Here are the notes that I used for a presentation that I gave to the Places of Worship Alliance yesterday. I
Today I have been asked the question - how places of worship should be engaging as the Big Society idea is being translated into policy.
At the end of this talk I hope to have shown that our energies need to go into hospitality and transforming lives and building bodies of people committed to work for change. That here we find we will find the building blocks of the big society.
One of my favourite pastimes has been collecting the words of government ministers, Bishops, journalist and other commentators as they attempt to describe what is the Big Society.
Stephen Bubb CEO of National Association of the Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations said
The idea of the Big Society is a bit like the idea of the Holy Trinity: even when it's explained to you, you still don't really get it.
Toby Blume, CEO of Urban Forum said of the Big Society Policy that it was an attempt to marry State and Community. He said it is ‘something old, something new and something borrowed and something …. Blue’
Lord Wei - The government first Big Society czar said,
"The Big Society policies are about nurturing an ecosystem. I describe this as the Big Society coral reef ... it combines the seabed, which is the bedrock of our public services - to protect the vulnerable - and then the coral, which is represented by the many current and future providers of those services. Last but not least is the fish that feed in these waters, the local citizen groups that can extend, vivify and shape this landscape in ambitious, as well as humble, ways. No single part of this landscape can or should dominate, but by working together it comes to form a whole that is more than the sum of its parts."
Rt Revd Bishop John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford
“Christians have always had a vision of Big Society, but we’ve called it the Kingdom of God”
“What is being missed is the recognition that what Cameron wants, the Church already does. He is walking on our territory without realising we have been there for years. It is what we do.” Rt Revd Nick Baines, Bishop of Bradford
Luke Bretherton, Theologian and adviser on the Big Society
“Whether they like it or not, in the eyes of the coalition government, [churches] are already enacting the big society policy agenda.”
So are we as churches doing the Big Society whether we like it or not?
Have Church and State come together in a timely marriage of shared understanding and a unification of the policy agenda?
It was the faith groups churches that started the first hospitals, schools, social welfare charities, hospices, homeless shelters and so on. ... But can they do it today?
...At a primary level this Big Society stuff is not a problem. Visiting the housebound and elderly, engaging with young people, setting up networks of "flu friends" - all that is business as usual. ... There are credit unions and food banks, street pastors and night shelters all over the country, run by the churches and other faith groups.
...CUF has been supporting Big Society projects for 25 years.
We have over 5,000 examples of Church based Big Society projects…..
Narthex in St Johns the Evangelist, Birmingham – it has a weekly older people’s lunch club, parent and toddler group and homework club in the church hall as well as running a refugee advice drop-in and also a refugee foodbank in the church itself (using a shipping container on church grounds as storage facility). www.narthex.org.uk
St Peters in Walworth, London – The crypt houses a community café, an IT suite and training facilities – it does significant work with young people and knife crime, afterschool clubs and homework clubs, parenting courses, food and gardening project - http://www.in-spire.org.uk/
Camborne Parish Church, Cornwall http://www.cambornechurch.org.uk/ Has set up Drop In and Share – a daily drop-in for homeless/addicts in local area (as a response to people hanging round in church yard) – police have reported a drop in petty crime whilst this is operating – it has also enabled them to renovate an outlying building (old school building/scout hut) into a training facility for ex-homeless.
These are areas where the church is at it’s most effective. We bodies of people - churches - who are in relationship with one another extending their network of relationships out into the wider community. Some call this kindness, some call it social action – others, dare I say, mission. But it is all gospel work - sharing good news especially to the poor.
It's at tertiary level where things become more complex because a more sophisticated professionalism is needed and we run into problems of regulation and irregular funding. However, in the Church, we have respected organisations working in counselling, adoption, homelessness, mental health, the empowerment of women and lots more.
But does this add up to what David Cameron envisages by Big Society?
It depends on the nature of the contract he wants to make with the faith communities. If there's a desire for partnership and funding support, then there's a wealth of experience and good will to tap into.
But if we're being asked to fill the gap because the government has run out of money then it's likely to be no deal.
Churches can offer stable, committed volunteers all over the country. ... In there DNA is a drive to engage others in what they do.
But they can't pretend to be the NHS or a social work department, nor must they.
...So - We do the Big Society pretty well.
But should we collude with the Government agenda - the latest political fad? I think that faith groups represent a movement that is far bigger than authors of the big society policies ever imagined.
Working with the Church of England and Church Urban Fund has developed a programme called Near Neighbours.
In a nutshell the idea is to bring people together who are near neighbours in communities that are diverse, so they can get to know each other better, build relationships as people and collaborate together on initiatives that improve the local community they live in.
...Social interaction - to develop positive relationships in multi-faith areas i.e. to help people from different faiths get to know and understand each other better.
Social action - to encourage people of different faiths, or no faith, to come together for initiatives that improve their local neighbourhood.
What is key to the programme is that we are absolutely resolute to be distinctive in what and who we are.
Baroness Warsi ...‘Through the Government's £5m investment in the Church Urban Fund's Near Neighbours programme, we are putting our money where our mouth is - not through a top-down intervention but by using the existing infrastructure of the Church of England to build productive local relationships between people of different faiths in four key geographical target areas. People of any religious background will be able to bid for that fund through their local Anglican parish, to run projects that improve their local neighbourhoods with people from all faiths working alongside each other. The programme is an excellent example of partnership working.’
...But what of our buildings - our Places of Worship. How do we use our assets to engage?
Well I offer two words through which we should filter our engagement… radical hospitality
...Our Places of Worship are exactly that – Places of Worship. They are designed for that purpose – although many can do other things – either simultaneously or separately.
Churches have a vital role to play today. ... We have other things – expertise, ideas, creative thinking, even (sometimes) money.
The key question is how we use them…. And particularly today how to we use our buildings.
We claim churches are rooted in the community, but how welcoming are we to the needs of the people we purport to serve?
I believe the lens we show use when looking to how we use our buildings is through this notion radical hospitality.
Hospitality, in every sense, generous and freely given, should be the key to how we envisage our buildings. We want to be radical in demonstrating that the root of all we seek to be, and do, is found in the love of God. The God whom we worship is alive and well in every human person. God who knows no boundaries; He is present everywhere and is made known in the gift of loving wherever love is seen.
Let’s be bold and imaginative in the ways we use our buildings – what can be done to create a network of welcome centres – centres for the arts, media, welfare, community, play – whatever we can turn our hand to.
...Are our places of worship welcoming and hospitable? I guess some are and some aren’t.
We are entering, I believe, a new season for the church and for all Places of Worship. Through policies like the Big Society the government are knocking at our door.
The world is experienced by many as a place for strangers, where dislocation, fragmentation and even hostility are found all around. But many long for a place where life can be lived without fear and where friendship is available with an open hand.
Radical hospitality means throwing open the door of our churches and saying – ‘you are welcome’.
Radical is "getting to the root" or "arising from the source." ... One who is radically committed to something goes beyond the norm, exceeding ordinary expectations. A practitioner of radical hospitality might go the extra mile, to "take welcoming the stranger to the max."
Hospitality has to do with the physical and with space. Physical space as well as psychological and spiritual space. The physical space is often more important than we give credit for. When we enter a Place of Worship or a home or any public space we read the signals and signs that that space presents. ... In the words of the Clash do we say to people entering a place of worship - ‘Should I stay or should I go now?’
They key to reviving our buildings is to focus on the people who use them.
...They are resources to be used for the transformation of live, community and to build that thing we call the Big Society.
Our buildings are where stories are made. I want to see more Blue Plaques on our Places of Worship that tell the stories of those who use them and have used them.
...So my call – as we bulid this Big Society – is that we are generous in offering our resources for all to use and are flexible in our view of ‘what’s right or wrong for a church building’.
Who can use the building? Classical music good, rock music bad, ceilidh good, rave bad, children's parties good, teenage parties well ..... of course not....
Are all welcome?
So – the Big Society, yes let’s do the Big Society and see it as an opportunity to be radially hospitable and build relationships in our needy world. Our Places of Worship place us in a uniquely privileged position to welcome people and to be there for them.
Next week we are hosting a gathering for community leaders that live in some of the areas affected by last month’s riots. We’ve invited members of the clergy, community workers and local activists to spend 24 hours sharing their stories and reflecting on the unrest and the impact it had on them, their work and their communities.
We hope this will be a key event where we will gather evidence to present to government, policy makers, funders and to the House of Bishops.
We are working closely with our good friends at Church Action on Poverty, who, like us, want to understand what churches in riot-affected areas are confronting, and inform Government about their response.
This is all very good. But it is only the beginning of a longer and more detailed discussion that we hope to encourage during the coming months.
Alex Kirby, writing in the Times said ‘The Church of England needs to think again how it can help the inner-city poor and money is not the answer. After the urban unrest in England in the 1980s, a Church of England commission produced a report, Faith in the City. That led in turn to the establishment in 1987 of a charity, the Church Urban Fund (CUF), which since then has distributed about £65 million to faith-based projects. You may conclude that every little helps (the total cost of running the Church of England is just over £1 billion annually), but with the CUF’s silver jubilee approaching next year — and the return this month of riots and looting to city streets — perhaps it is time to rethink the fund. What CUF does is well worth doing, not least as a token of religious commitment to the poor. But if it could double its funding (hard, as individual contributions make up much of its income), it would still make little practical difference in a society where 3.8 million children live in poverty (and more than 13 million people altogether). The inner cities need far more than religion alone can offer. Faith in the City was the work of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas. If Rowan Williams is wondering how to build on Robert Runcie’s initiative, CUF is an obvious starting point. It does more than simply channel money to projects; also offering training, networking, research and other resources. It funds some non-Anglican projects, even some run by other faiths. It is small, but it is a good deed in a naughty world. What else might it do?’
What else might it do indeed? This gathering represents us taking this challenge forward. We are seeking to build a body of people committed and active in tackling issues of poverty in England today.
How? Well money helps but I believe it is only through time, action and prayer can we begin to make an impact and a difference. Gatherings like this give voice to Christian activists. Though Church Urban Fund we can speak to the heart of the issue and, simultaneously, to the Church and government.