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17 May 2012

The Church and the Big Society

The Church and the Big Society

Throughout the last General Election campaign and the early days of the coalition government the Big Society has been a regular theme for the Conservatives. A favourite phrase of David Cameron has been: “There is such a thing as society, it's just not the same as the state.” However, as campaigning has shifted to governing, observers have tried to dig deeper and discover what substance underlies this phrase. Discussion of the Big Society and its relative merits have alternated between welcoming it as a panacea to dismissing it as a government scheme to deliver more with less. Many have written it off as a nebulous soundbite that means little in practice. 

A debate in the House of Lords in 2010 sought to define more clearly what the Big Society would mean for relationships between government and civil society. The Bishop of Leicester, who initiated it, said: “In essence, the Big Society is surely an intangible network of trust and reciprocity, without which even the most rudimentary interactions cannot occur.” Addressing the challenge that lies ahead, he suggested: “A new kind of partnership is possible, and indeed crucial: one that is not based on an abdication of the state’s responsibilities but accompanied by an understanding that a real, not cosmetic, devolution of power will be required, together with an end to the kind of control that reduces volunteers to the status of unpaid servants of a centralised state.”

The official Opposition adopted a sceptical approach, warning against using the Big Society as a cheap way to deliver social services through volunteer community organisations. Lasting change could only be delivered if accompanied by sufficient investment.

Church leaders have alternated between scepticism and positive engagement. On the one hand, they have pointed out that they have been doing Big Society for centuries and don’t need novel central government schemes to legitimate them. On the other hand, the Bishop of London made what he called a ‘Big Offer’ to the government to make full use of the most evident established community facility present throughout the land – the parish church. Government minister Baroness Warsi enthusiastically welcomed the role of faith groups, though raising a longstanding political issue in declaring “we will not ask faith groups to conceal their beliefs, since we know that it is often their religious faith that is the driver of their social action. That said, we will expect services to be delivered equally and impartially on the basis of need”.

Lord Wei, founder of Teach First and the Shaftesbury Partnership,  was appointed in May 2010 as an unpaid government adviser on Big Society based at the Office for Civil Society in the Cabinet Office. Ironically, in May 2011, Lord Wei announced his decision to step down from this role as he struggled to grasp what has generally been acknowledged to be a difficult and imprecise remit.

While in political terms it has proved difficult to articulate what the Big Society means in practice, Christian groups including the Evangelical Alliance have generally just got on with the task of being big society. The Alliance early on held meetings with new church leaders and ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government in an endeavour to ensure good understanding between faith groups and government, to recognise good practice and to seek to minimise bureaucratic obstacles and even ideological opposition to evangelicals in public life.

Three specific Christian initiatives have recently emerged to take advantage of the Big Society concept.

Firstly, the  Cinnamon Network. This is a relational network, including the Evangelical Alliance, involving nearly 100 leaders of denominations and chief executives of Christian organisations developing responses to the Big Society. Market research completed by the network shows that local churches across the UK contribute more than 72 million hours of voluntary work a year to their communities through social initiatives. This effort, along with church funding, staff time and facilities has been valued at over £1 billion a year.

The broad objectives of the network are to rapidly increase community involvement by the Church without reinventing the wheel and to increase church understanding of Big Society as well as government and public understanding of the great work that the Church is already doing in the community. So the Cinnamon Network encourages replication of social initiatives that actually work and have completed extensive research regarding Community Franchising. Franchising is about taking a good idea and replicating it; then developing a model that can be replicated. Community franchising involves taking a model of Christian social action and replicating it for use by churches so that they can serve the needs of their local communities. This enables the local church to make use of a tried and tested response to local problems. It also promotes the role of the Church as an agent of community transformation. The nature of a franchise helps avoid ‘re-invention of the wheel’ and the duplication and waste of resources. The franchise model can be adopted easily by a church as one of its community programmes rather than a church having to develop a separate legal structure to deliver it.

Secondly, Serve is a new Evangelical Alliance coalition of key members of the Christian voluntary sector in England. It comprises Tearfund, Care, Prospects, Street Pastors, The Lighthouse Group and HOPE.

The Mission of Serve is to:

  •  Articulate holistic theology

  •  Inspire Christians with stories and case studies of effective community action

  • Raise awareness of and network churches and organisations with sources of best practice

  • Represent the evangelical Christian voluntary sector as good news to local and national government

  • Resource and equip Christians who are passionate about community mission.

Serve will use its united voice to speak out and raise awareness of the Church’s role in bringing transformation and hopefully raise the profile of the new Christian voluntary sector in England. They will speak out on behalf of its members, through articles, press releases, stories, events and make representations to civic leaders. They will resource churches through the Serve website, e-news, courses, conferences and training events, articles and inspiring stories. They will offer opportunities for churches and Christian organisations to network and partner together.

Over the next five years Serve hopes that churches within England will be known for serving their community through a combination of words, actions and the power of God’s Spirit to see two key outcomes:

  • Transformation of communities through local churches

  •  The Church being represented at the highest level

Thirdly, Gather is an emerging national collaborative network of vibrant missional unity movements in towns and cities across the UK. Enabled by the Evangelical Alliance, a national network of unity movements is now being formed across the UK. A ‘gathering’ together of those who believe that when churches and leaders bury their differences and start to form friendships, pray together and undertake mission initiatives for the sake of their local areas, God commands the blessing. If those leaders of unity movements were to form friendships across the UK from city to city and from town to town, and begin to pray and do mission work together for the sake of the UK, even greater blessing is possible. What could happen if different places shared best practice with each other and were inspired to a greater vision of social and spiritual transformation of their areas? What could happen if other cities and towns were inspired to start unity movements themselves and eventually all major UK towns and cities had a mission vision based on vibrant prayer-focused friendships? Could we expect to see a fundamental change in the social and spiritual landscape in the UK?

Gather, and the other initiatives mentioned here, share a vision of God’s Kingdom or if you like, a Big Society, where division and individuality are transformed by a developing a culture of respect, forgiveness and unity. In this context, the role of the Church is to set the pace in partnership working, to prioritise those who are most vulnerable, to work against injustice and to encourage aspiration for a society that is healthier, happier and more peaceful. When people begin to see this happening in their localities, they may begin to recognise who the people are who live and speak this message and the God they represent. Then we may begin to realise the Big Society aspiration.