MANCHESTER URBAN THEOLOGY FORUM
Researcher: Dr. Chris Shannahan
Manchester Urban Theology Forum
‘Faith & Justice Join Hands’
After a summer of planning and a host of conversations the Manchester Urban Theology Forum met for the first time at the University of Manchester on 11th September 2014. The project is a new initiative within the Lincoln Theological Institute, which is part of the Religions and Theology department at the University of Manchester and is being developed by Chris Shannahan [a lecturer in the department with many years experience as an urban theologian and community activist]. The Forum is specifically targeted at grass-roots faith and community groups, practitioners and academics at the University and is committed to reflecting the cultural and religious diversity of ‘multilingual Manchester’ and the experience of those who are most marginalised in the city. The Urban Theology Forum emerges out of the understanding that religion continues to play a major role in the lives of a very large number of Mancunians and in the politics, community development and culture of Manchester but also out the recognition that due to a range of pressures faith groups and practitioners can become isolated from one another. In light of this the Forum aims to –
- Stimulate and inform discussion about the experience of those who are most marginalised within the city and the experience of working alongside such groups.
- Create a shared space for the critical reflection on the theological challenges and questions that life in a dynamic, diverse, contested and complex city raises for people of faith and for wider society.
- Build bridges of understanding between a diverse range of faith and community groups and between faith and community groups and academics at the University of Manchester.
- Provide the crucible from which a range of action research projects can emerge that specifically engage with the key issues and challenges discussed by the Forum
As with all new initiatives it was impossible to know whether the Manchester Urban Theology Forum would attract support or fall flat. Our very positive first meeting answered this concern as 25 of us gathered to take the first step in building the Forum – we even needed to find extra chairs to squeeze everyone into the room, which was a great problem to have. Our first meeting included music, images, introductions and personal stories, a discussion about the space of the city and three key conversations –
What? Themes & Questions
We shared in a wide-ranging and constructive conversation about the kinds of issues and themes that the group felt were key concerns for people in Manchester – giving ourselves an agenda for some time to come! The themes that people identified as possible future foci for Urban Theology Forum meetings included –
- Ø Poverty and inequality
- Ø Homelessness
- Ø The experience of asylum seekers and attitudes to belonging and ‘the stranger’
- Ø Faith-based identities and cultural diversity in Manchester
- Ø The role of Religious Education in multi-faith schools and the role of faith schools in the city
- Ø Issues of gender, sexuality and the experience of the LGBT community in faith groups and the wider city
- Ø The changing nature of religious identities and their impact on inter-faith dialogue
- Ø Violence in the city
- Ø Inter-community and inter-group tensions
- Ø The experience of children, teenagers and young adults in the city
- Ø The gap between theology and urban life
- Ø Religion and politics
- Ø Immigration
- Ø Many Manchesters [to include class, language, faith, ethnicity, gender, age, sexuality….]
- Ø The experience of those in the city who are not ‘secular’ but are not ‘religious’ either…..
We talked together about what kind of approach to Forum meetings might be most useful and about the use of the word ‘theology’ in the title of the Forum. We felt that it might be helpful to adopt a mixed approach to Forum meetings – some speaker led meetings where short presentations will be given by invited key speakers on a particular theme leading to group discussions, others ‘home-grown’ discussions and reflections on an agreed topic and other meetings focusing of an article or book that focuses on some aspect of the relationship between religion/theology and urban life. – a little like a ‘reading club’.
Some of us suggested that the term ‘theology’ was problematic if the Forum aimed to be diverse and inclusive because the term is largely one that is only used within the Christian community. Whilst recognising this Chris suggested that he felt that it was important to retain the word ‘theology’ for two reasons. First, because the Forum is intended to facilitate shared critical self reflection on the spiritual and faith-based questions that life in the city poses as well as building bridges of understanding between different communities. Second, in order to subvert exclusive and excluding notions of ‘theology’ and in recognition of the fact that people from all faith traditions explore and reflect on the relationship between their experience and key religious themes, ideals, identities and beliefs – theology as a dialogue between experience and the search for meaning in the city.
Members of the group also suggested that one of the roles of the Urban Theology Forum could be to act as a signpost to others networks and agencies in the city. It was also noted that we need to find a way of sharing what we discuss and reflect on with a wider community. The ways in which we could disseminate the reflections of the Forum will be explored further in future meetings but could include a blog, an edited book, a resource aimed at faith groups and podcasts of the presentations given by invited keynote speakers.
Frequency and Venue of Meetings
In light of our conversation it was felt that the Urban Theology Forum needs to meet often enough to gather momentum and develop its own sense of identity but not so often that it becomes a burden when people are already very busy. With this in mind initially the Urban Theology Forum will aim to meet 3 or 4 times a year. We all agreed that it will be very important for the Forum to meet in a range of community and faith group buildings across the city as well as on the University campus in order to reflect our commitment to being a Forum that brings people and communities together and is rooted in the city.
Next Meeting – It is planned to hold the next meeting of the Urban Theology Forum either in late November 2014 or early January 2014 – Further details will follow.
Please click here to see the invitation to the inaugual meeting of the Forum on Thu 11 September 2014, 1-3 pm at the University of Manchester.