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From social action to social liturgy

22 December 2016

A new language is needed to talk about church social engagement, says Nick Spencer


Priestly presence: Street Pastors love God and neigh­bour in a way that goes beyond just social action

Priestly presence: Street Pastors love God and neigh­bour in a way that goes beyond just social action

THE level of faith-based social action in the UK is high, and growing. There are about 15,000 more faith-based charities today than there were in 2006, the year that the think tank Theos was founded. Moreover, during the past decade, a higher proportion of faith-based charities (34 per cent) were registered with the Charity Com­mission than non-faith ones (25 per cent). The figure for Christian charities was 38 per cent.

In other words, people of all reli­gious faiths — and especially Chris­tians — are disproportionately getting involved in social action in contemporary Britain.

For some, this rings alarm bells. Nice as it may be to be wanted, they say, surely the Church should be more than a social service provider, or, in Pope Francis’s words, a “com­passionate NGO”.

The idea of the Christian gospel as social action is most often as­­sociated with the so-called Social Gospel, a movement that flourished among mainline Protestants in the United States around the turn of the 20th century. The movement’s mis­sion became detached from its theo­logical core, becoming, in effect, indistinguishable from any other social action. For wholly admirable, if ultimately misguided, reasons, love of neighbour eclipsed love of God.

This remains a danger today. If one is not careful, God becomes little more than Good, or, even worse, feel-good. That is why I would like to propose a small but important conceptual shift away from understanding the pheno­m­enon as “social action” to under­standing it as “social liturgy”.


“SOCIAL liturgy” is an unfamiliar phrase. The word “liturgy” is com­monly understood to mean “church worship”; but the New Testament Greek word from which it derives, leitourgia, could be used to mean both priestly service within the Temple, and public charitable activ­ity. In this context, “social liturgy” is adopted to capture the idea of charitable public action that is also priestly, or directed immediately at the divine.

“Social liturgy”, then, is not simply social action that is devoid of any serious theological formation, nor Christian “worship” that loves God and ignores one’s neighbour. It is, rather, the practice of public commitment to the other that is explicitly rooted in, and shaped by, love of God; working for and “being with” the other while being deliber­ately God-conscious or priestly.

Social liturgy should bear the visible mark of love of the gospel. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Deus caritas est (”God is love”), in addition to professional training, charity workers “need a ‘formation of the heart’: they need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits”.

Social liturgy should also be authentically Christian — marked, among other things, by com­mit­ment, love, and recognition of the personal nature of all social encounters.


THERE are many examples of Christian organisations that illu­strate this kind of “liturgical” authenticity. The work of Christians Against Poverty is profoundly pastoral, as well as being practical and professional. The remarkable story of the L’Arche community embodies a view of the world marked by dignity and mutuality, where each person is understood as an unrepeatable gift.

The Street Pastors and City Angels volunteers find themselves in situations of menace, and even potential violence, in the nightlife of many cities. Their presence diffuses tension and aggression in a way that the police find difficult to do. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s own initiative, the Community of St Anselm, based in Lambeth Palace (Features, 11 November), is a classic example of social liturgy, following, as its website says, “the Franciscan insight that becoming more like Jesus is inseparable from serving others”.

Sanctus, a support group for asylum-seekers and refugees at St Mark’s, Stoke on Trent, is another example. Its website describes its work as “a reflection of the self-giving love of Jesus Christ. Our welcome aims to be open, non-judgemental and generous, treating all people with equality and dignity, regardless of their economic or social circumstances.”

We should not exaggerate how “recent” this activity is. Mutatis mutandis, churches and Christian charities were doing precisely this work, to a herculean extent, in the Victorian period; and, indeed, organisations such as the Salvation Army never stopped. Nor should we imagine that authentic Christian social liturgy will always look, sound, or feel the same.

But it is through examples such as these, and many others, that the Chris­tian response to social challenges is to be found: not in the finger-pointing, Bible-bashing, pur­itanical (and often hypocritical) moralising of the popular ima­gination, but through authentic Christian social liturgy.

The powerful growth of Christian social liturgy over recent years, in response to the real, sometimes wide­spread, and seemingly growing social problems, is not only encour­ag­­ing in itself, it is also a healthy redirection from under­standing Chris­tianity as simply a system of belief, or narrowly con­ceived wor­ship, to under­standing it as a full enactment of the Kingdom of God that Jesus came announcing.

Much work needs to be done — theologically, practically, politically — to ground and develop social liturgy. It is a big ask, but to do it would not only help to change the script about Christianity in contem­porary Britain. It might also, perhaps, bring the life of churches close to that of the earliest Church — operating in a plural, often un­­­com­prehending, and sometimes hostile environment, which it managed, ultimately, to tame and change through its determination to believe in, and live out, a story of forgiveness, generosity, and love.


Nick Spencer is the Acting Director of Theos. This is an edited extract of a chapter in a report published to mark Theos’s tenth anniversary, Doing Good: A future for Christianity in the 21st century, available at www.theosthinktank.co.uk.

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