A vicar with almighty ambition

Russell Hargrave speaks to Canon Steven Saxby about charity, politics, and to-do lists

Canon Steven Saxby

Canon Steven Saxby takes a pew at St Barnabas Church
Credit: SeanPines.co.uk 2016

Canon Steven Saxby is a busy man. He has been a vicar of St Barnabas Church in the heart of Waltham Forest for the last seven years, and served congregations elsewhere in the borough for six years before that.

These days he is equally well known locally for his high-profile role in a range of political campaigns. Over a drink at a pub in Walthamstow Village, he runs through the roles and responsibilities he takes on in the community.

“I’m the sort of person who is obsessive about lists,” he tells me cheerfully, and you can see why he might want a way to keep tabs on his commitments.

He looks after his growing congregation (work he calls “beautiful”) and runs the Faith Communities Forum, a borough-wide interfaith initiative. His church is a host venue for the E17 Arts Trail each year, one of three arts activities he is involved with, and St Barnabas has formed a community organisation to aid local cohesion.

On the political side, he works with the local arm of Citizens UK, and has just started as chair of the national branch of faith workers at Unite the Union. He has been to Calais to support refugees there, and joined striking junior doctors on their picket line at Whipps Cross University Hospital.

In case that isn’t enough, he also chairs the South Walthamstow branch of the Labour Party (he joined just before last year’s general election) and has plans to help out another branch down the road in Chingford.

Not that all this work, and the profile it brings, fazes him. “It comes with the job that you’re a public figure,” he says. “You can’t go out of the house without seeing someone you know. I’m used to it now.”

Steven is in many ways unusual; a Christian leader in one of the most ethnically diverse corners of London. Does his spiritual vocation ever clash with the mundane world of politics, I ask?

He argues that his religious calling and social campaigning are both drawn from the same concern for social justice. Ticking off the local issues which matter most to him – decent housing, migrant rights, public health – he explains: “I came to faith and politics at the same time. It was always about compassion for the vulnerable, justice for the oppressed.

“Throughout the whole of my ministry I’ve been engaged in work that has reflected those core values.”

Neither are these values reserved only for his immediate flock: “It’s also about serving the wider community.”

Steven rejects the idea that his Christianity could be a barrier when trying to work alongside those of different beliefs, or none at all. “At its heart, being a Christian involves a certain commitment to paying attention to the other,” he tells me, “and to seeking to appreciate the other person.”

This goes for relations with other faiths, too. You can disagree of course, he says, “but you try and do that in a way where you’re still kind.”

Steven evidently places a high premium on kindness, and worries about the cruelty he sees around him. New, tougher migration rules will hit members of his congregation, for example.

He fears that the rules may make life miserable for undocumented migrants who are trying to bring up children and contribute to the borough.

“It’s hideous,” he says, his voice rising. But there are other, more localised worries. Steven is unhappy about what he sees as the recent gentrification of the borough, especially in Walthamstow.

“I think it is largely insensitive to the local community,” he explains. He is politely scornful of some relative newcomers to Waltham Forest: “I think people who are moving here, and think the place is on the up, think it’s on the up because they are the sort of people moving into it.

“So there’s an inherent snobbishness in the notion that a place is improving because of you.”
He goes further and says some upmarket pubs have become “ghettos of the middle class” – something he believes has steadily become worse over the past five years.

This is precisely the sort of local fault-line about which he despairs. But he has solid ideas about how to address it. One approach is to ‘model’ different activities and projects at his church, to see what will bring people together even while the area is changing.

The other approach is through organised local politics. Steven is at his most animated when talking about the opportunities he believes have opened up since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour Party leader.

He is an enthusiastic Corbyn backer, and speaks gleefully about the grassroots activity inspired in Waltham Forest on the back of Corbyn’s victory, from campaigns to improve local housing to rallying against government plans to bomb Syria.

It has also sparked plans for his own future.

“I would like to try and stand for the council myself,” Steven says, referring to the next local elections in 2018. And after that: “I’d like to have a go at running for parliament at the next election.”

But then he clarifies: “Not in Walthamstow.”

With that the canon heads off to his next late-night meeting. There is doubtlessly much more to do. He isn’t even close to ticking off everything on his list.

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