To go hi-vis in Jesus' name
“I hate small towns, “ commented comedian Lenny Bruce, “because once you've seen the cannon in the park there's nothing else to do.” Each Friday morning I sit down in front of my keyboard and wonder (like today) what on earth I’m going to write about. But now an email has just landed, from OWL. No, not Harry Potter but a local political grouping. OWL – Our West Lancashire, set up just a few years back by the Conservative party parliamentary candidate for 2010, Adrian Owen. I remember at the time being very impressed by the manner of his campaign -although he failed to dislodge our sitting MP. I won’t go into the back story how OWL came into being but today it has five independent councillors acting as a ginger group on our local borough council. It is possible, depending on how the May local elections pan out, that they will hold the balance of power. Only last week I completed their excellent online questionnaire on the future of Coronation Park, which I noticed was bustling during half term. As Christians we are called to have a loyalty, even a passion for our local community. We are to be earthed as was Jesus of Nazareth, not that anything good ever came from that small town in Galilee – at least according to Nathanial, as John informs us at the beginning of his Gospel. For the Bible entails us to get engaged with our local community, wherever we may be living. This is demonstrated most vividly by the prophet Jeremiah who writes to his fellow Jews cruelly exiled to faraway Babylon. No doubt they were longing to return home and had no intention of putting down any roots. However, he tells them: “Build houses and make yourselves at home. Put in gardens and eat what grows in that country. Marry and have children.” Above all, he tells them to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:5f). Back in 2010 it was Adrian who arranged for local clergy to go to Westminster for a special briefing, given – to my surprise – by the Christian parliamentary lobbyists for each of the three main parties working together. And their message to all church members – to get involved locally by joining the political party you voted for. (Not that I did). (A quick digression, if I may. Around 1984 I made a donation to the local Social Democratic Party – but being parish clergy, I requested anonymity. However, in response SDP phoned and left a detailed message with our babysitter – who just happened to be the chair of the local Conservative Association. ) One of the effects of the pandemic, it seems, is the resurgence of towns along with houses with gardens. Essentially I am not allowed to go to Liverpool – everything is closed and we are not supposed to use public transport. We shop either online or locally. And many are working from home, a trend which will not be completely reversed. And when each month Google contacts me with a map of where I have been that month, it seems I rarely travel for more than ten miles. Which means that Jacqui and I have really got to know our locality very well, seeing things in Ormskirk which have previously avoided my attention. Walking the streets and having my Costa at the clocktower has deepened our commitment to Ormskirk, even if we do not have a cannon in the park. (But we do have a memorial for the Crimean War in Victoria Park). However, like many market towns we face an uncertain future, not least as long-term trends have been accelerated by the pandemic. Last month my family was saddened by the closure of Dorothy Perkins. And what is truly tragic – and I write as a one-time reporter for the Crosby Herald and the Formby Times, the collapse of the local press, no one to hold our local councils and key employers accountable in an accountable-way (unlike much social media). Today OWL seems to be doing an excellent job in holding our council to account, especially when most key decisions are already made within the ruling party before any council meeting, though not as entertainingly as in Handforth. But here churches, as one of the few surviving voluntary associations, have much to offer – especially as individual churches we pool our resources. Here in Ormskirk our Churches Together already provides street pastors and now school pastors, while setting up a debt advice service along with our local food bank. In fact, in a bid to support the reopening of Ormskirk market last May the Council approached the street pastors to provide volunteers to be Ormskirk ambassadors in their hi-vis vests. Certainly Christians are much more likely to volunteer for community projects and with a deeper commitment, as shown by Pew Research in 2017. However, there are key structural issues which can only be tackled politically, and as Christian citizens we need to be engaged, to think and imagine. And to act. For the Gospel call is to get involved, whatever that may mean in our local context. In fact, only last month I phoned our old vicar in Waterloo, In 1969 he with a few others founded a housing association to change the appalling housing conditions that faced many local families at the time. They were able to buy just the one house. Today, he told me, it is a thriving concern with over 400 properties. That’s the kind of thing that happens when we get stuck in in Christ’s name.