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Book review: Before and Beyond the ‘Big Society’ by Joseph Forde

18 August 2023

Peter Selby looks at the theology that seemed to endorse austerity

PRODUCING a critique of the formidable thought-processes of John Milbank, of his participation along with Philip Blond and Adrian Pabst in the Blue Labour/Red Tory projects, and his influence on the response of the Church of England to the “Big Society” policy environment created by David Cameron is not an enterprise for the faint-hearted.

Such is Milbank’s reputation and the range of his learning that there has been an understandable reluctance to offer a critical evaluation of his position. Joseph Forde’s book is strongly recommended for all who seek just such an account and evaluation.

Milbank argues against the relevance for this time of what has been the dominant attitude of the Church of England towards the Welfare State, one that can be traced from F. D. Maurice through Tawney and Temple. In this tradition the State plays a vital part in the provision of welfare. Forde places Milbank’s thought within a helpful analysis of three kinds of Anglican socialist thinking, of which the “statist” position of Tawney and Temple, highly influential in the Welfare State that emerged after the Second World War, is one, while Milbank represents a resurgent “Christendom” position, in the tradition of Maurice Reckitt and V. A. Demant.

The third strand, which he names “revolutionary”, of which Kenneth Leech is probably the best-known exponent, is one to which he gives limited attention, as it has had limited influence — though perhaps recent history provides grounds for wishing it had more.

The second part of Forde’s book is an analysis of Milbank’s “Christendomist” thinking on the State, and his positive — some might even say nostalgic — view of Catholic belief and practice in the Middle Ages. So, he believes that the provision of welfare should not belong primarily to the secular State, but to the Church, even suggesting, somewhat surprisingly, that an enhanced role for the Church in the provision of welfare would arrest its decline in membership.

It is this view that led Milbank, Pabst, and Blond to give their support to the “Big Society” project that was the political initiative of David Cameron in the period of the coalition government. Forde describes the influence that this had in the formulation of the Church of England’s more recent view of welfare. He is not alone in recognising the depth and nuance of Malcolm Brown’s key work in helping the Church to reflect on that period, as well as on the Blue Labour/Red Tory project.

Forde’s book is immensely thorough and a passionate plea for sound historical analysis, the area where he finds most to criticise in Milbank’s approach. He points out that the voluntary sector, including the Church, was highly active in the provision of welfare long before the “Big Society” was proposed, and that it is a false reading of the Beveridge/Temple tradition to suggest that it intended to put all provision of welfare in the hands of the State and marginalise the voluntary sector.

While Forde’s critique of Milbank is, therefore, primarily historical, and powerful for that reason, his analysis provides grounds for being suspicious of the Big Society project and the theological support given to it by Milbank, Pabst, and Blond. The evidence is that the voluntary sector and church members, in particular, are hugely active in welfare activities of all kinds and have always been.

In more recent years, there has been an exponential growth in churches’ involvement in the provision of foodbanks (to take but one example). Might this not rather confirm the suspicion that the advocates of the Big Society are offering a dubious justification for a process in which the processes of austerity are putting into practical effect a divided society?

The increasingly tired faces of many who are engaged in the “voluntary” provision of welfare by churches and others suggest that they regard their work as a vital, exhausting, and not particularly “voluntary” response to the impoverishment of the many by a State prioritising the flourishing of the few.

What Forde has offered is solid historical backing for the sense many have had that the Big Society and its supporters were offering the advocates of austerity a demanding, if not very convincing, alibi.

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is an Honorary Visiting Professor in Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College, London. He is a former Bishop of Worcester, Bishop to HM Prisons, and President of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards.


Before and Beyond the “Big Society”: John Milbank and the Church of England’s approach to welfare
Joseph Forde
James Clark & Co £25

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