CHURCHES should take advantage of the opportunities presented by the shrinkage of the State by delivering “substantial public services”, says a report launched in the House of Lords on Monday.
Amid cuts in public spending, the Church needs to “re-imagine its role and to re-orientate itself more radically towards social action and the delivery of public services”, say the authors of Faith in Public Service, Ian Sansbury, Ben Cowdrey, and Lea Kauffmann-de Vries. The report is published by the Oasis Foundation, a non-denominational social-justice charity. The Revd Steve Chalke, a Baptist minister and the founder of Oasis, has written its introduction.
The report suggests that individual churches could “go further than the delivery of foodbanks and debt advice”, and move more into the provision of health-care and education. They might, however, need more “effective leadership, governance, finance and HR function” to do so.
Oasis now runs 47 academies, serving more than 25,000 children.
Speaking at the launch, Mr Chalke said that religious groups could be relied on to deliver “more bang for your buck” because they were propelled by faith.
The Big Society has, so far, failed to live up to its promise, the report says. The authors accuse the Government of failing to articulate “meaningful policies”, and of abandoning the “grand design” that had envisaged a massive increase in the delivery of public services by charities.
Cuts in government spending have dwarfed small increases in charitable donations and volunteering, it states; furthermore, the Big Society project remains hampered by a lack of capacity in the voluntary sector, an insufficient devolution of power, and weaknesses in local-authority commissioning.
Local authorities have ended up outsourcing services to “profit-motivated, impersonal quasi-monopolies” such as Serco, which are “likely to be less personal, less effective, and more expensive” than those run by councils or charities.
The report sets out the scale of government cuts — local authority budgets have fallen by 19 per cent since 2010 — and states that they are ideologically driven. It does not criticise them, however: the concept of a bigger civil society “remains a good one”, it says, and there is “huge potential” for the Church to engage in it.
The report calls for a “radical rebranding and relaunch” of the Big Society, entailing communication of the “social contract which underpins the move towards a smaller state”, with a view to bringing about a “change in national culture”.
Speaking on Wednesday, Mr Chalke said that “the Church’s task is always to engage and also to critique: neither one nor the other.” The State had a “great responsibility” to bear, particularly to the most vulnerable.
“In the end, I am a pragmatist, and think that pragmatism comes from my reading of the New Testament: whilst I pray for God’s Kingdom to come in its completeness . . . and I know that earthly institutions have a responsibility in bringing that about, I think I need to get on and offer help with all the energy and strength that I can muster.”
The Government was more likely to listen to those who had “skin in the game” and were “doing the job on the ground”, he said.
Also present at the launch this week was the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines. "The Church has to both question the ideological drivers behind the roll back of the State and, simultaneously, get ahead of the opportunities this also throws up," he said on Wednesday. "It is harder to make something happen than to complain about what is being lost. This is the balancing act the Church has to do."
Polling conducted for the report illustrates the challenges facing faith groups. A YouGov survey of 1710 adults found that 37 per cent of those questioned believed that their services “would be used as an opportunity to attempt to convert people”, and that 26 per cent felt that “minority groups, such as LGBT people, will be excluded.”
The report says that churches must be “fully inclusive, non-discriminatory, and non-proselytising”, and suggests the drawing up of an “inclusion charter” that churches could adopt to allay such fears.
Mr Chalke said that he had seen a “steady rise” in restrictions on religious organisations in grant forms. Fears were not always unjustified, he said: “There are those within the Church who have used and abused money and networks and opportunities to proselytise. . . Our offer has to be unconditional.”
An online survey of 124 church leaders, conducted by Oasis, found that only 28 per cent of those questioned felt confident about running substantial public services, such as education or health-care. The solution, the report says, is collaboration between churches. They will need to recruit leaders who combine “a strong commitment to service, entrepreneurial flair, practical commercial skills, and ideally, but perhaps not essentially, a meaningful theological foundation”.