May 7, 2021

Current Fellows

Alison Merritt-Smith, ‘Shieling: a theology of art, land and economy in contested urban space’

Alison Merritt Smith’s research focuses on the potential for artistic activism and theological reflection in the context of the politics of land, development and contested urban space.

Alison is the Director of Methodist arts organisation Shieldfield Art Works (SAW), based on a Council Estate in Shieldfield, East Newcastle. Over the past decade, the estate has experienced a 467% increase in the development of luxury private and student accommodation and subsequent gentrification.  This has caused increasing pressures on land and sense of place for long term residents. Moreover, there is now a real risk of demolition, displacement and social cleansing of the estate.

As an organisation focused on Art, Theology and Community Activism, SAW is responding to this context through the design and research project A Shieling for Shieldfield. Shieling is a symbol for reclaiming land in Shieldfield and bringing it back into community use. Over a year long process Alison will use A Shieling for Shieldfield as a case study to examine the symbol of Shieling for theologically reflecting and actively responding to the urgent issues of land, housing, urban development and gentrification in our region. At such a critical time for the region there is a distinct need for churches and faith projects to offer alternative, hopeful and theologically rooted models for our communities directly affected by these issues.

Fred Robinson, ‘Principles and pragmatism: how should Christian organisations in the North East respond to the problem of ‘tainted money’?

Christian organisations need and use money; like everyone else, they operate in a money-driven economy. How do they think about raising money for the church roof or in support of the local church school or the food bank – and how should they be thinking about all that? How vigilant should churches and other Christian organisations be about the provenance of money which they’ve received through donations, grants or from investments? When should they refuse ‘tainted money’ — or even give it back?

But what do we mean by ‘tainted money’? Isn’t all money tainted? For example, should churches accept Lottery money or money from foundations linked to fossil fuels? Surely, Christian organisations ought to be more vigilant than secular organisations. Maybe they should be pragmatic – and focus on the good that money can do in the future, rather than the bad it may have been associated with in the past. Can good works cleanse money – or even help redeem the sinner who donates? Shouldn’t we be encouraging more philanthropy rather than discouraging it?

My own interest in this stems from practical involvement with philanthropy in the North East, as an evaluator of regeneration programmes and as Chair of a local voluntary sector organisation. Currently, I am undertaking an evaluation of The Auckland Project — a major regeneration scheme funded primarily by a Christian financier/philanthropist and the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The problem of tainted money isn’t going to go away; in fact, it is becoming more important. There is an increasing emphasis on private sector money to pay for things that the state is less able, or less willing, to do. There are also now lively debates (especially in the US) about the provenance of money.  There is the contemporary example of arts patronage from the Sackler family, for instance – money derived from the promotion of opioids. And there are the huge moral questions about how to deal with history: notably, the legacy of slavery.

Christian organisations are likely to be held to account more and more, and asked to justify historic benefactions and current fund-raising. I want to help them to be able to respond to scrutiny, to exercise wisdom – and to welcome transparency.

The first phase of the research will establish the state of play nationally and regionally, across the denominations, reviewing policies on donations, grants and investments. Alongside that, I will look at theological underpinnings to those policies – the Bible has a lot to say about money (and other tainted objects).

The second phase will look at local case studies in the North East. How do individual churches and other Christian organisations think about money? Are they ready to answer questions about the connections they have had with donors or are seeking to have?

The third phase is about developing and disseminating guidelines and practical responses to difficult and perhaps unsettling questions – so that churches and other Christian organisations can live the Gospel and have a right relationship with money — as far as that is possible.

Andrew Byers, ‘Developing Indigenous Missional Leaders among the Free Churches of the North East’

Societies thrive as churches thrive, embodying the ethics of Christ’s kingdom and proclaiming a hopeful message of release through his Gospel. Since congregational resilience and flourishing are linked with healthy leadership, a region’s well-being is strengthened by particular investments in leadership development. Yet key stakeholders among the free churches of the North East have identified that a leadership crisis is at hand.
Over the past six years I have established at Cranmer Hall the “Free Church Track in Missional Leadership.” The strapline of “forming missional leaders in the North East and for the North East” highlights the regional focus and implies a vision for developing church leaders who are not only committed to the North East but also indigenous to the area. Yet out of the forty students who joined the course, only half were reared locally, and less than half of that number were in a younger demographic. The research question I hope to explore with the Leech Foundation is this: how might free churches effectively identify and train younger church leaders indigenous to the North East?
Three key areas require critical reflection. The first is theological. Less bound by ecclesial customs or anchored in a past increasingly viewed as irrelevant, free church leadership models may have appeal for younger Christians. Yet many younger believers within free church congregations are nonetheless decrying some leadership roles as too “traditional”; for such critics, the idea of the “pastor” is a managerial post committed to
little more than maintaining a status quo unsustainable in a post-Christendom society. To what degree is free church leadership theology adequate for the missional task? Are younger Christians drawn to its standard models? How might churches and training institutions faithfully articulate the purpose and role of leadership for a new generation?
A second area is sociological. There are key cultural and social factors that may be limiting the recruitment of younger Christians into leadership trajectories. Drawing on Ruth Perrin’s work on younger believers in the North East, I intend to investigate current trends, ideas, and values that have bearing on questions regarding vocation. What sociological realities in our cultural moment may be hindering the enlistment of potential leaders from those in the younger generation who remain in the pews?
A third area is missional. Though the study presupposes the advantage of raising up indigenous leaders from within the North East, this conviction begs close examination: do locals indeed possess a higher protentional for missional leadership than outsiders? Many free churches in the North East are thriving under leaders who have come from elsewhere. What challenges have these leaders faced, and how do their experiencesinform a vision for indigenous leadership development? If regional flourishing is indeed bolstered by the flourishing of churches, then promoting healthy congregational leadership is an important venture aligned with the aims and values of the Leech Foundation.

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