THE General Synod will debate the Government’s Big Society programme, which is to give voluntary groups a greater part in serving local communities, when it meets in Westminster this month.
The debate, on a motion from the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, will respond to a report by the Mission and Public Affairs Council, “The Big Society” and the Church of England (GS1804). It will take place on Tuesday afternoon (23 November), during the first of two days of sessions.
The secretary general of the Synod, William Fittall, said at a press conference at Church House on Monday that it would be “an interesting and a rather unpredictable” debate, in the context of “very severe cuts” to public spending.
“[It is] a helpful reminder that the Synod doesn’t just sit around thinking about the organisation of the Church of England. . . It does actually deliberate on matters of public policy that the Church of England’s got something to say about,” he said. “It is natural territory for the Church.”
In September, Baroness Warsi, a senior government minister, told a meeting of the House of Bishops that there needed to be “a richer recognition of the Anglican . . . contribution to society” (News, 24 September). It was “hard not to notice the presence in every community of a parish church served by clergy”, she said.
“The Big Society” and the Church of England, written by the director of mission and public affairs, the Revd Dr Malcolm Brown (Comment, 22 October), says that staff of the Mission and Public Affairs Council have met government ministers to discuss “practical partnerships for building social cohesion”.
He writes: “There is a natural congruence between the impulses behind the Big Society and the way the churches understand themselves and their discipleship.”
The report contains draft proposals to introduce a new programme, Near Neighbours, inspired by “the teaching of Jesus Christ about the twin commandments to love God and love our neighbour”.
Near Neighbours would be a £5-million programme, administered by the Church Urban Fund, to fund activities that “increase the number and depths of human relationships particularly in multi-religious neighbourhoods”. It would target the money in “four key locations”: the “M62 mill towns’ corridor”; Leicester; east London; and eastern Birmingham.
Under the proposals, a Near Neighbours Fund would be created to “provide sums of between £250-5000 to parishes for local initi-atives”. Examples of these would be “community-led playgroups, clean-ups, community celebrations . . . [and] befriending schemes”.
Money would also be available to fund “more intensive” forms of interfaith engagement, such as “residential weekends, in which ‘pairs’ of local ministers and imams from the same neighbourhood spend a residential weekend together”, and to equip communities “to tackle together issues which they have identified as significant for them”.
In a debate in the House of Lords on Monday, Bishop Stevens said he feared that the Comprehensive Spending Review had made the Big Society vision “much harder to realise”.
“How on earth is the so-called Big Society vision of stable, mutually supportive communities to be enhanced by changes to housing benefit that will drive poorer people into what amount to townships in the undesirable areas of our towns and cities?” he asked. “The very people who will be the foundation of a bigger, more mutual and caring society are being told that they cannot take security of tenure for granted.”
The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, has also criticised the Government for talking “about benefit frauds, as if the country is full of people who are out to milk the system”.
Dr Morgan, who was speaking on Sunday in St Andrew’s, Tonypandy, at a service to mark the 100th anniversary of the Tonypandy Riots, said: “There are people who genuinely cannot work, and if the state cannot take care of them in a proper way, then the whole society is damaged and diminished.”
The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones, said this week that the tough economic climate provided new opportunities for churches to participate in ministry in prisons.
In an interview published on the website of the Prison Fellowship charity, Bishop Jones said that proposed reforms to the criminal-justice system, which are now being considered by the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, would “include opening the gates of the prison so that people from the community can come in and help with the restoration of offenders”.
The Archbishop of York, writing in the magazine The Big Issue in the North this week, detailed how churches were helping homeless people. Dr Sentamu described how the charity he set up in the summer, Acts 435 (News, 16 July), aims “to help churches give practical help to those in genuine need”.