Belonging: A Challenge for the Church in a Diverse Society

The Conference was an opportunity for Catholics from across England and Wales to share ideas and experience on how we can help new and marginalised groups feel they truly ‘belong’ in UK society. Representatives from fifteen dioceses, various CARJ networks and other Catholic organisations attended.

The day began with a brief historical reflection. For the past twenty years, the Government has been wrestling with the question of how we best promote ‘integration and cohesion’. Most recently there was the Casey Review and the Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper. The Conference on ‘Belonging’ is part of that wider discussion.

Fr Phil Sumner and Fr Richard McKay spoke of their long experiences in very diverse parishes in Oldham and Bristol. Fr Phil Sumner spent 25 years in Moss side before moving to his parish in Oldham where there are 50 different nationalities in the parish and 5 different language choirs. He spoke eloquently on integration and cohesion.  For the last 20 years, especially since the riots in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley (2001) there has been national reflection on just how integrated and welcoming a society there is in the UK today. The Ministerial Group on Public Order and Social Cohesion reported on those riots and since then there has been several reports including the Commission on Integration and Cohesion (2006) to which the Bishops Conference gave a substantial response to this consultation in January 2007.  Later, the Casey Review in 2016 presented a disturbing picture of a Britain where integration was superficial and where many people who had lived here for many years still could not speak English nor did they engage in mainstream activities preferring to remain in their own communities. The Race Disparity Audit of 2017 affirmed some of these findings and the Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper (2018) proposed remedies yet to be resourced.

Cecilia Taylor Camara and Josephine Namusisi Riley reflected on their experiences of settling in the UK. Fr Dan Mason described the particular situation of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Communities. There was ample time for plenary and small group discussion and the following are some of the issues raised in those discussions:

  • the post-war experience of immigration from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia;  the particular focus on Muslim communities in recent decades;
  • the intentional creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for those wishing to come to the UK,
  • the experience of ‘Windrush’ communities and the concerns of EU Citizens in the face of Brexit
  • different approaches to integration and cohesion over the past twenty years,
  • the complex history of the Church’s involvement with diverse communities in parishes, schools, organisations and networks;
  • ethnic chaplaincy and the involvement of diverse groups in their local parishes
  • the ‘ministry of welcoming’ and training for those involved in this important ministry,
  • ways in which ordinary parish events and activities can be more inclusive,
  • ways in which the church building itself can reflect the diversity of the parish
  • the importance of having role models and saints from different cultures
  • the importance of having decision makers (eg Bishops) from diverse backgrounds
  • the particular relevance of a theology and spirituality of ‘place’
  • the ongoing process of discernment as to how the Church at different levels can best contribute to the national and local process of ‘welcoming’ and to the ongoing effort to encourage ‘integration and cohesion’

Bishop Paul McAleenan closed the Conference, stressing the importance of the issues discussed and the need to continue the discussion locally and nationally in the coming months and years.