London’s southern waterfront is being transformed at an unprecedented rate. From Battersea to the Thames Barrier, the skyline is pierced by cranes and new buildings. Extensive developments on old industrial sites are bringing thousands of people to the newly built riverside flats, offices, cafés and shops. New neighbourhoods are springing up; established communities are watching as immense change takes place.

The Church has always been part of the rhythm of riverside life in London. Down the centuries it has celebrated and mourned, marking the joys and sorrows of successive generations, maintaining a sense of history and of belonging. In London since Roman times, the Church has founded hospitals and schools, offered practical and pastoral support to Londoners at all levels of society and supported the arts and commerce. Within its enduring buildings it has gathered rich and poor together.

Although church history is not without blemish, a high value is placed on the common life, on living well together. The Church remains active in every local community today. Along the southern waterfront, 17 parishes continue this work. An involvement in what makes for a good, creative and flourishing city – where all can participate, contribute and benefit – is woven through the Church’s day to day life and experience.

As heated debate continues around planning choices, architecture, Section 106, economic growth, social and affordable housing and the impact of new developments, the Church and its scholars are able to reflect, contextualise and bring the Church’s history, lived experience and rootedness in community to bear on the issues of the day.

Bonhoeffer, who ministered in Sydenham during the 1930s, offered a social conception of the Church that challenges the exclusionary forces of gentrification by emphasising the necessity of neighbours, the impact of our histories in shaping community and a relational identity for the church. The Bible itself speaks of place and of living well, for example in Isaiah, “My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places”. The heavenly city described in the Book of Revelation is a regeneration with not only an abundance but also a diversity of life. This is a challenge to exclusive developments which separate wealthy residents from the rest, a factor also picked up by urban theorists searching for the key to successful, entrepreneurial neighbourhoods with a creative edge.

A renewed theological understanding of the importance of place is more recent. John Inge recognises the dehumanising effects of the loss of place and how globalisation can erode people’s rootedness, “Community and places each build the identity of the other.” Sheldrake addresses the long-standing anti-urban bias of Christianity and its emphasis on inwardness and pilgrimage and looks at the potential of cities to create a strong human community and a sense of sacred space.

The Church remains present. The expected lifespan of The Shard is dwarfed by Southwark Cathedral’s 1,400 years. Churches are often the first institution on the scene building new communities; the last movement still present when other shops, schools, businesses and charities have left. The Church is able to bridge geographical and intergenerational divides. The changing fortunes of the waterfront up and down the river are understood in relation to each other. Parishes deal with the collective hopes and fears of children, pensioners and community groups as well as individuals of working age.

The Church offers significant reach into existing local communities: it has social capital, resonance, credibility on the ground, goodwill, the capacity to broker relationships and significant pro bono resources. It hosts and commissions works of art and offers its spaces for performance.

The Church also provides substantial assets: buildings where local people can come together and where activities can take place, investment (£23m in one riverside borough alone), paid staff, resident clergy and hundreds of volunteers. The Church has always embraced newcomers to London and will continue to do so. Today, its diverse social networks reflect patterns of migration and the fast-changing and international nature of a global city.

What is a good city for all? How are we creating it? How we live, how we build our cities and regenerate our neighbourhoods, is something that affects all parts of society, yet the opportunity to discuss and develop ideas is often restricted to rhetoric and the machinations of the planning process.

Bringing together people who are closely involved in the redevelopment of the southern waterfront provides a unique opportunity to reflect on how we can shape the city and our life together.

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