Faith in Action – a new podcast

This is a new podcast to discuss how faith affects the way we live and work today. There is a little more explanation on this page, but meanwhile, here is the first episode!

Episode 1 – Jon Yates – Faith in society


Hello, this is Faith in Action, a new podcast to discuss how faith affects the way we live and work today.

Faith is often thought to epitomise divisions within society. But a recent report challenges that idea with research which suggests that the church is actually the best place for social mixing between people of different ages, class, ethnicity, income, and politics.

I’m delighted to welcome Jon Yates, who is the co-founder of The Challenge. The Challenge is the UK’s leading charity for building a more integrated society. We’ve come to talk about the part that faith might play in bringing people together.

So Jon, what does an integrated society mean? What does it look like?

I think, when we set up the charity – the charity is about six or seven years old now – and it is probably worth me saying that the people who set up the charity aren’t all Christians – so for me my faith plays a big part in wanting to be involved, but it’s not everybody’s motivation – the thing that drove it for us was that people should understand each other. And I think for me, having grown up in a faith community, you have an understanding that you can have differences of opinion on faith. So my mum, for example, and I would happily admit that we have a different views of how our faith works out. And it’s very easy within even the Christian faith to start to think that that group are all horrendous, and that group are absolutely awful, and that group… and so I think partly because of faith I became aware of the value of actually understanding each other. And having parents who had a different sense of faith to mine made me think actually, it’s perfectly valid to disagree with someone without thinking they’re evil.

So I think, to me an integrated society is one where we start with a sense of realising that people who are different to us aren’t necessarily worse than us, or a threat to us. The opposite is a society where we think that ‘there are some people who are kind of like me and trustworthy and decent and get where I’m coming from – sort of common sense people – and the rest are basically nutters or crazies, or boring’ or whatever. And I think that integration is enough banging into each other and time together to realise that people may be different from us, but they’re not necessarily worse.

And how much of an issue is this in modern britain today?

I think we all, if we’re honest, can look at our own friends and the people we spend most of our time with and probably notice that they’re quite similar to us. And by that I mean that we spend most of our time talking to people with the same level of education as us, and the same level of income as us, and probably the same age as us. Some of that – education for example – is pretty natural. I did a philosophy degree for my sins, and if I were to crack a joke about Socrates, most people quite rightly think this is not a funny joke, and it’s horrendously boring, and I don’t really understand what you’re talking about. So it’s quite nice that I have one or two friends that actually have a vague idea of why the joke is not funny and actually understand it properly.

So I think there is something about having friends who have similar points of reference, whether you’re all West Ham fans, or whatever it might be. But some of it is actually pretty worrying. And I think what we know from the work we’ve done through the charity is that if you randomly pick two people in the UK, and they are from the same income group or the same ethnic group, they’re around ten times more like to be friends already than if you pick two people who are different. That is kind of worrying. And you have to ask yourself when we’re looking at networks to get people into work, when we’re looking at the role of isolation having an impact on people becoming extremists, when we’re looking at the fact that the elderly can become very isolated – actually these networks matter to most of the things that we really care about. So we have a picture of a society with lots of people surrounded by people like them and then a load of problems that we care about that seem in some way to be connected together.

Fascinating to hear. People often talk about faith being divisive, but your research came to very different conclusions. Tell us about that.

So the research – we looked at 5,000 different social interactions, so groups, parties, gatherings, events, across the country. Completely different ones. Some people going to a football match for a match. Some people having friends round for dinner. Some people going out for dinner. Some people going for a picnic. Whatever, whatever it might be. And a number of the events were people going to a place of worship. And obviously a lot of those would be going to church. What was really interesting was that the interactions, the groups, the events that were the most mixed by ethnicity, and by income, were those that took place at a place of worship. And I think that surprises most people. Because at the end of the day a religious gathering is a group of people that have something in common. By its very essence it’s likely to be people who at a church are Christian, at a mosque are muslims etc.

But what is so phenomenally important about gatherings of faith, and actually any grouping where people have something in common, is that it overcomes some of the other differences. Because you actually say ok, you may be from a completely different part of this town than me, with a completely different background, but we’re both going as christians. Or we’re both going as muslims. I mean sport. We do a similar thing about sport. And sporting events tend to bring people together in this way. Much less so, but you do that a bit. And again you do get this sense that actually by finding a unifying thing. Like I’m a West Ham fan – so are you and so are you – ok, so it means we don’t like Tottenham fans, but actually we’re cutting across some of the other divisions. So we came to the conclusion that faith played a pretty important part in bringing the country together.

Is this about individual people with faith, individual Christians, or is this about Sunday services?

I think what we were picking up was that people coming together for a service, and it predominantly would be a Sunday service, was the space where people tended to mix and to meet. That’s what I really think we were picking up in the data.

But I think for me there is something – and I can’t speak from an atheist point of view or a humanist point of view – I think for me as a Christian there is something very powerful in the Bible about the respect and attention for someone who is different – the other. There is some brilliant writing by St. Paul about the idea that as Christians we believe that there is no longer jew and gentile, and there’s no longer slave nor free, so the idea that actually we are brought together, that we have a sense of unity despite the fact that we are different. And there are other great traditions – the humanist tradition and so on – that would echo the same point, but I can just speak from my own tradition. This is fundamentally very powerful. And I think that someone coming into a church should be hearing that message. Both in what is spoken, but also in what is practised. And I think you see that with Churches being very interested in food banks. Being very interested in how do we serve our community. And how do we reach those who are isolated from community. So I think there is something very fundamental to the DNA of Jesus’ teaching because we are not different from those who have less or those or are [superficially] different from us, we are fundamentally the same.

Do you have any sense of whether this has got better or worse over the years? Has the church played a more or less significant part in social integration now compared to a couple of decades ago?

The answer is that I don’t really know. And there is a real lack of data about what’s happening in society generally about whether we’re getting more or less integrated. No-one seems to have properly tracked this. We know whether people live in the same areas, more or less, but we haven’t really tracked how much people talk with each other. What we do know is that clearly there are moments when the church spurts into action with an interest in bringing – particularly historically it has been the rich and the poor – together because the UK has historically been pretty monoethnic – but bringing the rich and the poor together. The history around the settlements movement which was the historic idea was that those who had a lot should move and live in areas where those who had less are. And again the root of that as I read it wasn’t to help change the lives of those who had less, though that was obviously important, but it was more to live with people who were different, who had less. And I think that has been a constant undercurrent coming and going.

I think that as church has become less part of our life, what is true is that obviously church plays less of a role in bringing people together, and therefore we need really to redouble our efforts to make sure we’re not sinking into our own little comfort zones. Especially as we tend no longer tend to go to our local church, we tend to choose which church to go to, and it’s quite easy to choose the church who is full of people just like us. And actually the church that I attend is a place that I would defend to the hilt – it is a fantastic place to be a part of –  but obviously like any church based in the local area it has a certain dynamic of local people, and we are continually striving to get a mix, and that is something that we have to grapple with.

You mentioned foodbanks. Faith schools are another thing seen in recent years – are they part of the solution to social integration, or part of the problem?

There is a bit here where I’m really speaking on behalf of The Challenge, and there is a bit where I’m more voicing a personal view. I think that what The Challenge would say, which I would agree with, is that we just need to be a little careful with regard to faith based admissions. So, I just want to make a distinction between a school that is based on principles of faith that says to people – look, a lot of the teachers here are inspired by the teachings of Jesus the teaching of Buddha, whoever it might be – and actually that is a driver for us to do a brilliant job here, and we are going to help reflect on character and personality by reflecting on the depth and wisdom of the teaching. I think that is actually a fundamentally positive thing. And while we live in society where people, including taxpayers, want different things, as a Christian I value having teachers who are passionate about Jesus. And so I think that’s great. Friends of mine who are muslims I hope would feel the same way about having teachers inspired by Mohammed. I think that is a fundamentally good thing and something that is good for society. That’s more of a personal view there.

What The Challenge would say is that when it comes to schools accepting people – should you come to school because you’re a Christian or not – or ‘oh no you can’t come to this school because you’re a muslim, and you can’t come because you’re a hindu – I think we’d say that that seems like a bit of a dangerous path to head down. Because the evidence unsurprisingly is that schools with heavy faith based admissions tend to become more dominated by one faith. There are schools in our country – we can look at the history here – obviously what has gone on in Northern Ireland, and what’s just happened in Glasgow – effectively people can grow up in parallel lives. We have a growing Muslim population, a growing Jewish population, alongside obviously Christian Hindu, Sikh etc. And I think we just have to be a bit careful that we don’t end up with schools where you have muslim kids in one school and Christian kids in another school. But we can have and do have that [challenge] in schools that have nothing to do with faith and are not faith schools. I wouldn’t want to suggest that I’m putting faith schools on the naughty mat and everyone else is fine. But we just have to be quite careful with faith based admissions.

You spoke at the start about how your work was inspired by your faith. And I wondered practically how your faith helps in work?

I think trying to follow Jesus gives you three things, that for me help in my work. One is that it gives you a sense of purpose. I do fundamentally believe that I, and all of us, are called to try and build a society which involves everybody. So I have this sense that there is a purpose to what I’m trying to do. So on a very bleak Monday morning, there is that sense of purpose.

Secondly, I think you can have a sense of hope. Because you can have a sense of purpose and I know what I’m supposed to be doing, but I’ve got no chance of it ever coming off. I think trying to follow Jesus is a sense of following someone who is saying that really, the world can be better, and we’re going to try and make it better. Maybe not today or not tomorrow, maybe in an afterlife. But you know, things can be made better.

I think the third is a sense of humility. Which I would probably say is that you yourself are not going to by yourself make it better, and it’s not on you. And I think that is incredibly freeing actually.

So I think you can come together to have a sense that I have a purpose, I have a hope, but I don’t feel the total unadulterated pressure that if something goes wrong I am awful and I’ve failed. And I think that is a rather freeing way to be able to look at the world. And I think it does drive you on.

And is your faith something that is internally driving you on, or does it spill over? How does it manifest itself externally?

Those values I’m talking about – about purpose, and hope, and humility I would hope come across to people when they’re working with me. And this sense of ‘come on this is something we can make better’ but that I understand that I’ve made mistakes before, genuinely is something people would experience when we’re interacting, when we’re talking about stuff. And I’m not sure I would quite be that person without my faith. I think I’d be quite a driven person, but I don’t think I’ve have a sense of humility with it. And I’m sure I could be much much much more humble. But I think I’d be even worse than I am now.

Working for a charity that believes in the value of difference gives me a heck of a lot of space to say ‘and this is the way I am different’. One of the people I was in a meeting with today is a practising Muslim. And we were chatting, and you know, I was curious about something and we were chatting away about Eid and a couple of things, and I was chatting away about Easter and a couple of things. It’s not some amazing conversation or anything. But I think there is a freedom about working for a charity that is saying that people who are different should get on and be themselves. And actually it means that as a Christian I can say that this is the thing I believe, so I think that naturally does bubble out.

Have you found yourself mixing with a wider variety of people as a result of the mission of The Challenge?

I find I think about it a lot more. And I find I notice. I can give you a very small example. A lot of the times where we get to meet people who are different to us as parents is through school. And I can find myself much more conscious of thinking in a way that I probably wouldn’t have done before I started thinking about this issue. I was on paternity leave recently and I picked the kids up a lot. And I started thinking, who do I naturally talk to at the school gate? Who do I naturally gravitate towards? And often what goes on in your mind is that you don’t want to interrupt someone who might think ‘Why are you talking to me?’

You know, often we don’t talk to people who are different not because we don’t like them, but because we don’t want to make them feel awkward. And so I’ve found myself being a little more prepared to think – actually it’s ok to feel awkward – I’m going to say hello to this person, I’m going to talk to this person, I’m going to introduce myself to this person. And maybe – that doesn’t sound terribly revolutionary does it – maybe that I’m prepared to be a little more awkward – maybe it’s a kind of very British revolution. And I think generally I’m not a revolutionary. I don’t really want to radically transform the world. But I would like there to be a few more spaces, and through the work of The Challenge to try and create them, and I’d like for the people to take the opportunity within them to say hello to people who are different. And I think I am trying to be a little bit more prepared to feel awkward, and I’m trying to create a few more spaces. So I wouldn’t say my life has been revolutionised, but I can say that I’m playing my part in that rather British revolution that we need to bring about.

Jon Yates, thank you very much.

Thank you.