This is the interview I did with Chris for the ace HowDo magazine for May. I’m blogging it here in its original longer form, because I have a tendency not to stick to my word counts and then have to edit ruthlessly…. This interview happened before either of us knew Chris was leaving for new Sunderland shaped adventures – and I’m sending so much good luck for yr new chapter!
Chris Howson is City Centre priest for Bradford, faith advisor to the University, political activist, Bradford advocate, author of a Just Church, father and husband.
Whilst I was waiting to chat with him I snooped around the book collection in Desmond Tutu house: black theology, feminism, anarchist theology: I was reminded that nothing about this place was typical
How long have you been in the city?
I’ve been in Bradford since 1989 I came to study social work I worked as a social worker before training to be a priest. From the moment I walked into Bradford I fell in love with it, I fell in love with the people, the architecture, the sense of culture, it was just a wonderful city.
What does your role as City Centre priest involve?
My role in Bradford has been to develop, firstly worship space for people who wouldn’t traditionally go to church, particularly younger people. We’ve set up soul space which meets at the German church and Just Space which is a space for people to get passionately involved in peace and social Justice issues.
Desmond Tutu house is a unique experiment in the Aglican Church it provides space for community groups and activists that are trying to improve the world and society. Lots of organisations meet in this space as well as having the non-violence centre, cafe and the head quarters of the regional campaign for nuclear disarmament. Ultimately I hope that this place will always be a base or a spring board for young people being passionate about the world around them. I hope it’s a place where people can feel empowered.
The other side of my job is to look at the City Centre and look at ways it can either be improved or the ways the church can support initiatives and for that, historically has been getting involved in campaigns, working with the refugee and asylum seeking communities through projects like City of Sanctuary, setting up things like Bradford Street Angels.
Can you tell me a bit more about how that started?
Bradford Street Angels came about because the perception was that Bradford was a very unsafe place to be on a Friday and a Saturday night, and though from the statistics we knew that that wasn’t the case we were trying to reassure members of the public and encourage them to use the city centre. We’re present on the streets and if we find vulnerable people, we make sure they’ve got a safe passage. But mostly what we do is smile at people, encourage people to have a good night out. It also came about because I was told it couldn’t happen, that not enough people cared about Bradford for it to work and I knew that that wasn’t the case, Bradford people are very proud and very practical. The project’s still running five years on. It’s had a marked impact on the city centre, the crime statistics prove that. I just like projects that change perceptions of our city.
What I’ve picked up from you is that you don’t see religion and politics as being divorced, for you they run into each other in some ways?
No they’re both completely intertwined. Hopefully most politicians want to make the world a better place and my hope is that most people involved in spirituality want to make the world a better place. How those two worlds meet together creatively and optimistically is what I’m interested in. Our relationships with the world as theologians should be about making the world a better place and recognising the issues for poor people, recognising that most of the world is still struggling with poverty and that if the church isn’t involved in liberating people from poverty then it’s not doing its job properly.
What’s your take on direct action?
I think when governments don’t listen we have to put our bodies in the way of evil policies, so I’ve been arrested six times over the last ten years, mostly against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or against the madness of spending so much money on nuclear weaponry. I think people of faith, or anyone, need to stand up when governments don’t listen.
Do you ever find yourself in conflict with Marxists or extreme political groups? That they don’t want anything to do with you because you represent organised religion?
Yes but it’ll always be their loss. Because if we are actually going to change the way this government organises itself and change the way society is run then you have to build as many alliances and allegiances as you can and not want to put everyone down.
One of the things I noticed about Soul Space with the German Church was that you had the big rainbow banner. My impression is that it’s been very important that it’s overtly inclusive of LGBT Christians. Why was that important to you?
Because Jesus is very inclusive and therefore the church should be very inclusive; I think particularly in a time when the church is seen as quite bigoted and homophobic it’s really important for those of us who are standing for inclusivity to be counted so our church is a safehaven for LGBT Christians, they are welcomed and encouraged and in turn they give huge amounts back to the church. It’s a real privilege to work with that community. I look forward to being able to conduct gay marriages in churches in my lifetime.
If someone had a day in Bradford what would you tell them to do and why?
A walk round the Victorian heritage of the city is always lovely, go to Little Germany. I like the Social History that’s here, like with Lister Mills and the strike in 1890 which lead to the formation of the independent Labour party. Or Hanover Square, go see the house where Margaret McMillan the feminist socialist lived who set up the first school meals in the country.
She’s not someone I’ve heard of, but I clearly should have! Do you think this history informs the City now, or do you think we’ve lost it?
I think that stories are important and I like to retell those stories to help people hang on to those things that are important. It’s the stories of our past that make Bradford quite special.
What challenges do you think the city faces?
The cuts to public spending mean that Bradford is going to struggle economically over the next couple of years. It’s a poor city but I think it’s got some really strong optimistic bits. One is there are a lot of people very proud of the city, who want to recognise that the diversity of the culture here is our strength. And particularly the Pakistani community born in Bradford are invested heavily in the city. People are proud of the city, they are very keen to defend it.
If you could wave a magic wand how would you have Bradford change?
Properties which have been empty for over five years would be converted using state money to housing co-operatives. A place where people could not just live, but live together in solidarity. There’s enough accommodation around Bradford to share but lots of empty and wasted buildings.