As the State shrinks, just how much can we expect the Church to step in?

In Henry Chadwick’s History of the Early Church, he observes that ‘the practical application of charity was probably the most potent single cause of Christian success’.  The early Church regularly cared for the poor, for orphans and widows, visited prisoners and provided social action at times of famine and war.  By 251 AD the church in Rome was supporting more than 1500 widows and other needy persons, all of whom were ‘fed by the grace and kindness of the Lord’.  These acts of kindness, which were not just confined to believers, were completely counter-cultural in an age where the state did not undertake a social welfare programme.

Moving forward to the 19th century in England, informal social action was flourishing. Much of this action was committed to making a change to the conditions of poverty and education in a newly-industrialised society.  As the influence of individuals and associations grew, the Church of England became increasingly engaged in social action. From the late 18th century, Sunday schools had existed in slum areas of cities like Gloucester. Mass education for the poor was promoted, initially in industrial areas but aiming to establish schools in every parish. By 1840, around 70% of the British working class had achieved a basic level of literacy, thanks to the work of Sunday schools. By 1851, twenty years before the state took responsibility for education, there were 12,000 schools across England and Wales.

In recent years the decline of church attendance and Christian belief has been well documented, and yet ironically churches and Christian organisations are providing a wider range of charitable community initiatives and social action projects than maybe ever before.  At a time when the state is withdrawing support for some of the most vulnerable in our society, the church is increasingly finding ways to fill the gaps.  Social action continues to be part of the Church’s make-up, as it has been right from the very beginning.

All of this preamble brings me to discuss the latest report from Philip Blond’s ResPublica think tank, which was launched by the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace last Wednesday. Entitled Holistic Mission: Social action and the Church of Englandit seeks to examine the Church of England’s approach to social action and how the Government ought to look to engage with the work the Church is doing.  It’s certainly not a new theme.  I’ve read at least four substantial reports on this issue in the last month and they all say more-or-less the same thing:

  • The Church is doing a huge amount of good in our society at this time through social action, although much of it behind the scenes and away from the media’s eye.
  • Christian motivation to carry out social action primarily derives from a faith-based conviction to serve and bless others irrespective of background rather than one of proselytisation.
  • Any calls for Christians to desist from being involved outside of church walls because some consider it inappropriate for faith groups doing such things in a secular society are based on ignorance and deserve little attention.
  • The Church is a force for good and the Government at both a local and national level would be wise to engage with Christian groups and make it easier for them to access public funds to increase the effectiveness of the work they do.

This ResPublica does not add much that is new to the work of similar reports, but does a good job of reinforcing these themes with some effective research.  It also takes a look at the relationship between the Christian faith and the desire to carry out social action.  When through faith in Jesus, we reach towards God and in return receive his love, we naturally are drawn towards our neighbours and society at large in order to share that love with others. We become God’s agents on this Earth bringing His restoration and healing into the lives of others. This ‘going out’ is at one with ‘going inwards and upwards’. Organised social and civic involvement is not a distraction from more spiritual concerns, but it belongs intimately with them. The church’s mission is to spread the Good News of salvation and renewal not just through words, but also through practical action. Building up the life of God’s Kingdom on earth involves fellowship and human flourishing as much as it involves a life of prayer, worship and sacrifice.

The Church’s experience and desire to serve through social action puts it in a unique position as the limitations of the State to provide effective care at a local and individual level become more apparent.  The delivery of public services is increasingly suffering from a lack of funding and resources along with a dysfunctional universal approach that struggles to meet the needs of those it is designed to serve.

On the other hand, the Church has the ability to work at a hyper-local level (the research has found that 90% of Anglican volunteers are participating in social action within 2 miles of their home). Local churches have access to people on a direct human level and are connected to communities at a more personal level than most government service providers.  Consequently they have the potential to meet the holistic needs of individuals far more effectively than state services can.

In response to theis analysis, the ResPublica report concludes by making a series of recommendations for both Church and Government.  These include the creation of a unit by The Cabinet Office to help involve the church in public service delivery.  For the Church of England in particular it suggests that it should set aside a certain percentage of the returns on investments to invest in church-based social ventures.  A

  • Social Action Unit should be set up to co-ordinate social action across dioceses and between Church and government. This Unit should in turn oversee the creation of diocesan Social Action Teams to work with community groups and local government to tackle local problems and deliver services.

Two thoughts come to mind when reading these proposals.  The first is how much more effective churches could be given better support and advice.  Many churches are doing valuable work in their communities  but often in the past this has been in an ad-hoc way along the lines of the ‘well-meaning amateur’.  Churches have had to work out much for themselves when launching into social action projects.  The recommendation of a Social Action Unit fits in with the recent trend for successful church models to be shared and implemented often through franchising and in doing so, finding it easier to access government funds where appropriate.  More well-known examples have included the Trussell Trust’s foodbanks, Street Pastors, Christians Against Poverty debt advice centres and XLP’s XLM youth mentoring scheme.  The Cinnamon Network works to help churches establish franchise models successfully and apply for start-up micro-grants from the Government.  These resources have the benefits of establishing good practice and allowing all churches including those who have more limited resources to increase what they can offer locally in a sustainable way.

The second thought is more complex and requires more debate and discussion than is available here.  As the State shrinks, just how much can we expect the Church to step in?  The report argues the Church has the potential, the experience and the capacity to become a universal transformative institution that this country so desperately needs and the report calls for the Government to recognise and harness that power for the common good. I would agree that the Church is capable of making such an impact and playing a critical role in meeting people’s needs as it has in the past, but if it is to work more closely with government, it cannot not be expected to compromise or tone down its values and beliefs. Although social action and mission should undoubtedly be an intrinsic part of the life of churches, it is not their sole function.  The Church is not an industrial unit of production, there to pick up the pieces and fill in the gaps left by a failing state.  Both the Church and the Government would do well to consider the Church’s role in partnership, but the State must not have unrealistic expectations as to what the Church could or should provide.  The Church must always follow the lead it sees God giving rather than any secular institution and that means that it is not here to become just another government provider commissioned to provide a range of services.  Christians are motivated because they want to follow God and serve Him as they have been called to do.  This incarnational goodwill and self-sacrifice is a freely given blessing and any attempts by the State to take advantage of this generosity of spirit would be both unwise and counterproductive.

Categories: Archbishop of Canterbury, Church, Faith in society, Social action

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11 replies

  1. Some vital issues expanded here Gillan, if the church does step in, it cannot do so at the cost of its prophetic voice, and if it becomes more of a partner and less of a simple consumer in the work of social delivery, then its influence must grow, or else the partnership is of no value. I have real concerns if the Respublica report is followed to closely. The report was unashamedly written from an Anglican perspective and of course they are the largest unit of organisation within the church landscape. However their resources are disproportionately used to sustain state like structures already. Based on my knowledge in Sussex, the Street Pastors, Foodbanks, Counselling services, homeless services are not dominated by the Church of England, indeed they are not even the most visible partner. If we end up with a top down Government partnership between the Palace of Westminster and Lambeth Palace then it will unravel on the ground in many places. What is needed is a broad partnership that empowers local activists who can make a change locally. The agencies that you have mentioned (Trussell, Ascension Trust, CAP, Cinnamon, to which you could add ROC) do not do anything in any local setting other than facilitate – arguably CAP is the one exception. Sadly sometimes this is misunderstood. If there is a foodbank, even if it relies on Trussell policies and guidance, if Chris Mould went on a sabbatical, the work of foodbanks would not be impacted etc. The mistake of central Government is to think it controls the work of local Councils. We musn’t fall into their bear traps.

    • Excellent points Ian, thank you. At one level I look at the report as a challenge to the Church of England to be much more effective especially given its size and prominence. It certainly shouldn’t have any special privilege compared to other churches. It’s important that churches from all denominations are able to work together when appropriate and that the government doesn’t focus just on the traditional ones.

  2. you say things in your posts which often strike to the heart of my problems! For instance, here you talk about those with ‘faith in Jesus’ receiving and wanting to share God’s love… I know a Christian woman who committed suicide when she was told she couldn’t have children, a Christian Syrian family whose three sons were killed when they crashed their car into a wall when trying to flee and a Christian teenager dying from cancer. How are they ‘receiving God’s love’? And how should they share it?

    And how do Christians ‘as God’s agents on earth’ bring ‘restoration and healing’ into others’ lives better than, say, my fiercely atheistic mates who are at this minute risking their lives in Egypt to help folk there?

    I just don’t understand.

    • We all have the capacity to do good and evil no matter what we believe, so that doesn’t stop atheists from doing great works. If we think being a Christian makes us better or gives us special rights then we are mistaken. God’s love is about grace and salvation, taking us from being distant from God and being drawn close to him, but we still have to accept it in all its fullness even if we are Christians. God doesn’t remove us from suffering when we follow Him – the Bible makes that quite clear – but he does give us strength to deal with what we face. We receive God’s love primarily through the Holy Spirit working in us and share it by living lives that demonstrate God’s values and through sharing the message of Jesus.

      • but I still have (at least) two problems;
        if God gives believers strength to deal with what they face then why did He allow my friend to commit suicide?
        what is ‘God’s love’?

        • I can’t explain why your friend committed suicide, but it’s certainly not the first time I’ve heard of a Christian doing it. Knowing God doesn’t alleviate suffering. I find some Christians draw immense strength fro their relationship with God despite difficulties and hardships, but his is not the case for all. There is plenty to read in the Bible about God’s love. I can cover it all here, but for me it’s not something that is airy-fairy. It’s personal. I know that God wants to have a relationship with me and part of that is grace and forgiveness along with an offer of life beyond the grave. He has a love for creation and each individual. When God draws close to you it can be life-changing. I know plenty of people who can testify to that.

        • yes, you’re right. Of course you can’t explain about Claire’s suicide. It was unfair of me to raise it. It was just that you said that God gives folk strength to cope and I don’t think coping or otherwise is anything to do with God. Believing that sort of thing involves you in all sorts of complications – such as, does God organise all your life events ( for which he either does or doesn’t give you strength ) and does he do that for everyone or just believers…etc etc. And yes, you are right I know plenty of folk who can testify to knowing God. Though how they know it’s God – rather than just their inner voice or conscience – beats me. E.g. do you believe you have a conscience AND hear from God? The thing that interests me most about what you say, though is that there is plenty about God’s love in the Bible. I would dispute that. I agree there are a couple of references to God’s love in letters. But mainly i see God making unbearable demands of his chosen ones – Moses, Abraham, Lot, Jesus… Don’t you think that our modern preoccupation with God’s love takes our eye off the ball about what it is God really wants from us?

        • When I read the Bible I see explicit references all over it and not just in the New Testament. Moses talks about it in Exodus and Psalms is full of it. I don’t see how you can get away from it. Having said that we can focus on that too much in a ‘God loves you so everything will be alright’ superficial sort of way. God’s love is primarily an agape love i.e. not fluffy and at times demanding.

        • How strange! Where are you seeing these explicit references to God’s love? I agree there is a lot of talk of God’s ‘steadfast love’ but I think I am right to read that as God’s solidarity / God’s standing for his people ( as opposed to any modern notion that God loves us individually and wants to talk to and know each one of us.) What i mean is that the Bible talks of its (G)god as standing for the Hebrews ( initially) just as every other community in the ancient Near East had a god standing for it – Enlil, Kemosh etc .And yes, you are right about the psalms but wouldn’t you say that the psalms are songs / poems about human feelings about God – not God talking about His feelings about us? Isn’t that the most sensible way to understand what the Bible is saying? Otherwise, as I asked before, how do you know when it’s God talking to you?

  3. Thanks for writing yet another great blog and one on this very key theme for the Role of the Church in the context of 21st Century Britain. In terms of the scale up and support, You have mentioned some really fantastic examples of support and best practice. I would like to add one more in terms of Tearfund’s UK work

    There is a great brochure exploring 10 keys for IMPACT which is based on the 18 years of experience Tearfund has of working with local grass roots projects and church initiatives. The page also has some films to accompany these and some great examples of projects we have or currently partner with.

    The reality is that there are many great initiatives and all are vital and bring uniqueness. I think it also comes down to how we understand poverty and what is poverty? There is a significant relational/social element to poverty as well as a physical/material aspect.

    Local expression, combined with National action seems a key way to go as this report brilliantly highlights and as you say, there seems to be a lot of great threads and reports that have come out in recent months from amongst others the Evangelical Alliance and Demos on the vital Role of faith groups, including the local church, in this.

    The second question around capacity, sustainability and just how much the church can do/be responsible for is a huge one and agree that this is going to require a lot more debate, exploration and thought. But I think it’s one that increasingly many more churches and movements are feeling equipped, able and keen to explore.

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