Justice and Peace activists from across the country will descend this weekend for the annual conference at Swanwick in Derbyshire.
The activists come together for the 34th time under the National Justice and Peace Network (NJPN) banner at a time when the work of that body seems under threat as never before.
The recent making redundant of the position of J&P worker in the Shrewsbury Diocese seemed symptomatic for some of an attempt to phase out justice and peace as it is now constituted.
Previously, the position of J&P worker in Salford disappeared, not to be replaced. Though bucking this trend the Nottingham Diocese has just appointed a new worker. Others though could go, as economic hard times provide a useful excuse to get rid of workers.
The concern is that the hierarchy backed and better resourced Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN) is coming down the track with NJPN in its sights. In Salford, Caritas has effectively taken on the social justice work.
The NJPN certainly face a fight if it is to survive, let alone grow. Given the potential crisis, an outside observer might expect to see much debate and strategising over the two days of the annual conference as to how the challenges are to be tackled.
The strange thing is aside of the odd conversation in the bar, it seems certain that the very shape of justice and peace in the UK will not be on the agenda in any part of this conference.
This underlines a problem of justice and peace over the years, namely a failure to strategise politically within the Church. There is engagement with many different political campaigns, covering such diverse topics as climate change, war and peace, the nuclear industry, fair trade, ethical investment and workplace justice. Campaigns run by agencies like CAFOD, Progressio, Housing Justice and CARJ all receive support.
But when it comes to the very politics of the Church, where are the J&P people to be seen? Many no doubt will argue they must get on with the real work of justice in the world and that work should not be inhibited by internal fights within the Church. A good point but if you want to do social justice outside of the Church context then there are many secular organisations fulfilling that role, why not join them and do the work uninhibited. This is no doubt what many people have done, growing disillusioned as they see the Church’s role as a prophetic voice for justice downgraded.
However, those in NJPN who believe that the work of justice and peace does have a future, need to start acting in a strategic political way within as well as without the Church. Failure to do so, now invites elimination.
One of the problems with NJPN is that it has largely let its function be reduced from that of building a J&P movement across the country to a body that simply puts on an annual conference with a number of quarterly meetings in between times. The conferences are always excellent but I have yet to discover any link between the theme of one and another. Take last year, the theme was justice in the workplace. The speakers were top notch, Frances O’Grady, the deputy general secretary of the TUC and Labour MP Jon Cruddas. The discussions valuable but what has the follow up been?
Since that time, Mr Cruddas has been put in charge of the Labour Party’s policy review, so he is at the centre of coming up with new ideas to form a programme for social justice to put before the electorate at the next election. Ms O’Grady will become the first female general secretary of the TUC in September when the present incumbent Brendan Barber steps down. Both are top players in terms of the social justice world. Both enthusiastic and supportive of the work of NJPN, yet what has happened since last July to build on an excellent start? The subject for the conference this weekend is China.
Somewhat pointedly, the theme of justice in the workplace has also very much come home to J&P activists over the past year, with the sorry episode involving J&P worker Joan Sharples in Shrewsbury.
The NJPN has clearly reached a cross roads in its existence. Either it starts to act like a political organisation, engaging not just with occasional issues but the politics of the Church or it fades away. The present approach of a virtual semi-detachment does not seem to be a a strategy in the long term. There will be those who instead of fighting will view decline as simply the spirit at work. Maybe so, maybe CSAN should take over much of the justice and peace work, who knows? However. I believe that the NJPN still has much to offer and can have a strong future. But it has to start being more political rather than just doing some politics.