The wheels on the bus of social justice

5 March 2018

Throughout my childhood in the north-east of England, bus trips were a key part of exploring and getting to know the landscape of my home.  My parents did have a car, but somehow buses were always more exciting.  For the past almost 6 years, I have been living and working in the North Island of New Zealand, where public transport was minimal.  Put simply, if you didn’t have a car, you lived a confined existence.  At the beginning of this year, I returned to the UK.  Since I took up the role of Bishop of Ripon in the Anglican Diocese of Leeds, I’ve received many comments that have drawn my attention to the particular beauty of the Ripon episcopal Area, which includes the entire Yorkshire Dales National Park. 

Although I have only been in the role a matter of weeks, I have quickly become aware of some of the challenges that these areas of breath taking natural beauty face, not just in terms of their environmental health, but the ways in which they are truly open and accessible to visitors.  A recent BBC story on how the sustained reduction of bus coverage is affecting isolated rural communities peaked my interest.  Put bluntly, lack of access is an issue of social justice.  Although some innovative individuals have started to run their own bus services, there’s a broader issue of spending squeezes forcing many a local authority to make cuts.  My focus here is on a call to reflect more widely on what sort of society we want to be shaping not just for the future, but in the present?

Social justice is a phrase that is often used to convey the prophetic call that all God’s children are known and loved and should be treated equally.  Of course there are many debates and arguments about this, and examples aplenty of how the Church falls short (Church here referring to any Christian denomination).  When applied to the topic of accessibility, social justice can become a powerful tool giving voice to those who feel they have no voice, and who are often forgotten about.

In an area as diverse in context as the Diocese of Leeds, its people and communities are encouraged to enable the rural to be seen through the lens of the urban, and vice versa.  Cut-backs in transportation don’t just affect people, they break those connections between our communities, and they reduce the exposure that people can have to experiencing areas of natural beauty, such as our National Parks.  Whilst social justice can often manifest itself in a cry of the people, the narrative of the Bible also suggests that the land too has a voice.  The prophet Isaiah (who speaks about learning to do good, and seeking justice) describes God’s people being led back in peace, ‘and the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song’ (55.12).  While this may sound odd, you don’t have to look too far to find communities where the very fabric of creation itself has a voice, and there is very little that separates us from the land we inhabit.

So what can be done?  Well for starters, those who have responsibility for policy and budget-setting ought to consider carefully what the impact of withdrawal of essential services means not just now in the present time, but with the realisation that when you lose something, it’s far harder to get it back.  ‘Accessible transport is therefore a vital element in the construction of a just society,’ argues Nick Tyler in a 2004 research paper. Fourteen years later, how true that still is.  Will the wheels on the bus keep turning?  For the sake of all our futures, they must.

 

The Rt Revd Dr Helen-Ann Hartley​ is the Bishop of Ripon