceptible to house-idolatry, or perhaps even more so? I suspect that the average church goer in the UK is more likely than to be a home owner than not. How do we model a relationship to our property that is not dominated by the same petty-empire building agenda?
There are of course other stories of houses in the NT- Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha for example obviously had a big place, able to throw parties and welcome the whole of Jesus’ travelling band of misfits. Jesus loved Lazarus. Then there were all those places that Paul referred to in his letters where secret groups of people met to worship and share life.
The issue, it seems, is not the ownership, but the meaning of the ownership in the lives of those of us who own. Perhaps more importantly, the use we put our places to. There might be an extra pressure on we followers of Jesus who own. It might be that we become camels trying to fit through needles.
I would in no way set myself up as a shining example of how we can work out the challenge of this in our way of living. However, here are some of the things that we are trying to do.
- To see our house as a resource for the Kingdom, not just ‘ours’. Running a business here has sometimes felt a little in contrast with this, but we see ourselves as primarily providers of hospitality
- To refuse to participate in border squabbles. The house next door was partially on our land according to the land registry, so we changed the registry record. There is a bigger challenge with other neighbours as mentioned above, but recently we were able to give some roof slates to a workman working on their property. They probably do not know, but it felt like it was good for our souls
- Being a good neighbour is a process of small acts of kindness and demonstrated positive regard. This is an act of will- wishing the best for those around you, not just peering and sneering, not participating in destructive gossip
There is also a feeling I have that churches can express a collective challenge to the dominant property worship. Many already demonstrate this by using church buildings in flexible community-centred ways, even though many of our church buildings are not necessarily the most warm and welcoming pieces of architecture.
I have this idea for an installation in the middle of my town. It will probably not happen as my friends in Aoradh will politely raise their eyebrows at another one of my crazy ideas and after humouring me for a while will politely change the subject. But the idea is something like this;
A shed in the middle of the square, painted, surrounded by pot plants. All in a ring of barbed wire stopping anyone getting near it. People will be asked to consider their own houses, what they mean to them, their regrets about broken relationships with neighbours, their worries about the exclusion from ownership of their children.
And also, to be grateful for the roof, the warmth and the place for family that many in the wider world, let alone in the UK, lack.