'We need to ask if all the talk of regeneration and prosperity reflects the reality for many in Britain today,' said Kathleen Richardson, a former president of the Methodist Conference, who chaired the Commission on Urban Life and Faith.
The report argues that much has changed in the 20 years since the Church report Faith in the City ignited a wide-ranging political debate on urban life in 1980s Britain. Cities have been transformed, both in how they look and who lives in them. Multi-million pound regeneration schemes and the dramatic impact of globalisation have brought riches and new opportunities to many localities. Yet the extremes of poverty and prosperity are not so different from those in the 1980s.
The Commission on Urban Life and Faith, among a number of recommendations to faith communities and government, examines the current failure of urban regeneration projects to improve the lives of all who live in cities and calls for a debate on 'What makes a good city?'
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said: 'This report is challenging. It is the result of a great deal of consultation with the people at the sharp end in our inner cities, notably the people who live there. It does not point the finger at any one agency alone. It challenges us all: churches, faith communities, development agencies and government, local and national. Building social capital requires patience, hard work and an ongoing commitment. Building faithful capital requires even more - a willingness to cooperate with God's plan for humanity, and especially for the most vulnerable in society.'
The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, a member of the commission, said: 'This Report asks, 'Why is it that young people in Britain, the fourth largest economy in the world, are the most depressed in Europe?' That question demands an answer. The Report also shows what has been done by generous faith and what needs to be done, given the right backing by people of goodwill and all those who believe in God. Local communities, authorities and central government have a crucial role in making faithful cities flourish.'
The commission brought together church leaders, clergy, academics, activists and practitioners from a variety of Christian denominations and other faiths. On the initiative of the Church of England's Urban Bishops' Panel, it was asked to examine and evaluate progress made by both Church and Nation in improving the life of those living in urban areas and to offer a vision of urban society, and the church's presence and witness in it, at the beginning of the 21st century.
Its report, Faithful Cities, describes the distinctive contribution of faith groups to communities as 'faithful capital' and calls on the Church of England and its ecumenical partners to maintain a planned, continued and substantial presence across urban areas. It also concludes that, for a just and equitable society to flourish, the gap between the poor and the very wealthy must be reduced.
Emphasising that cities and towns are for the many not the few, Faithful Cities stresses that regeneration is not just about the built environment and economic targets but is also human and spiritual. The growth of a regeneration industry focused on real estate, prestigious buildings and big ticket events often marginalises the needs of those in deprived communities, it says. While many of the government's social programmes and initiatives are welcomed, the report notes a shift away from the earlier focus on collaboration with excluded communities and individuals.
For a just and equitable society to flourish, the report argues, the gap between the poor and the very wealthy must be reduced. It asks the government to consider the effects of implementing a living wage rather than a minimum wage. Evidence suggests that the Nation's towns and cities are more divided economically than in the 1980s and the report calls for significant work to be done on reducing the gaps. Faithful Cities also reminds the churches of their duty to challenge the thoughtless accumulation of wealth that ignores the needs of the poor.
Social cohesion, the report says, depends on the ability of people to live in harmony. Antipathy and racism are endemic among young people, making them prime targets for religious and political extremism. Faith groups in particular, the commission emphasises, must combat racism, self-interest and religious intolerance at all levels of society. The report encourages the development of networks of leadership training and of collaboration between faith communities, and highlights the need for a greater literacy on matters of faith among civil servants and local government officials.
Faithful Cities: A call for celebration, vision and justice is published jointly by Methodist Publishing House and Church House Publishing, price£9.99, and is available from bookshops or from Church House Bookshop, 31 Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3BN, tel. 020-7898 1300, e mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or on the web at: www.chbookshop.co.uk (mail order available) or from Methodist Bookshop, Methodist Church House, 25 Marylebone Road, London NW1 5JR, tel. 020-7467 5106, e mail email@example.com or on the web at www.mph.org.uk