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What Makes a Good City? Public Theology and the Urban Church

Elaine Graham and Stephen Lowe
Darton, Longman & Todd, 2009

Reviewed by Karyl Davison.

Twenty years ago a report commissioned by the Church of England, Faith in the City, ignited a wide-ranging political debate on urban life in 1980’s Britain.

It turned a spotlight on the plight of urban Britain at the tail end of the 20th century and one of the results has been the Church Urban Fund which invests millions of pounds in grassroots projects in the poorest urban communities.

Another has been the collaboration between the authors of this book through their work on the Commission for Urban Life and Faith.

Graham is the Samuel Ferguson Professor of Social and Pastoral Theology at the University of Manchester.

Lowe was appointed Bishop for Urban Life and Faith after the publication of Faithful Cities in 2006.

Using Augustine’s classic, City of God, the first part of the book sets out the contours of an urban, public theology that is both capable of nurturing the faithful, distinctive practice of the local church and of informing an engaged and ‘incarnational’ presence in public policy.

This is followed by a critique of recent official reports on urban life and faith, including those of the Commission for Urban Life and Faith’s report, Faithful Cities around the core question “What makes a good city?”

Chapter 3 explores the theological dimensions of space and its transformation into place, and how we as embodied beings, both individually and in community, inhabit, engage with, and gain meaning from, urban space and place.

Going beyond previous measures such as general goodness, well-being or quality of life, the good city is being seen increasingly as being organised around a recognition of responsibility of future as well as current generations.

One of the most significant issues highlighted by Graham and Lowe is the growing polarisation between rich and poor evident in many British cities where council housing estates have become a symbol of the class divisions in British society.

Also considered are strategies for urban regeneration and empowerment and the challenges and opportunities for the church in the new global community.

In a fairly academic style, this book is clearly focused on the urban environment in Britain, and the role of the Church of England although it does acknowledge at one point that other church organisations are working to address issues evident in cities.

Graham and Lowe argue that the church must be committed to be a presence in the urban environment if we are to have a credible and distinctive Christian voice into public policy in relation to sustainable, good cities.