To be a pilgrim

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105885899Saturday 21st October 2017 witnessed the Annual Sheffield Church Action on Poverty Pilgrimage. Every year we use this occasion to visit faith based social action projects, in order to listen to their stories and the issues facing some of this city’s most vulnerable and in need citizens.

As I walked from my new home close to the city centre to begin the Pilgimage (and to lead prayers and reflections) , I myself reflected upon exactly what makes this annual event a “pilgrimage”. In the end, I think, it’s something about an intentional searching for the sacred amongst the day to day life of our city – of witnessing to, and listening for, God in the city. The act of pilgrimage focuses our hearts and minds so that we can do what we should be doing every day, to see God in the people we meet, to hear God in the stories we listen to.

On my short ten minute walk into town it felt like my pilgrimage had already began, as I began to observe the lives around me that are each and every day lived out in our city. On Devonshire Green I saw a man (who I later saw entering the Archer Project at the Cathedral) wrapped in his sleeping bag and holding a coffee after what had been a cold autumnal night. He was watching as the sun rose up over the buildings around, welcoming, dreading or merely witnessing the the arrival of another new day. As I turned the corner, a man on his mobile phone passed me in tears, deep in conversation with someone on the other end of the call about some obvious hurt with a real impact on his and possibly other lives, but that will forever remain unknown to me. People were already busily rushing from bus and tram stops to their places of work, and meanwhile signs of the previous nights activities lay discarded on the pavement, empty cans and polythene packets with pictures that suggested they had contained some or other “recreational” drug. Finally as I waited for the other “pilgrims” to arrive I spent some time talking to the Big Issue seller at the end of Chapel Walk, our conversation was nothing particular of note, we spoke of the weather and Storm Brian, about the inherent unfairness of food banks, and about video games, big business, consumerism and why we are too often moved to buy things we don’t really need.

It is important to remind ourselves that cities are not just buildings and roads, they are not simply economic centres; the city is home to a myriad of lives, all interwined and somehow interdependent for their well being. The places and projects we visit each year are witness to just that, this year we visited (and re-visited):

  • Victoria Hall Methodist Church, where we heard about the work amongst refugees and asylum seekers, as well as other visitors from overseas. We we also introduced to the idea of  The Sheffield Box which the church is looking to roll out as a way of welcoming new families to our city.
  • At the Salvation Army on Duke Street, we heard about their efforts to make real on a  day to day basis the outworking of the love of Jesus in peoples lives. We were told of the food bank and emergency support, as well as numerous other local intiatives.
  • The Emmaus Project in Sheffield offers both accomodation and employment to vulnerable people who would otherwise be homeless. We heard how “companions” live and work alongside each other in a community of mutual support.
  • Finally, at the Cathedral Archer Project (amidst a busy lunchtime session) we heard of the work done there to support homeless people, from subsidised meals and advice with benefits and the like, through to visiting dentistry and chiropody services.

Every year we hear about inspiring and challenging work amongst the citys vulnerable and economically poorest and this year, once again we were inspired and challenged in equal measure. Inspired by the hard work of staff and volunteers, inspired also by  people who are finding ways through the complexities of the hardship they themselves face. But also challenged; challenged to further highlight the way policy and economic structures have worsened the lives and prospects of many of the most vulnerable in our society, challenged to listen more, to do more, to say more when required.

 

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A Radical Christianity

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Last week I was fortunate enough to spend time with some wonderful people, and here a number of inspiring speakers.

First last Monday 8th May, the Chris Howson  was the guest speaker at Sheffield Church Action on Poverty, of which I am currently the chairperson.

Chris spoke to us about the challenges of the Gospel message and the call to a Radical Christianity, In particular he spoke of the need for:
1. The message of a Subversive Gospel to be proclaimed.
2. A Compassionate Christianity to be practiced.
3. A Christianity that speaks out for just whatever the cost.
4. The sharing of a Joyful Solidarity with the vulnerable, marginalised and oppressed.

On the Friday I had been invited to attend the Godly Play conference at Sheffield Cathedral, once again on behalf of Church Action on Poverty. The key speaker that evening was John Bell, well known through the Iona and Wildgoose networks an beyond. John talked about Jesus and the Miracle stories.

He noted that Jesus had “no set approach” to how he performed miracles, each used a methodology particular to its context, sometimes he uses touches, sometimes not …. sometimes they involved groups of people, others only one ….. sometimes they public, and sometimes private, to Jesus a sensitivity to context is crucial. John then went on to show how in the miracle stories Jesus also powerfully addresses powers, authorities and taboos – challenging them is at the very heart of the miracles.

Finally on the Saturday at the Godly Play conference, Peter Privett spoke to us about playful and childhood spirituality. He challenged us all to move from a focus on an “intellectual” faith, to a faith based on experience and wonder. Among the things he left us with were these words from the 14th century Persian poet, Hafiz:

“Every child has known God,
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don’ts,
Not the God who ever does anything weird,
But the God who knows only 4 words.
And keeps repeating them, saying “Come dance with Me, come dance.”

 

This estate we’re in (Re-blog)

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“It’s like the buses in Briggate” as my Mum would’ve said. In the first twelve months of this blog I’d never felt the need or call to re-blog anything from anywhere else, now in the space of a few days “…two coming along after another”.

Today I’m re-blogging an open letter that I am a signatory to in my role as Chair of Sheffield Church Action on Poverty, a letter that has been written in response to a pastoral notice sent out through the Anglican Church today from Archbishops Welby & Sentamu. The letter and blog first appeared at “This estate we’re in…” by Rev Al Barrett:  http://thisestate.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/dear-archbishops-response-ge2017.html?spref=tw

Dear Archbishops Justin and Sentamu,

Thank you for your pastoral letter, which many of us read eagerly when we received it. We do indeed live in ‘frantic and fraught’ times, and deeply-rooted Christian wisdom in the lead-up to this most critical of General Elections has the potential to make a valuable, even crucial contribution. As those who share with you both the weighty responsibility for helping Christian congregations reflect on the current political challenges with Christian faithfulness, your efforts to support and resource us are appreciated.

Thank you also for highlighting the vital issues of education and housing, of community-building and healthcare, of overseas aid and campaigns against slavery, trafficking and sexual violence. Thank you for pointing to the need for justice in our economic and financial systems, and for “a generous and hospitable welcome to refugees and migrants”. All of these we welcome, as crucial issues to be placed at the centre of our political conversations and decisions.

There were, however, aspects of your pastoral letter which have given us cause for deep concern, and which have driven us to respond to it with urgency.

Most prominently among those concerns is your use of the word ‘stability’. We appreciate the word’s Benedictine roots, and the critical contemporary challenge of “living well with change”. However, words also acquire meaning from their common usage in the present, and it is impossible to escape the fact that the leader of one of the major political parties competing in this General Election has used the phrase “strong and stable” almost as a mantra throughout the election campaign thus far. For your pastoral letter to focus so positively on such a politically freighted word seems to us, at best, as a case of desperate political naivety, and at worst, an implicit endorsement of one party in this election.

Our concern goes deeper than the level of perception, however. Your focus not just on ‘stability’, but also on ‘cohesion’ (as “what holds us together”), your commodification of ‘courage’ as “aspiration, competition and ambition”, and your conflation of the deeply-contested discourses of “our Christian heritage” and “our shared British values” (a conflation often appropriated by far-right nationalist groups) are also all deeply troubling. The quest for reconciliation and unity of course has a vital place within both the Christian tradition and the work of politics, but at this point in the history of the United Kingdom, politicians issuing calls to ‘unite’ risk concealing deep divisions under a banner of conformity, rather than addressing these divisions at their roots. The emphases on stability and cohesion in your pastoral letter risk colluding with such dangerous political rhetoric. The Benedictine vow of ‘stability’ goes hand in hand with the vow of ‘conversion of life’ – an ongoing process of allowing our hearts to be changed. That process often involves plunging into the heart of our divisions and conflicts, coming face to face with our ‘others’ and our ‘enemies’, and confronting our own tendencies towards self-deception, greed, exclusion and violence. There is a prophetic calling for the church here, that goes well beyond appeals to shared values.

The third Benedictine vow is that of ‘obedience’. Understood in a purely hierarchical way, it could be argued that this response to your pastoral letter is an act of disobedience. Our understanding of Benedictine obedience, however, is more mutual: as Rowan Williams has put it, “[n]ovice and senior monk are ‘obeying’ one another if they are attending with discernment to one another and the habits that shape their lives are habits of listening, attention and the willingness to take seriously the perspective of the other, the stranger”. At a time when the voices of the poorest, the most vulnerable, and the most marginalised are being ignored, silenced, even demonised, we want to respond to Benedict’s call to obedience with our whole hearts, and listen most attentively to those voices, not in the centres of power, but in its margins. When those voices are not being heard at the heart of our deliberations and decision-making, Jesus himself is being silenced.

You remind us at the beginning of your pastoral letter that we are currently in the season of Eastertide. We pray, with you, that the risen Christ will be seen and welcomed among us, as in the stranger on the Emmaus Road, that hearts will be changed, and that the peace of Christ will break down all our dividing walls.

In joyful obedience to our Risen Lord,

Revd Al Barrett, Rector
Revd Dr Sally Nash, Associate Minister
Revd Dr Genny Tunbridge, Common Ground Community
Penny Hall, Church Warden
Sarah Maxfield, Community Development Worker
Paul Wright, Street Connector Mentor
Jane Barrett, Youth & Community Worker
Bob Maxfield, Julia Bingham, Jo Bull
(all of Hodge Hill Church, Birmingham Diocese)

Revd Dr Richard Sudworth, Christ Church Sparkbrook, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Dr John White, Kingsbury, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Priscilla White, St Faith & St Laurence Harborne, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Kathryn Evans, St Paul Blackheath, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Andy Delmege, St Bede Brandwood, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Dr Susannah Snyder, Oxford Diocese
Revd Kate Pearson, Coventry Diocese
Revd Canon Kathryn Fleming, Coventry Cathedral
Revd Elaine Evans, Vicar, St Bertelin Stafford & St John the Evangelist Whitgreave, Lichfield Diocese
Revd Judith Jessop,  Methodist Pioneer Minister, Parson Cross, Sheffield
Revd Ray Gaston, Team Vicar, St Chad & St Mark, Parish of Central Wolverhampton , Lichfield Diocese
Revd Simon Douglas, Team Vicar, Parish of Tettenhall Regis, Lichfield Diocese
Revd Mark Hewerdine, Priest-in-Charge, St Chad’s Ladybarn / Fresh Expressions Enabler, Manchester Diocese

Revd Jo Musson, Claines and St George’s Parish Churches, Worcester Diocese
Ray Leonard, St Andrew Blackwall, Durham Diocese

Ann Marie Gallagher, Roman Catholic, Birmingham
Adam North, St Peter’s Hall Green, Birmingham Diocese
Nick Waterfield, Methodist, Chair of Sheffield Church Action on Poverty
Kim E Lafferty, St Stephen’s, Kearsley, Manchester
Dr Charles Pemberton and Ms Irene Roding, St Margarets Church, Durham

Jo Chamberlain, All Saints Ecclesall, Sheffield Diocese
Symon Hill, Oxfordshire
Greg Smith, Lancashire

‘Poverty may be complex, but it is not inevitable’? (Part 2)

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latin-tiles-001-1The other day I featured a guest blog from Jane Perry, a good friend and an independent social research consultant, she was the lead author of Emergency Use Only report (Oxfam et al, 2014). It was, I felt, an important and powerful piece from someone who has a real knowledge of the discussions and debate held close to Government circles. In her piece Jane points to some simple policy choices that could make a genuine difference to many who use food banks in the UK  in 2017 .

I want to add to the discussion with some further thoughts around the existence and role that food banks are now playing in UK, today I’m taking part in a round table event at University of Sheffield, (with friends from UTU – Urban Theology Union, and Sheffield Church Action on Poverty) about Theology & Food Poverty and some of the points raised here will also form part of that discussion.

To start, there is sometimes an assumption by many that food banks and churches simply act out of charity and in response to biblical passages such as (Matthew 35.25), and that this at some level makes us complicit in wanting, or needing poverty and food insecurity to continue in order to serve our own desires to “help the poor”. Now clearly charity, and the desire to help alleviate the dire situations many people find themselves in, is part of the motivation, and for some I guess it may not go any deeper, however from my own experience in North Sheffield this has not been our sole approach or intention. We’ve tried to operate much more along a basis of standing in solidarity with our neighbours in need; of listening to and learning from the life experiences we encounter, and importantly being open to being challenged and changed ourselves by the things we share.

As Christians, we should attempt to hold a picture of the food shared through food banks as moving us nearer to an act framed by the Eucharist feast rather than simply an offering of  charity and alms to the poor – food not as a commodity to be bought or earned, but as a gift from God to be shared. Of course that’s not easy,  those of us who operate food banks cannot simply ignore the power (and authority) that roles gives us over others, but we can choose how we hold that power. We can either assume the mantle of serving in some less formalised extension of the welfare system (filled with rules and entitlements), or we can seek to place ourselves, to some degree at least, “at odds” with the system. Some food banks limit the number of referrals any family can have at any time, (often three times in a given period) – we’ve never imposed such a limit, we’ve always said we are willing to offer support, “For as long as the need is there….” still our statistics show that despite this most people rarely come more than 3-4 weeks without a break. For the record, we’ve never (since opening the doors in 2010) turned anyone who has turned up at a food bank session away without food regardless of referral vouchers or the like. Crises, and for most people food banks are still a place to go only when facing a crisis, don’t always stop after three visits (or three weeks) sometimes they can drag on for months. When someone came to us recently and said “I’ve been told by housing they won’t give me another referral because I’ve had my three ….” our response was, “Well here’s some food for this week, go back and tell housing there’s no set limit to how many times they refer you”, and of course we’ve gone back to referrers too and told them the same. We aren’t asking referrers to limit access, simply to assess need, and hopefully to use food bank as a support until they can find a solution.

So why bother with referrals at all you might ask, and it’s a good question. Partly it’s about rationing and managing the food we are given (and also therefore a fear on our part we could not cope adequately with an unrestricted demand), in part it’s about an accountability to those who donate (yes we can say that people coming are genuine and have a defined need), it’s also about making sure support is being given for some of those more “complex” underpinning issues. Knowingly or unknowingly, willingly or unwillingly, food banks operate effectively as a sub-currency, where inadequate incomes are subsidised through food. At their best food banks are turning commodities into gifts and transforming bureaucratic referrals into genuine mutual relationships, where personal complexities can be more fully understood and supported.

There is one big problem with food banks – the problem of normalisation. Increasingly food bank collection points can be found in more and more supermarkets, where shoppers simply add to the stores sales by buying extra to drop in the box. What does this cost the shop? Nothing – in fact it merely adds to the sales figures, and helps tick the corporate responsibility box. Don’t get me wrong those of us running food banks are grateful for every item bought and donated, but the problem is that its all becoming “normal”. We’d hoped that food banks were a temporary phenomenon, it appears they may not be!

In our food bank alone last year we gave out over 2000 food parcels, shocking around 42% of these were for children under 18. Approximately 41% were given out as a result of benefit issues (usually delays or sanctions), and another 38% because of “low income”. The hardship people are facing is real, and it’s long term; I leave the last words to one man who came to our food bank last Friday, he said:  “People are desperate so they need help. ….. I have had no gas since November because of debt. If you have no money you can’t afford to pay for utility bills”  #FoodBankVoices

 

 

 

Those who hunger …

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“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” (Matthew 5.6)

Last weekend, Sheffield Church Action on Poverty held its eighth annual Pilgrimage. As part of this years event I (as Chair of the group) announced the launch of #EndHungerUK a national three year campaign led by Church Action on Poverty and other national organisations that will try to engage people in discussions around poverty and food, and hopefully build  a consensus of opinion and new policy to move on from the place we find ourselves today.

Let’s remind ourselves of what that place looks like in UK 2016:

“Latest Trussell Trust figures show a 2% increase in foodbank use on the previous year with 1,109,309 three-day emergency food supplies given to people in crisis by our network of 424 foodbanks in 2015/16.”

Of course this is a fraction of the story – in Sheffield there are at least, around 16-20 emergency food banks and similar services. three of these are members of Trussell Trust. That one million plus figure is therefore a likely tip of the iceberg.

From our own experience, food bank use is varied. It includes all kinds of people with long term mental health and other associated issues, but it also includes short term emergencies like the person who received no payments from DWP whilst working his first month in hand, like those who’ve been on the receiving end of DWP sanctions, those who seen benefits messed up by the likes of Concentrix, and those who are just struggling because all of a sudden they’ve been hit by an on foreseen event.In our case one thing that is both upsetting and alarming is the rise in families requiring help from the food bank service – in our early days (2010-12) we fed very few families and children, in 2014-15 this had risen to around 1 in every 3 people we fed being children (under the age of 18), and this year we’ve seen that rise again to something approaching 46% of those we are now feeding being children.

Now  lets be clear (if a little controversial) the problem here isn’t really one about food. There is of course food a plenty in the UK just as there is across the first world, so much food in fact that we see alongside food banks large amounts of food waste. There are  moral, and economic, arguments around food waste – how its created, what we can do to prevent it, how it could be re-used (even as a basis for feeding people through charitable means). But food waste is not the experience we address in food banks – the issue there is poverty and fairness.

In the world, we experience food in a number of different ways, lets explore a few here to think about their different impacts.

  • Food as Commodity: This is the most common way we all experience food in the world today, and have for centuries. Whether from the local farmer, market or multi national supermarkets, food is bought and sold across the world. Poverty of course restricts your access to these markets, making choices limited, and putting some options out of reach. Food therefore like every other commodity comes at a price, and if that’s one you can’t afford then you’re left out – looking for another option, or go without. It’s one of the major problems with how we see food in the first world, divorced from its production, separated from nature, simply another commodity to be bought and sold.
  • Food as a Reward & Punishment: Of course sometimes food is given (or withheld) by those with power over others, at a basic level it maybe a parent giving a child a treat if they’ve achieved some task or other, or bottles of wine offered as “bonus rewards” for those who efforts are appreciated at work. Even as adults we will use food to help us in certain situations to gain favour, for example by taking a business partner out for lunch. Of course there’s a dark side too – food withheld from those who fail to perform, or who those with power want to punish.
  • Food as Social Bonding. Food has a real place in the forming and keeping of human bonds and relationships. Families traditionally eat together, celebrations often centre around food of some kind or other. Food undoubtedly has a social value beyond simple nutrition.
  • Food as a Gift: Then there is the food given to others as gifts. Once again this may be as treats for those we care about (presents bought and shared out of love) or it may be through, what Christians would associate with “Agape” (charitable love) where the gift is given with no condition or expectation, and ultimately as an expression that all food (and everything else) is a gift from God.

Increasingly, in the case of food banks in particular (and our response to food and poverty in general) these instances have been causing me more and more concern, as I feel the motives and even the practice are becoming modified by the world beyond.

Food donated to and given by food banks is increasingly being turned into, and seen as, a “commodity”. Charity Commission guidance says that all food should be accounted for and reported in the annual report and returns, thus more and more food banks are resorting to weighing in and out food as a way of measuring its commodity (financial) value.

Most food banks (our own included) operate some kind of “voucher” or “referral” system, exactly how these operate vary from place to place and food bank to food bank, there is no common unified system – because food banks are not, have not been designed to be, part of the system – they are a symptom of the system failure. However, the consequence of the voucher / referral system is that access is through a gatekeeper of one kind or another. Referrers might, and do, include: Social Workers, Health Vistors, Housing Associations, Citizens Advice and yes even the DWP themselves – in addition some food banks have reserved the ability to make in house referrals so no one has to leave hungry. The problem is here though, that somehow in this we’ve created a reward and punishment situation where a referrer has the power to make the decision about when someone (and indeed who) needs to be sent to a food bank.

Meanwhile, as I’m watching our volunteers pack another bag of food, serving a coffee and a sandwich, I try to remind myself (and those around me) this is meant to be a gift. An act of love and solidarity to our neighbours in need – it’s not fair, it can’t be fair. So what are the alternatives available – should we shut the doors and leave people to their own devices and a system that’s failed them? Should we allow ourselves as food banks to be co-opted into a new welfare system based on charity, and therefore seek a more equitable system of food distribution by becoming the system? Or do we continue to struggle through the mess of it all, understanding that only campaigning, and a massive change in policy and the way we together provide for the livelihoods of all citizens will resolve this situation in the end?

Meanwhile we’ll be back again next Friday to do our best, to respond with love and grace.

The Shrinking Welfare State

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434On Saturday I attended an event called “The Shrinking Welfare State” organised by CTSY (Churches Together in South Yorkshire). Presentations gave us an up to date overview of how government policy had already effected many of the most vulnerable in our society, and at the same time had systematically reduced and eroded social housing and social housing tenants in particular. These include the latest provisions around:

  • Pay to Stay. Forcing social tenants with a household income over £30,000 to pay higher “market” rents than their neighbours.
  • An end to lifetime Secure Tenancies. Tenancies will instead be limited to between 2-5 years creating more transitory feel to communities with high proportions of social housing.
  • Enforced sales of “higher value” council properties, with the monies from this being used to fund the governments right to buy schemes for social housing.

We also heard about the further plans put forward by this Government to cut the “welfare budget” by an additional £12 billion in the name of austerity, plans that include:

  • Further reductions to the “benefit cap”
  • Full role out of Universal Credit
  • Removal of Family Premiums on Housing Benefit
  • Changes to Pension Credits
  • Limitations on the backdating of unclaimed Housing Benefit
  • Benefit sanctions for parents of young children for failing to adequately prepare for a return to work

All in all the picture painted was pretty  depressing.

In response to all this “bad news” we then heard from Ian Rutherford of the Yorkshire JPIT (Joint Public Issues Team) who talked about the important research and campaign work they had been doing.  Ian posed for us the question “So where is God in all this?”

JPIT has discerned the need to focus on four things in response to austerity and shrinking of the welfare state:

  1. Tell the truth about poverty.
  2. Express our faith (through food banks etc)
  3. Rethink sanctions
  4. Reinforce our shared responsibilities

Jesus, commented Ian, said “The poor will always be with you….” Jesus didn’t go on to say  “…. so that’s ok then.” Although we are living through a time when the post war Welfare State is under serious threat of reduction or complete dismantling, it does not give Christians permission to stand idly by and watch. JPIT publication “Enough” (2015) concludes by quoting:  Archbishop William Temple who, speaking in 1942, said of the Beveridge Report, the founding document of today’s welfare state :

“This is the first time anybody had set out to embody the whole spirit of the Christian ethic in an Act of Parliament”. Temple said it, not because of the details of how the system was to be operated, nor because benefits provided were set at a particular rate, but because of the principles which underpinned it. Under the system that was envisaged everyone should have enough to develop to their full potential, and be able to do so within communities which provide everyone with the necessary security and opportunity.”

In the discussions that followed these presentations we followed some very interesting and thought provoking lines. Although I can’t possibly do justice to everything we touched upon, here’s a summary of some of the points made.

  • The Church has echoed the neo-liberal “individualism” for too long, at the expense of the “collective”. The “Body of Christ” is a collective expression and does not allow us to live out a purely individual focus to our faith – or to use the language of Methodism “there is no Holiness but Social Holiness”
  • There is perhaps a need to understand and accept that the post war consensus around “Beveridge Settlement” has been broken by Neo Liberalism that took root in UK after 1979.  We perhaps therefore need to move beyond fighting merely defensive battles, and instead move towards developing a new vision, based again on a collective consensus, and that we as Christians could help lead a path towards this as Temple had done in the 1940’s. It perhaps is time for a paradigm shift.
  • If indeed a “New Settlement” is to be found, based around collective, communitarian and (we would hope) foundational Christian values – we should not necessarily expect that change quickly. We were reminded it was 100 years from the Rochdale Pioneers to the post war Welfare State.
  • One final thought, the great Methodist Evangelical Revival brought about and was part of massive social change, it’s by products included the growth of working class organisation. Maybe Revival of church (of Methodism even) in the 21st Century is likewise linked to developing new ways of being, and doing, ways that will in turn lead to a New Settlement  with compassion, fairness, inter-dependency, community and collectivity at its heart.