A GREAT deal has been said about religion's being back on the
agenda, but faith-based social action has long stood proud in the
landscape. A recent report by the think tank Respublica singles out
the Church of England as a body that is "delivering a greater level
of care than the state and the market were ever able to do".
It thinks that the C of E has the "resources, experience,
intention and will", and urges the Archbishop of Canterbury to
"universalise Christian social action" as the main ambition of his
This is seductive. But it poses difficult questions for the
Church of England's social action in a context where the landscape
of religion and belief is not what it was the last time it called
itself the national Church.
For governments across the West, the attraction is not beliefs
and traditions themselves, but how they can be turned to the common
good. As states roll back, they are well aware of the need to fill
the gaps, and faith groups of all kinds have been seen increasingly
as repositories of resources.
There is nothing new there. But in Britain there was an
important turn in the 1940s, when two Williams - Temple, Archbishop
of Canterbury from 1942-44, and Beveridge, his civil-servant friend
from their Oxford and Settlement Movement days - thought welfare
simply too important to leave to the well-meaning amateurs. They
envisaged a welfare state - a phrase coined by Temple himself.
Much changed as a result. The transfer of welfare from Church to
State undid centuries of paternalism, sexism, and top-down
philanthropy which reeked of the noblesse oblige which the
two great wars had done so much to undermine.
Care was now an entitlement, not a privilege. It also challenged
the random nature of welfare provision. Until then, the parish you
found yourself in would determine the quality and availability of
services that you could draw on. Church-based social action had
been the biggest postcode lottery of all. The State, on the other
hand, would have the power and capacity to redistribute care,
according to need.
THE reality of the welfare state has always been more mixed than
it looked. It is clear that the State never did do it all.
Church-based community work was especially active throughout the
'50s, '60s, and '70s, and the tradition continues today.
More recently, various reportsby faith groups claim a crucial
contribution in countless social-action projects.
In the West Midlands, for example, Believing in the
Region (2006) reported that 80 per cent of faith groups
delivered some kind of social service to the wider community. In
the North West, Faith in England's North West (2003)
stated that faith communities were running more than 5000
social-action projects, generating an income of £69 million to £94
million a year.
In the New Labour years, this was especially encouraged, and
policy coalesced around the government report Face to Face and
Side by Side: a framework for partnership in our multi-faith
society. But this promoted multifaith social action and
dialogue, accompanied by national funding streams, as well as
support for nine regional, multifaith forums. The vision was of a
"multifaith society", echoing a multicultural one which had already
long been promoted.
This reflected an understanding that things had changed since
the Church of England could properly be called the national Church.
Policy envisaged the repopulation of the now mixed economy of
welfare - not with the well-meaning Anglicans of pre-1948 Britain,
but with providers from the full plurality of religious traditions.
Faith-based social action looked much more like the nation it
served than the Church of England tends to on an average Sunday
THE present Government has an anachronistic streak when it comes
to religion. It observes, in the Church of England's parish system,
a presence in every neighbourhood from which to reach across the
whole range of traditions.
It wants the C of E to facilitate faith-based social action by
all, for all. Near Neighbours is the Church's
understandably enthusiastic response - a C of E initiative
delivered through the Church Urban Fund. It looks like a timely
streamof funding from a well-established body.
But it also reflects this retrenchment to a Church of England
lead. The programme places value on parishes as a primary source
and focus, saying that: "Near Neighbours taps into the
unique Church of England parish system, which has presence in all
neighbourhoods and an ethos as the national Church with a
responsibility towards all in the parish."
It says that "people of any faith will be able to bid for
funding through the local parish church." The challenge for a
multifaith Britain is that it depends on the parish system not only
of a single faith, but a single denomination within that faith.
The risk is that a religiously diverse public sees this as a
shift from a multifaith social action to one in which the Church of
Eng-land acts as the gate-keeper, andis given value at the expense
This could undo a decade at least of relationship-building, and
fails to make the most of the contributions that faith groups have
already demonstrated. Coupled with the ideological withdrawal of
the State, what is also risked is a return to random forms of
top-down philanthropy, and paternalism, as wealthy individuals and
churches give money according to unaccountable criteria of their
The Church of England has fewer - and older - people in the
pews, and in the pulpits, who are not being replaced, and many
parishes can barely afford to keep the roof on, and pay clergy
pensions, let alone provide the repositories of social action which
the Government expects.
Even if the old ladies could live for ever, and the money and
structures were there to universal-ise Christian social action, as
Respublica imagines, a multifaith society is unlikely to welcome
The future lies in the Church of England's helping to hold open
a space for faith-based social action, and participating alongside
everyone else as their equal. It courts dissent at best, and
irrelevance at worst when it attempts to lead the pack. The Church
of England serves best as a Church for the nation, not as the
Adam Dinham is Professor of Faith and Public Policy and
Director ofthe Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths,
University of London.