WHEN we look back on 2020 in the future, what story will we tell? Of grief from tens of thousands of personal losses, and the recognition that what we do as individuals can literally mean life or death for others? Certainly. Of reckoning with structural racism after a summer of Black Lives Matter protests? Hopefully. Of the culmination of long and embittered Brexit negotiations? Finally.
But, perhaps, there is a bigger uniting story here, too, because these most urgent issues of our time are not detached. Rather, all of them underline the fundamental importance of our collective relationships as a society: the bonds that tie us together beyond our immediate in-groups, to celebrate success, mourn failure, and confront challenge together as a society. At every turn this year, we have seen the importance of solidarity with our institutions, our neighbours, and those we will never meet — and how painful (and deadly) it is when that solidarity is lacking.
The policy term for these collective relationships is “social cohesion”, but the exact language we use is not too important: as Christians called to follow the example of Christ in loving and serving our neighbours, this is something we know all about.
Of course, churches have been doing incredible work in serving people and helping to hold communities together during the pandemic: 89 per cent of churches who responded to a survey conducted by the National Churches Trust said that they had continued to provide some form of community support throughout, and the top new activity was making contact with isolated or vulnerable people. These community efforts have caught the attention of some government departments. But we, as churches, should take courage that this is what we were doing before the pandemic, and will continue to do after it is over.
THIS is the message of The Church and Social Cohesion: Connecting communities and serving people: a report released this week by the Free Churches Group, written by Madeleine Pennington at Theos. The report has consulted more than 350 people across England on the relationship between congregations and their communities. It has asked hard questions about the Church’s effectiveness in contributing to cohesion, posing those questions to church and community leaders alike.
Not surprisingly, a template for good practice has emerged, and the report comes with a How To guide for churches wanting to start or expand their community engagement. For example, we have seen how churches work best when they consider what their communities really need, and what assets they uniquely have, to fit into wider local efforts. And they should make a priority of communicating what they are doing; after all, other people need to be told, if they are to co-ordinate with it.
The report also unpacks how cohesion policy itself has often bounced from crisis to crisis, trying to heal divisions as they become urgent, and crafting our understanding of a healthy society on the basis of what happens when things have already gone wrong.
But a good society is not just one that isn’t falling apart: it is also one in which we love our neighbours, every day. Cohesion is for life — not just for crises — and, as the report demonstrates time and again, it is often churches that are maintaining this vital care for communities on the ground. Where cohesion is concerned, then, churches have a message that the world needs to hear.
If we are to send out this message as effectively as possible, we need to think through some basic principles. The biggest of these is that a right understanding of need is foundational to social cohesion.
In writing to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul observes three ways in which the cohesion of the body of Christ can break down: failure to recognise our own part in it and belonging; failure to recognise the part played by others; and the failure to recognise personal need and to respect the needs of others. Paul’s message is that we all have needs, and it is our need of one another that holds us together.
SO, THIS is not about being placed on some local- or central-government pedestal. Jesus refused pedestals so that he could embrace a cross. Geographically, the cross was set on a hill — but, theologically, it has created the level ground on which we minister to society. True serving is the ultimate antidote to superiority, and we will have to take our place as one place of service among others.
We can argue that our motivation as churches is different, and that our motivation gives us many advantages, which is absolutely true and will hopefully shine through. None the less, if we are sincerely saying to people “We need you” and “You matter,” we are acknowledging a commitment to a sense of completeness that comes from embracing society as a whole.
This is what cohesive societies are all about; it is work that churches are already doing every day, and it is more vital now than ever before.
Dr Hugh Osgood is the Moderator of the Free Churches Group.
Read the report at www.theosthinktank.co.uk