16 January 2014
There has been a lot of talk recently about renewing communities. As we recognise that we now live in a different financial reality where the state can no longer provide, there is an emphasis shifting towards communities and families taking up the slack, as we seek to tackle our most pressing social problems. We perhaps shouldn't be surprised at this; indeed some would say it has always been so. We perhaps only need to think of the army of unpaid carers, volunteer groups, churches and others in communities across the nation to realise this. Nor is this automatically a bad thing. As Scotland's former top civil servant recently said, "families and communities are often good at the very things the state is not."
We have heard a lot of this talk from our politicians dating back to Tony Blair's Third Way and David Cameron's Big Society. At the Evangelical Alliance we have heard it in the follow up to our Faith in the Community report in conversations with local authorities. In Scotland, although the Scottish Government has taken a different track on public services, we have also had a measure of community land reform, the COSLA Commission on Local Democracy, and most recently the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill, currently open to consultation.
The Community Empowerment Bill is a fairly wide ranging piece of legislation with a number of aspects all aiming to, "give people in communities a range of new ways to help deliver a better Scotland". Practically this includes involving the local community more in decision making, making it easier to take on public sector land and buildings for community use (as some churches have already done), improving the ability of communities to buy their land (important where half of Scotland is owned by 500 people).There are also additional practical provisions to deal with eyesore local buildings and improving access and provision of allotments.
So what does all this have to do with the local Church? Arguably, absolutely everything. As I travel round Scotland I am convinced more than ever that the Church is the answer to our most pressing social and community needs. It is the Church that can provide hope to the hopeless, a family to the lonely and isolated, and restoration to the broken. To borrow a phrase from one wiser than me, the local Church really is the hope of the world. As a 'hermeneutic of the gospel' the Church points people to Christ as we reflect him in our community, bringing the good news of Jesus as we live together in obedience to his teaching. We are hope bringers, because He is the hope bringer. We are good news because He is the good news. It is never word or deed, preaching or social care. It is always both.
And we are seeing this happen in communities. We see it in the churches partnering with the recently launched Caring for Ex Offenders Scotland to provide support for those leaving prison and helping to restore men and women in their communities. We see it in the churches that recently opened their doors at Christmas, in one case providing Christmas meals for over 300 of the local community. We see it in the launch of incredibly successful initiatives such as Eden and Redeeming our Communities in Scotland, and also in the plans for More than Gold and SERVE Scotland.
The Government needs to be more aware of this and see that we are the solution and not the problem. We get a bad press, sometimes fairly, yet we have a golden opportunity across Scotland to show that we are key players in this community renewal discussion. Transforming lives is our DNA and it is time for us to stand up and be counted.
The Evangelical Alliance is encouraging churches and individuals to respond to the Community Empowerment Bill consultation (by 24 January). This can be done on the Scottish government website.
For further advice on the consultation or to find out more about any of the examples of churches or organisations listed please visit their websites or contact the Alliance Scotland office on 0141 548 1555.
Kieran Turner, public policy officer, Evangelical Alliance Scotland.