THIS is an opportune time for considering the Churches' role in
civil society. The many Christian projects serving communities show
that the Churches are active players, and also that they are more
effective when working together.
The language of the common good, with its emphasis on
solidarity, subsidiarity, and social well-being, can give us a
means of articulating a better way of organising society, which can
be shared by people of other faiths and no faith. Now is the time
to express this in a fresh way for our current situation of
austerity and cuts.
In the 1980s, Faith in the City painted a picture of
poverty, polarisation, and the "grave and fundamental injustice" in
urban priority areas. It rang true to people who had no connection
with the Church.
In Liverpool, a city at the sharp end of economic decline and
government policies, church leaders - Roman Catholic, Anglican, and
Free Church - acted jointly as honest brokers between the warring
factions of local and central government. They worked with
communities on social-justice projects, with transformational
results. Their alliance was based on their shared concern for the
Many Christians are continuing in that tradition today, working
together, serving their communities, recognising that these social
imperatives are bigger than the concerns of their individual
faiths. Together for the Common Good is a new initiative that seeks
to explore ways in which different Christian traditions and other
faith groups can work better together. It is looking back to learn
from the Liverpool story of the '80s, but also examining changes in
the context of today.
MANY areas are suffering today. Inequalities within and between
different parts of the country are firmly back on the agenda - if
they ever went away. The gap between rich and poor in the UK is
greater now than at any time in the past 50 years. Various reports
over the past few months should alert us, if not alarm us.
A report from Church Action on Poverty (CAP) and Oxfam,
Walking the Breadline, published earlier this year,
conservatively estimated that more than half a million people are
now reliant on food aid (News, 7 June). Researchers at Sheffield
Hallam University have calculated that the present welfare reforms
will take nearly £19 billion a year out of the economy.
The north of England will suffer substantially more from these
cuts than the south and east; and those places that are already the
poorest will be most acutely affected. When people have less to
spend in the local economy, it damages the viability of shops and
businesses in the area, and affects employment. The downward spiral
is given another twist, and the gap worsens further between the
best and the worst local economies.
Church groups, like many others, are responding to such issues.
Churches are prominent in setting up foodbanks and many other
community projects, often joining others of like mind, whether
Christians, members of other faiths, or secular partners. For
example, Hope+ foodbank, one of several in Liverpool, is a
partnership between the Anglican and Metropolitan Cathedrals, other
city-centre churches, the local mosque, and secular allies.
Thrive, a CAP project in Stockton-on-Tees, illustrates the
importance of "working with" rather than "doing to": it aims to
empower people to be active agents of change. So, after identifying
financial exclusion as a significant issue in the area, Thrive met
women who were struggling with debt and experiencing aggression
from doorstep collectors. As well as being helped with their
individual problems, they were trained in community organising. As
a result, they went on to negotiate a code for responsible lending
with three large national high-cost lending companies: this
benefited more than 300,000 low-income customers.
TOO OFTEN, church-linked activities such as debt-counselling, work
with homeless or unemployed people, or with refugees and
asylum-seekers, remain below the radar. But they are precisely what
is required if the Church is to retain credibility, especially in
While their purpose is not to proselytise, there is an
evangelistic dimension because they show the relevance of the
gospel to people's lives, in contrast to the institutional issues
that so often seem to preoccupy or divide the Churches.
A recent Res Publica report, Holistic Mission,
underlines the extent of social action promoted by the Church of
England (News, 12 July). It does not, however, examine what other
Churches are doing similarly, and the ways in which collaboration
can be more effective than acting alone.
Partnership is not necessarily easy. Goodwill is not enough.
Qualities of leadership and people skills are required, as well as
a shared vision, and, most fundamentally, trust. But bringing
together people who want to make change happen avoids duplication,
extends reach, and enables better use of time and talents, people
A united voice is also more powerful. At a time of deepening
concern about individualism, consumerism, growing inequality, and
other symptoms of a fractured society, the concept of the common
good provides a narrative that makes sense of recent economic
downturns and the limits of the market. Churches need more
confidence about their place in civil society, and the message of
hope that they can bring.
Hilary Russell is Emeritus Professor of Urban Policy in
Liverpool John Moores University, and a Lay Canon of Liverpool
A conference on these themes is being held in Liverpool on 6
to 8 September (www.togetherforthecommongood.co.uk).