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Not self-interest, but the incarnation

28 July 2010

Churches can play a big part in the Big Society agenda, but out of their own motivation, argues Jeremy Morris

THE Government is clearly con­cerned about mending our “broken society”. One of the ways it hopes to do that is by encouraging voluntary bodies to take on respon­sibility for local decision-making, devolving power from the centre and breathing life back into local com­munities (News, Leader comment, 23 July).

The recent announcement that funds lying dormant for years in private bank accounts could be used to support small-scale initiatives looks like common sense: good can come, apparently, out of almost nothing. But is it likely to work? Is it anything other than a cover for public-expenditure cuts?

There is a case for saying that the tentacles of central government have reached too far into the lives of individuals. There is also a case for saying that we have all got to do the best we can to keep civil society func­tioning, when we can no longer afford the levels of public funding we got used to during the New Labour years. [PULL QUOTE]‘What can churches do? More of what they do already’ [PULL QUOTE END]

Yet talk of the Big Society does not sound any more grounded than any of the other big themes politicians have aired over the past 20 to 30 years, such as Margaret Thatcher’s very selective “Victorian values”, John Major’s “Back to Basics”, and New Labour’s airy “big tent”.

It remains to be seen how the underlying philosophy of the Big Society relates to the work of those thousands of voluntary bodies that do claim to have a coherent philo­sophical framework — the Christian Churches.

Government advisers doubtless have an eye on history here. The Wel­fare State took over many of the func­tions once performed by churches at a local level. Probably we are all familiar with the part that such socially minded Anglicans as William Beveridge and R. H. Tawney played in shifting perceptions towards a more benevolent view of state action, along with Archbishop William Temple (who coined the phrase Welfare State).

We are perhaps less familiar with the way in which national developments were anticipated locally, through local government gradually accruing functions and responsibilities in areas such as housing, public health, and edu­cation, which had once been the pre­serve of churches.

Rather than a simple replacement of church action, it would be more accurate to see the rise of social wel­fare as a consequence of Christians organising themselves better as the 19th century wore on. Many of the professions that are vital to our public well-being today were pioneered by voluntary, religious bodies — nursing, social work, youth work, and teach­ing, among others.

By the late-19th century, most urban Church of England parishes and many of the larger Noncon­formist and Roman Catholic churches were complex, multifunction organisa­tions, offering a range of leisure, educational, and welfare agencies. Parishes were carved up into districts visited systematically by rotas of lay people (mainly women), who could refer cases of hardship for special sup­port, and keep an eye on community needs.

But all of this was premised on a level of active church commitment as well as pervasive “popular religion”, which does not bear comparison with today. Even in the poorest parts of the cities, where churchgoing was pre­sumed to have collapsed by the turn of the 20th century, levels of atten­dance were often higher than they are in the most affluent churchgoing suburbs today. Even those who did not go to church had attended Sunday school, and accepted in broad measure a common Christian iden­tity.

Christian commitment powered the extraordinary level of voluntary action typical of Victorian and Edwardian society. It was — for all its fears about the future — an “age of faith”. The same could not be said now.

THE motives behind the Big Society seem like little more than enlightened self-interest. It is ob­viously better for all of us if we all pull together to help each other. That is a compelling argument in the most deprived areas of our cities, but it gets weaker the further you travel into modern suburbia. To enlightened self-interest, the notion of self-sacrifice is a con­tradiction.

So there is a vacuum of values behind talk of a Big Society. Much is made of the example of Edmund Burke, who argued for the “little platoons” (Comment, 23 July). But it is rarely mentioned that Burke was a religious man who believed pas­sionately in the social cohesion provided by Christian faith, and was sceptical that any society could hold itself together without religion.

Without something like a coherent social philosophy, and a set of com­mon convictions that can motivate people to do things not evidently in their own interest, the talk of a Big Society is going nowhere.

This is not to say that there is not an opportunity here for churches, like other voluntary organisations, to improve the provision they already make for meeting the needs of others. They are already well placed: the average C of E parish still has roots that reach far into the local com­munity.

So what can churches do? Simply, more of what they do already. It may be that funds can be released for particular projects. Churches need to be bold and constructive in seeking out ways of helping their fellow human beings. Churches could have an important place, like other faith communities, in building up a lively network of local self-help groups.

But this will not be done on the basis of an appeal to enlightened self-interest. It will be done because Chris­tian faith demands it of us. Since we believe in a God of love who did not remain aloof, as an object of adoration far above us and separated from us, but entered into human sub­jectivity in Jesus Christ, we believe accordingly in a mission in which we, too — in Jesus Christ — are chal­lenged to enter into the situations of difficulty in which our fellow humans find themselves, and to help them as best we can.

So the mandate for Christian social action is not self-interest, but the incarnation. The slum priest, Fr Dolling, was fond of quoting a colleague to the effect that: “I speak out and fight about the drains because I believe in the Incarna­tion.” It is perhaps an overused quotation, but for a good reason.

The Revd Dr Jeremy Morris is Dean of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and Dean-elect of King’s College, Cambridge.

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