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Embrace the smaller state now

09 August 2013

The Church needs to grasp new opportunities, argue Robin Morrison and Brian Strevens

Outreach: the directors of Distinction Games, a new business that rents space at Portsmouth Cathedral, earlier this year

Outreach: the directors of Distinction Games, a new business that rents space at Portsmouth Cathedral, earlier this year

WE BELIEVE that it is time for the Church to rethink its assumptions about the place of the state in civil society. As priests ordained in 1970 and 1973, we have watched the Church become increasingly absorbed in its internal agendas, while many outside watch with disbelief as it presses various self-destruct buttons.

We understand how difficult leading change can be. We welcome the Archbishop of Canterbury's intervention over credit unions, and believe that there are many further opportunities for Christian engagement in the next few years. As the state shrinks, the Church needs to be more active in community work. Any change of direction is costly, but new resources will follow new approaches that command wide support.

In 2013, the Church of England has continued its preoccupation with gay marriage, women bishops, and its proposed Beveridge-based changes to the welfare state. It would do well to scan the wider horizon, in a prophetic and strategic way; to envision alternative futures, and place itself closer to likely social change. By 2020, the state will be much smaller, but still strug- gling with indebtedness, the positive and negative effects of a technological revolution, and social need.

By 2020, most schools will be self-governing, providing more choice, quality, and community involvement. The NHS in England will have a diversity of providers. A radical response to demographic change will have begun in pensions and care for the elderly. There will be an increased place for the private and community sectors. Many new entrepreneurs and micro-businesses will be energising the local economy.

THE Church of England, facing these or similar futures, has two alternatives. First, it can look back to a golden age of social security, which never fully existed. Beveridge spoke of subsistence-level existence as his famous "safety-net". The Church can continue to argue for a bigger state (when even France is beginning to cut services to remain competitive), and so forge its gospel response to the needs of the poor by largely ignoring Beveridge's warnings about the danger of idleness (welfare dependency) as one of his five "giant" social evils.

Alternatively, the Church could embrace the opportunities provided by a smaller state to rediscover the best of itself. It could take even more advantage of its national coverage and local networks, and could provide, as well as support, better community and education services. It could train its clergy to work in partnerships with other providers, turning its buildings and congregations into seven-day-a-week centres of care.

This would transform the effectiveness of the Church, as well as contribute more effectively to need. Such an approach to the opportunities of a smaller state would position the Church's gifts alongside the best new thinking in the shared central ground of traditional Liberal Party activism, the Conservative Big Society, and Blue Labour.

Examples of what could be offered would include: deanery-organised support of the elderly and housebound, both preventative and post-hospital care; pre- and after-school activities for children, young people, and their parents; training for involvement in public-service boards - running schools, public protection, and the NHS; support for emerging entrepreneurs and their businesses - based on hubs such as the model at Portsmouth Cathedral ( News, 15 June 2012); incubator provision for social enterprises, including the arts; conversion of church buildings into public-space facilities.

We celebrate what is already being achieved in community use, by churches, including post offices, food banks, credit unions, internet cafés, housing projects, social services, and initiatives involving art, heritage, and pastoral care.

THE Church could encourage the development of a smaller state by challenging excess bureaucracy; forcing decisions to be made at a local level; releasing the leadership energy of active "localism"; demonstrating the value of pluralist providers; enriching the discourse of inclusive spirituality; and rediscovering a more engaged, traditional place for the purpose of clergy and the Church, outside their internal preoccupations.

We need to start taking risks in our Monday-to-Friday activities. This is not the time to batten down the hatches, further isolating ourselves from organisations and communities. This is the best of times for innovative practical experiments, beyond negative stereotypes of disconnection.

The Church could lead a process that might transform local disillusionment by releasing a flood of action in the smaller state of the future. To move in this direction, it must refresh its vision, provide clearer leadership about strategic direction, and train its clergy to engage with other agencies as social and spiritual entrepreneurs.

Taking services and pastorally supporting congregations will no longer be enough in an age of reduced state provision, increasing social fracture, uncomfortable choices, and huge opportunity.

The Revd Robin Morrison has recently retired as Bishops' Adviser for Church and Society in the Church in Wales, after previous posts as a parish priest and a university and industrial chaplain. The Revd Brian Strevens has led a non-profit enterprise in Southampton for 20 years, providing care for the elderly and disabled in partnership with other sectors.

They would welcome interest in these issues: contact brianstrevens@btinternet.com.

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