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Francis is the first pope to engage with city Mayors as agents of social and environmental renewal

06 December 2017 | by Francis Davis

Pope Francis is the first leader of the Catholic Church to engage specifically with city Mayors as agents of social and environmental renewal. He is the first in a social encyclical to consciously urbanise aspects of his social analysis reflecting the reality that most of humanity now lives in cities.

No wonder then the other night, gathered in the Victorian vastness of the Great Hall of the University of Birmingham, this urban Pope’s local Archbishop – Bernard Longley - had cleared his diary to join senior ecumenical and inter-religious colleagues for the new Mayor of the West Midlands ‘Faith Summit’.

The leaders happily found themselves among five hundred people of all walks of life drawn from the nine major world religious traditions. Five hundred more watched on line and over 30,000 engaged across social media. The Prime Minister tweeted her encouragement. How striking too, given the Pope’s concern to encourage cities at ease with seeking inclusion, that the conversation that was unlocked was not focused upon the intricacies of theological disputation but on the common challenges faced by local citizens in tough but optimistic times.

Mayor Andy Street of the West Midlands is the former Managing Director of one of the UK’s leading retail companies, the John Lewis Partnership (JLP). Noted for its commitment to employee share ownership and co-ownership JLP represents a distinctive institutional feature among Britain’s most successful firms. Street is the first to lead a major UK city region with such a unique commercial background. Appointing a steering group to bring together his – and the country’s – first Mayoral ‘faith summit’ then his steer was also distinctively clear: He wanted to listen, work on concerns that were held in common and make sure that the gathering was not ‘just more talk’. In this, Europe’s youngest and most ethnically diverse region he wanted to be able to turn the concerns expressed on the night into a concrete roadmap of action that would become a key feature of his ‘plan for renewal’.

Those present concentrated on four inter-locking sets of concerns namely how to mitigate the rising tide of hate crime, how to combat homelessness, what contribution people of faith could make to building a more inclusive economy and how to unlock new generations of leaders who by age, gender, ethnicity, religion or absence of disabilities look less like the diversity of the city region than seems just. The Mayor kicked off his own contribution by announcing new research to identify best Mayoral practice in these regards internationally, a feasibility to establish a social finance bond to refresh the ecosystem of support for innovators, a new leadership academy for young and emerging faith leaders interested in social needs and a cross West Midlands Youth and Cohesion prize to celebrate those building bridges between every kind of community .Student notetakers from the region’s universities were hard at work gathering and compiling ideas and suggestions that will now be taken on board. The Mayor’s team will publish his ‘action plan’ on collaboration with the major faith communities and citizens in the New Year.

For many present of course talk of Mayors and their potential to galvanise change was entirely fresh Only this year did Britain’s great cities outside the metropolis come more closely into line with international norms in this regard. Manchester’s new Mayor , for example, now has responsibility for health and social care where London and Birmingham are intensely focused on housing and homelessness. . Liverpool City Region has flagged a particular passion for skills and the offshore energy sector. While there are 5100 Bishops worldwide there are up to ten times that number of Mayors the majority of whom have personal mandates, their own authority over budgets and distinctive reach across the silos that block up societies most especially those at the top and the bottom of the economic pyramid. Indeed reportedly the combined action of US Mayors on the environment has collectively cancelled President Trump’s central government resistance and reneging on the Kyoto Protocol. With this intense variety in duties and powers devolved to cities and regions much fresh regional attention to detail is needed from religious communities where bland normative statements about ‘what should be done’ have previously been applied. But as such awareness rises so to does new policy literacy from faith communities need to be matched by increasing religious literacy on the part of newly empowered regional decision makers.

Mayor Street understands that. Archbishop Longley of Birmingham and his fellow regional religious leaders could see it in collaborative action the other night. And those citizens present co-designing and contributing to priorities were putting it into action. By establishing itself ahead of the game the West Midlands in the UK may have lessons to share with other cities on our island nation. But as part of the wider conversation that the evening opened up , the new connections of solidarity that regions will have to make with each other as China rises and Brexit is fulfilled, and encountered through the Pope’s unique analysis as context, conceivably this was a laboratory for the new urban common good in the making?

Francis Davis is Professor of Communities and Public Policy at the University of Birmingham , was co-chair of Mayor Andy Street’s Faith Summit , and is currently preparing a study for the think tank Localis on local government leadership, Mayor’s and religious communities. He previously chaired the national Catholic Urban network and is a trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.

PICTURE: ©University of Birmingham  

 

 



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