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 England, it 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.