Keeping the faith: Interview with Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, the C of E’s new bishop for housing

We speak with Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani to find out more about the role the Church can play in tackling the housing crisis.
Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, the Church of England's first bishop for housing.

For Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, the last few months have been a whirlwind. The first and current bishop of Loughborough is just about to enjoy two weeks off before she starts her new role as bishop of Chelmsford, with a move south set to follow in the summer.

Francis-Dehqani has also stumbled into contact with the housing sector for the first time, which is how Housing Executive has ended up speaking with her ahead of the Easter weekend – a traditional time of hope and renewal.

“It’s extraordinary to find myself in this new world to do with housing about which I knew so little,” Francis-Dehqani admits. “I’m really excited about it all, but […]  I am still quite new to it all, so in terms of my knowledge of the depths of the issues involved I’m really very much a novice.”

If Bishop Guli is not au fait with the world of housing yet, she soon will be. The bishop has just been appointed as the Church of England’s first bishop for housing, tasked with leading the Church’s response on the housing crisis. She will also have a say in the Houses of Parliament too as one of the Church’s new representatives in the House of Lords.

This potential for influence is one of the reasons Francis-Dehqani believes the archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby invited her to take on the role of lead bishop for housing, along with her “real heart for justice and social action”.

Equality is central to Francis-Dehqani’s thinking; Iranian by birth, at the time of her appointment as bishop of Loughborough she was the Church’s first female bishop from an ethnic minority background. For her, housing leans into social justice, a connection which has only become clearer during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The more I learn about housing, the more my sense is that it’s central to many of the inequalities and injustices that exist in society,” Francis-Dehqani explains. “Poor [housing] conditions can lead to all kinds of other injustices and marginalisation… I think we’ve seen some of that inequality represented particularly during this period of pandemic. It’s not that it’s suddenly appeared; it’s that it’s exposed to us what was already there.

“Those communities that have suffered most badly as a result of the pandemic are often communities where there is a great deal of poverty. They’re often communities where there [are] a lot of people from different cultures and ethnicities living, and the connecting factor is often poor housing. The same with things like mental health and even homelessness, as […] many people who end up homeless end up homeless because good affordable housing wasn’t available to them…

“I’m increasingly convinced that [housing] is absolutely central, and that if as a society we could address the issue of housing and get it right, we would also be impacting all kinds of other areas of inequality.”

Francis-Dehqani helping at a One Roof Leicester winter night shelter. Credit: Church of England Diocese of Leicester

Before her appointment as bishop for housing, Francis-Dehqani’s main experience of housing was as a patron of One Roof Leicester, a housing charity in her former diocese. This charity provides support and accommodation to people who are homeless, including destitute refugees and refused asylum seekers, to help them to rebuild their lives. She’s tried to take a “reasonably hands-on” interest in the role, she says, visiting night shelters and the people who use them.

While Francis-Dehqani believes that the work of night shelters and charities like One Roof Leicester is “absolutely essential” in addressing issues like homelessness, she says she is conscious that it is only a “sticking plaster”, providing comfort for a short period before the morning comes around and the cycle begins again. For this reason, she says, the housing sector must now focus on “intervention, as opposed to crisis management”.

“A huge amount of incredibly good work goes on on the ground in churches up and down the country,” Francis-Dehqani explains. “Of course, arguably the more effective we are in that, the more the policymakers and government can rely on the kind of alleviation that is offered by charities and churches and voluntary organisations.

“I just think we need to go upstream and be looking much more at the structural issues… and have the direct courage and determination to address them at source. I’m not suggesting we stop doing the charitable alleviation work, but that alone seems to be no longer enough. We’ve got to address these issues at source.”

Achieving that goal of tackling these issues at source is a key reason behind Francis-Dehqani’s appointment. The Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community recently published Coming Home, an influential report stemming from two years of research which calls for a national effort to address England’s shortage of affordable and decent housing.

To implement the recommendations of the report, Francis-Dehqani will chair a small executive team and an advisory board, with members of the commission sitting on both to ensure continuity. The team will be tasked with coordinating the housing response across all levels of the Church of England, from local parishes and dioceses to its Church Commissioners which, according to the report, own 6,000 acres of “strategic land” which is potentially suitable for housing.

While Francis-Dehqani’s efforts will stem from the Church, they will not be limited to that institution alone. The bishop’s team has also been tasked with establishing partnerships with every actor in the housing market, including local and national government, developers, and housing associations. With just three part-time executive members, Francis-Dehqani believes the team must be “realistic about where we can put [its] efforts”. However, building up those partnerships is vital, she believes, if the report’s aspirations are to be fulfilled.

One key task the team has is not only understanding what land the Church has but also how best to utilise it, as Coming Home has urged the Church to use its own land to deliver more affordable homes. Much of the team’s focus will be on empowering parishes and dioceses and raising awareness on topics such as charity law, challenging the common perception that church land can only be sold for development at the highest value.

Francis-Dehqani believes that despite the challenge that COVID-19 has posed to churches’ finances, by having access to land they are in a unique position to help tackle the housing crisis. The Church has “a long and noble tradition” in housing, she says, playing a role in the foundation of many housing associations.

To lead the way at national level, the Archbishop of Canterbury has also submitted a motion to the Church’s General Synod to recognise “addressing housing need and strengthening communities” as an integral part of the Church’s mission. Francis-Dehqani says it is essential that the Church continues to look outward as her team tries to help parishes take responsibility for their own areas.

“I think I’m right in saying that the Church is the only institution that exists for the benefit of those who are outside it, or consider themselves to be outside it,” Francis-Dehqani says.

“We lose our raison d’etre, if you like, if we stop looking outwards, and that’s kind of core to my understanding of the Christian faith – that unless we live it in action then we’re kind of diminished.”

Credit: Church of England

When it comes to Coming Home, the Church cannot be accused of navel-gazing, as the report is a call to action for other parties too outside the Church. The report urges the government to develop a “bold, coherent, long-term” housing strategy over the next 20 years to increase the supply of truly affordable homes and improve the quality and sustainability of England’s existing housing stock.

Other recommendations made by the Commission in the report include new protections for private sector tenants, reversing cuts to Local Housing Allowance, and a full review of the welfare system. It has also called on the government to tackle the cladding crisis with greater urgency by committing to remove all unsafe cladding from residential blocks by June 2022, as well as giving leaseholders complete protection from remediation costs.

It’s safe to say, then, that the Church is not afraid of wading into the political arena, the propriety of which Francis-Dehqani calls an “age-old debate”. While she acknowledges the thorny issue of bishops in the House of Lords, her perspective on the matter is a simple one: “If we’re there, then let’s try to be useful.”

Having not yet entered the Houses of Parliament, Francis-Dehqani is cautious not to say what exactly she will do there, although she accepts it will give her a “certain amount of influence” which she intends to try and use to do some good. Nevertheless, she hopes to unify as far as housing is concerned, seeing the Church as uniquely placed to convene people across divides.

“I’m far less interested in getting involved in party politics and more interested in bringing together politicians, councillors, whoever’s willing to cooperate across this and say, ‘Let’s rise above the differences’,” Francis-Dehqani says. “Everybody is calling it the housing crisis. Let’s rise above the differences and see if we can find some shared solutions.”

As Coming Home makes clear, fixing the housing crisis will require contributions from everyone, and Francis-Dehqani certainly seems confident that the Church can play a leading role. However, she stresses that the situation “hangs in the balance”; while its report has piqued the interest of the sector, the Church must now lead by example, using its land in a way that fits with the Commission’s recommendations.

“The report includes, I think, about 40 case studies of examples where the Church is involved in developing land and producing affordable housing, so there are examples of it, but we need to be able to demonstrate that we’re doing it in a fairly large-scale way if we’re going to continue to be taken seriously on this,” she says.

“That’s the risk element. We’ve got to be prepared to take some risks, and I sincerely hope and pray that the Church Commissioners and individual dioceses and local parishes will really take up the challenge and lead by example.”

We conclude by asking Bishop Guli what home means to her. Here, she refers to her own upbringing, which saw her family flee to Britain in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, and how it ties to the “five Ses” of Coming Home. The ideal home is more than just the shelter of bricks and mortar, it says; it is safe, stable, sociable, satisfying, and sustainable.

As we end our pre-Easter call, Bishop Guli hopes this vision of what housing should be is one that the non-religious can connect with as well, and one that the Church will be able to help the sector realise.

“I come originally from Iran and I left under quite traumatic circumstances as the result of revolution,” Francis-Dehqani concludes. “Our home was confiscated, and I found myself in exile trying to create a new home in a strange land, if I can put it like that.

“I discovered that although my roots are still very much there [in Iran], and I look to return to home in that sense [of] where my roots are, actually the home I’ve sought to create here is about these five Ses.

“[Home] is about belonging, and it’s about safety, and where you’re loved and where you can be yourself but also be part of community. It’s a really complex thing, isn’t it? And I think the report [captures] that exceptionally well.”

This article was first published in the summer 2021 issue of Housing Executive (Issue 2). Main image credit: Church of England.

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