I arrived in Britain in 1980 as a refugee aged 13, following the impact of the Islamic Revolution in my home country of Iran. Having left with no more than a suitcase each, my family were welcomed here and for the first 18 months were offered housing in a theological college and then a vacant vicarage. That stability gave us the base from which we were able to start building new lives.
40 years later I was asked by Archbishop Justin Welby to be the first Bishop for Housing, taking forward the recommendations of ‘Coming Home’, the report of his Commission on Housing, Church and Community.
This is a daunting challenge, and although I have no expertise in housing, I am passionate about social justice – not least because of my own formative experiences. Since 8 million people in England are living in overcrowded, unaffordable or unsuitable housing, there is a clear call for Christians across all denominations to work towards housing provision.
The Coming Home report spells out a distinct Christian vision for housing and community. The Bible tells a story of a journey from a God-provided home, of humanity then becoming ‘homeless’, moving out into a dangerous world, then of a long process of redemption which leads back home again – but to one that looks different from the first.
The report unpacked this trajectory and from it developed five core values to characterise all good housing. First, the story of Creation and humanity’s role in stewarding the earth means that our housing must be sustainable; the built environment needs to be in harmony with the natural environment, and our housing should be high on quality while low on carbon.
The pervasive reality of sin means that God’s good creation is susceptible to environmental and social disintegration. Homes aren’t always places of protection, nor communities free from danger and exploitation. Physical housing can be poorly built, standards compromised, and repairs neglected, which is why good housing will always put a high value on safety.
Thirdly, the incarnation reaffirms the goodness of the physical creation and the value of human communities having places and spaces where they belong. Good housing should therefore offer stability, where local people can afford to live and put down roots, so they and their families can thrive.
God’s redeemed people – the Church – represent a new kind of humanity, no longer governed by old distinctions based on race or class. This translates into a commitment to housing that is welcoming and sociable, with hospitable spaces that can help people from different cultures, faiths and backgrounds find a place of connection, and build long-term relationships.
Finally, the vision of the new creation means that although we will never achieve perfection in housing in this age, we can still work towards the one to come, where all is healed and transformed, and God makes his home among us. Housing that reflects this means that architecture, design and technology all work together to create places of beauty that people delight to live in.
This reflection provides five simple values as the benchmark for the Church’s engagement in the housing sector: good housing is sustainable, safe, stable, sociable and satisfying. The language is accessible for people of all faiths or none, yet there is great theological depth behind each of the five values.
In my role as Bishop for Housing, I want to invite you to be part of our journey. We’re setting up a Church Housing Foundation to empower the church to engage with housing at all levels. We want to collaborate with any partners, groups, individuals, who share this vision and want to see God’s kingdom expressed through bricks and mortar – delightful homes and thriving communities up and down the country.
Rt Rev Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani is the diocesan Bishop of Chelmsford as well as the lead Bishop for Housing in the Church of England. She was the keynote speaker at the recent New Housing Summit 2022.