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Church for the nation, or national Church?

14 February 2014

The C of E has a long history of social action, says Adam Dinham.  How does this tie in with the state and other faiths?


Architects: the two old friends William Beveridge (above) and Archbishop William Temple envisaged the Welfare State

Architects: the two old friends William Beveridge (above) and Archbishop William Temple envisaged the Welfare State

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 primacy.

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 morning.

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 of minorities.

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 own devising.

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 it.

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 national Church.

Adam Dinham is Professor of Faith and Public Policy and Director ofthe Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London.

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