Milton Keynes, our great city, where even those who have lived here a short time (like me!) have learned to hold it in huge affection, is 50 next year. We are beginning to think of ways to celebrate that fact, and to stand at that point, where you stand at all great anniversaries, of looking back to the previous 50 years, and looking forward to the next. MK is a city that is designed – it is therefore more unitary in its concept of itself than many places in the UK. However, as a civic identity, Milton Keynes-ness is not shared by everyone, particularly those who lived in the pre-existing towns and villages over which the MK Development Corporation spread its net in the 1970s and 1980s. How you see the civic history and its environmental impact will depend on your own history. Farmers, with good arable land to tend, will mourn the compulsory purchases and the loss of a way of life that had been substantially unchanged from the beginning of mechanised farming. Newcomers may wonder what all the fuss is about. Modernists may rejoice in the triumph of the sort of architectural landscape exemplified (in Britain at least) in this city. Those dwelling in Newport Pagnell and in Bletchley perhaps mourn the transfer of their strong commercial life to the new city centre.
All these things matter, and all matter to the future because they form constructs of the past. We cannot plan for the future without addressing the emotional turbulence of the past.
I will probably think a great deal about this over the next year or so. But what strikes me immediately is that I have come across two different visions for the future of Milton Keynes which appear on the surface to function as if completely unaware of each other.
The MK Mission Partnership, the umbrella group for ecumenical mission in the city, linking the outreach work of all the ecumenical parishes, has published a vision called MK: A city alive to God. You can buy the mug and there are good postcards to remind you of its importance. The interesting thing to me about the vision, which with thought and prayer can inspire the churches, is that it has no demographic, educational, national or regional context. It is a mission statement to the church for its work. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that – our own church vision at St Mary’s Bletchley is the same – little context of what it means for a growing city over the next thirty years or so. But I know that is not what people are thinking about – both in the mission partnership and St Mary’s, people are keenly aware of the way our city is changing. And yet we do not relate our faith ro
On the other side of the coin is the very interesting, well thought out and widely consulted on Milton Keynes Futures 2050. I have only read the summary document so far (and been very inspired by it, to be honest) but there is a fuller report here, and much research, compiled in 3 commission working papers sitting behind it. Because I have not read the full report, I am a little hesitant to say the next bit, but it appears that there is absolutely no cognisance taken of the fact that many people in Milton Keynes, and certainly the vast majority of the newly immigrant population over the last 15-20 years or so, belong to faith communities all over the city. We have an abundance of churches, many well attended, and the majority of those coming to this city from the subcontinent, the Middle East and Africa bring with them real expectations of faith being taken seriously. And yet the MK Futures document is determinedly secular. Still inspiring, though!
It makes me wonder why. Part of the reason, surely, is that faith communities in the UK particularly, have not, for at least the last 100 years, really seen their role as impacting on the urban environment that their churches sit in. We have supported the people, but generally (there are wonderful exceptions) we have not seen civic engagement, the development of healthy families and communities, and the protection and care of the earth as priorities. This is not just misguided, but wrong. It means that civic leaders have no expectation of support for their civic responsibilities from the churches. They might get it, but it is not an expected norm. Conversely it means that Christians do not see their civic duties as part of their discipleship and servant calling.
When Jeremiah’s contemporaries had been carried away to Babylon at the time of the great exile of Israel because of disobedience, Jeremiah sought God for what to write in a letter, and this is what he was told to say:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7).
Christians need look no further for an encouragement to civic engagement than this. There might be more, conceivably, but there is not less.