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Big Society bungles

22 August 2014

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MANY Church Times readers will want to get their "I told you so" T-shirts out of the wardrobe after hearing The Report (R4, Thursday) last week. The subject was the Big Society: the big idea deployed in 2010 to give some semblance of vision to the makeshift reality of coalition. Plenty of people, in this paper and elsewhere, pointed out that in many places, and with the help of many organisations, Society was already Big. But it took several millions of pounds of misspent money before the Government acknowledged this truth.

The particular stimulus for Simon Cox's report was a recent inquiry by the National Audit Office criticising the allocation of funds to a handful of significant projects promoted under the Big Society banner which have failed badly. The tales make one wince.

The Britain's Personal Best initiative, which aimed at becoming the UK's biggest annual charity event, was closed down when only a fraction of the numbers expected turned up. Your Square Mile boasted that they would recruit a million members in the first year - and managed only 64. And the CEO, in robust defence of his organisation, was unable to get the project website to work when asked by our pesky reporter.

There have, of course, been some success stories - though many of them had already been going before the Big Society was dreamed up, and will continue long after it has been consigned to the dumping-ground of government initiatives. But, most significantly - since it lies at the heart of Big Society ambitions - the plan for 5000 Community Organisers, intended to facilitate projects, has been scaled back to a mere 500. At the same time, a charity such as Citizens UK, whose application for money was turned down by the Big Society fund, admits that it prefers working outside government influence, and away from inexperienced grant managers. It is the "I told you so" T-shirts of groups such as these that shine with greatest lustre.

There is a similar sense of the predictable about the issue reported by Carrie Gracie in Assignment (World Service, Thursday), even if the details are extraordinary in their cruelty. China has been experiencing a massive growth in Christianity over the past decade; and the expansion of the house-church movement has encouraged the sorts of cults that governments and church leaders have been forced to confront since the birth of Christianity.

In May, at a McDonald's in eastern China, a woman was beaten to death by a gang who announced themselves as disciples of the Church of the Almighty God. The gang leader declared later: "She was a demon. We had to destroy her." The Church holds that God, in the form of a Chinese woman, has returned to earth, and is bringing the apocalypse.

All very disturbing; and I can understand the official Christian Church's desire to warn its followers against the wiles of the cult. Nevertheless, the tone of Gracie's commentary was starting to sound a little bit paranoid for a level-headed BBC reporter: when you look into the eyes of a fellow Christian worshipper in church, are you looking into the eyes of The Cult?

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