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How should churches respond to the Big Society - Rowan Williams

Friday 23rd July 2010

Archbishop Rowan Williams and Bob Reitemeier CEO of the Children's Society and Fran Becket former CEO of the Church Urban Fund explored the opportunities and challenges for Christian organisations and churches engaging with the government’s vision of the Big Society.

The event was held at the Oasis Centre in London and was second of the Charities Parliament Big Society series, chaired by Steve Chalke MBE and Founder of Oasis UK.  A transcript follows:

Thank you very much indeed, Steve, and thank you all for being here this evening and for the invitation to be with you and try to take forward what is clearly going to be one of the big discussions of the next couple of years.

I want to begin by looking at what the basis for a Church response to the Big Society language might be, and that means quarrying back a bit into the whole origins, the whole root of Christianity itself. What is the Church, what is Christianity? And to me the great new thing, in the New Testament, is the notion that the kind of human society that God is interested in, the kind of human society that God wants to see flourishing and spreading across the globe, is one in which people have a keen, active sense of their dependence upon each other, the sense, the all consuming sense that everyone has something to give into the common life, the sense that if someone is prevented from giving, then everyone is poor, everyone is frustrated. It's the theme that the frustration, the poverty of any individual is everyone's issue. And whether you put that in spiritual terms or material terms, or as you ought to, in both because they're inseparable, the point's the same. It's everyone's issue, everyone's deprivation, if one part of the body suffers. So the Church exists to model that notion of human togetherness in which every voice and every gift is crucial. A society in which one person's frustration is everyone's frustration.

So that's where we start, I would say, in making a Christian response to the Big Society rhetoric. And I suppose the reason for the first of two-and-a-half cheers for the Big Society, the first reason for that would be that it seems to recognise that an awareness of the local, the face to face, the sort of thickly textured relationship between people, an awareness of that has come more to the fore than perhaps it did in previous regimes. Regimes of all political colouring.

Because, the Christian vision as I've set it out seems to me to carve straight through the middle, between two really toxic distortions. On the one hand there's the idea there's something there called society with a lot of problems. You elect people to government so that they can solve the problems and that's all you really need to know. And the other poisonous distortion is, to coin a phrase, there is no such thing as society, there are individuals all pursuing their own goals and government is there to prevent the worst conflicts that might arise out of that, but not really a lot more. In between we have this robust notion of inter-dependence. A sense that we all, each one of us, we all are who we are, because of the neighbour, because of relationship. That's the theology, I believe.

So yes, first cheer for the Big Society. It seems to take seriously that element of the irreplaceable personal relational quality that makes good societies. It recognises that a good society is not simply one with lots of convincing and impressive rules and programmes but it's a society where people feel confident that they all have something to give, confident that it will be received and able to receive from one another in the gift exchange within society which Adrian Pabst, in a very interesting recent article on The Guardian website, drew out. The phrases he used were about 'mutual sympathy and social recognition' as the cement of a healthy society. Mutual sympathy and social recognition. I think those are very very helpful phrases, because they suggest that the common good of a society depends on deep empathy, the real ability to feel and see something from another's point of view and recognition; that is the awareness that the other person has the same issues as you do, that what's good for you and what's good for them are sooner or later going to have to be woven together.

Now, moving on a bit from that, I've noted the two - I call them toxic - distortions that prevail in a lot of our political thinking or have prevailed in recent decades. One of the questions that that leaves for us, I would say is, how do we actually define the role of government? If government is not just a kind of referee in an endless quarrel between individual interests, and if government is not the all powerful provider of answers to problems, what's it there for? I would say that the purpose of government is to sustain the vision that the communities, the natural and local communities in which we all live, themselves belong together and depend on one another.

Government is there to hold on to the vision of society in the old phrase: 'a community of communities' - and that's a phrase which really first came to prominence about a hundred years ago in the work of a very much neglected Anglican Theologian called John Neville Figgis, who was a teacher in Cambridge for a while and later became a monk. And this theme of the community of communities is at the very heart of how he sees society. He, a hundred years ago, was looking at a society that was already fragmenting because of poverty, because of industrial exploitation, because of rapid social change. He was one of those who said: "The Church has got to model something better." And the Church has got to model for the world a participatory, active, sometimes argumentative interaction between its own elements, so that society understands that it is not a monolithic block, nor a fiction which simply cloaks a mass of unrelated individuals, but yes, a community of communities. Government holds on to the notion that all the communities of civil society in this country have something to do with each other, and they need to be able to serve one another and relate to one another in ways that are not destructive, and they need a bit of capacity-building to do that.

Government is there to adjust, to nourish, to almost to fiddle with the works from time to time, so that people have the capacity of taking the freedom that they really ought to have, making it work for their local communities and making those communities work for a wider community. Or to put it rather more simply, government is there to make some connections and make them work - to make some connections and make them work. And that I think is where the half-cheer comes in for the Big Society. We're all of us, I think very understandably, cautious of any notion that the Big Society should be swallowed whole, when it might just be an alibi for cost-cutting, and a way back to government washing its hands of that shared connection-making responsibility. I think it's quite right for us to be wary of that as a distortion, because it would be a distortion.

Big Society, I suppose, is a phrase that gets its energy and its conviction from being opposed to Big Government. And I can sort of see what that's about. It's a reaction against the top-down mode of solving things, a reaction against the idea that government solves problems and that government always knows best. And that's not an unhealthy reaction in itself. I think that we all need to grow out of the sort of early Fabian/ Sidney Webb idea that government is always the prime provider of social goods, whether you like it or not. I think there's a very bleak strand in the thinking of the British Left, which can be traced back to that and I think happily there's a great deal more in the history of the British Left which pushes us towards the kind of community of communities model I've suggested.

So, half a cheer, because we do need a bit of reassurance I think, that this is not simply going to be a hand-washing or buck-passing enterprise. Some of the most interesting responses so far to Big Society language have come from one or two groups and think tanks, like the new economics foundation, who have picked up the fact that for regeneration, social action, the building of capacity to occur at the right kind of level with the right kind of professionalism, is something that is going to need investment from government. Otherwise it will be delivered at lower standards, more patchily, less accountably. So we need to keep hold of that I think as part of the picture.

We need to be absolutely clear that in taking seriously this vision of a Big Society, we don't let slip those concerns about quality and accountability which are quite properly the business of government: Making connections, making sure that things are not fairer here than they are there.

But I want to move on from there to another area which has emerged, I suppose relatively recently, in our discussions around all this, and needs some turning over and some reflection. In order for a community of communities to work, in order to get to a society in which everyone is aware of inter-dependence, aware that they live from each others' gifts, not in isolation, you actually need to be involved in nourishing and developing certain kinds of people. And this is where the language of 'virtue' comes in. Suddenly in the last couple of years people have started talking about virtue again. And most of us, I suspect, feel a slight sinking of the heart when the word virtue comes up. It sounds a bit negative and a bit intimidating.

The point is, though, virtue is a word for human quality. Human quality. Historically it's a word that has summed up the way in which we identify the qualities people need to co-operate effectively and to live convincingly with integrity. And the old fashioned virtues, which are not quite what people think they are, are the old fashioned virtues that the philosophers used to talk about, of courage and moderation and intelligent planning and fairness. Those remain the kind of qualities, surely, that make us a workable society, as well as making us credible individuals possessed of integrity. It's a pity that those virtues are so often cloaked in the Latin language of fortitude, temperance, prudence and justice. But if you put them in terms of courage and moderation and intelligent planning and fairness, you perhaps see why they still matter as much as they ever did and perhaps at the moment, more than they ever did.

That means that in any vision of a future society in which we'd like to live, we have to include some clear sense of the kind of people we want to see around. And that means that part of the role of planning and envisioning for a Big Society is going to be trying to create the conditions that nourish certain kinds of people. If, for example, you create a society in which a disproportionate number of people, perhaps especially of young people being formed and shaped in their humanity, a disproportionate number of people are repeatedly told they're not worth very much, repeatedly frustrated in their aims, repeatedly told they've nothing to contribute to the conversation, whether implicitly or explicitly, then you won't get very far.

If you create a society where all you ever do is give people stuff and let them get on with it, you end up with dependence, and unintelligent dependence. You need to invest, well, I suppose you need to invest in people. It's a cliché and it's a cliché that's sometimes used rather unhelpfully. Nonetheless that is surely what we ought to be interested in. What sort of people do we want to see around? What are the conditions? What are the environments in which people can be grown and developed, who are characterised by courage, by moderation, by the capacity to plan intelligently and the spirit of fairness. The recognition, the social recognition again, that happens across divides of understanding and background.

So if the Big Society is going to work, then it must involve that investment in education and training and human growth at every level and in every area. That of course does not simply equate to pouring lots more money into a statutory education system, though that would be nice. We can all say, I think, at the moment that we recognise the constraints under which economic decisions are made. Whatever we may think of some of the decisions that are emerging, we know it's not an easy time. But what we need therefore is quite a lot of lateral thinking about what educates within communities and how that is fostered and nourished. And that, I think, is something which this particular audience may have quite a lot to tell me about and I look forward to hearing some of it.

Within that, incidentally, I just sort of open and close a bracket here, the way in which we encourage people to take control financially of such elements of their lives as they can, that's part of the whole picture. And that's why, for my own part, I think that imaginative developments with micro-credit and micro-finance are absolutely central to an educative and transformative process in our society. I think that the capacity of micro-credit institutions, credit unions and so on, to restore to people a sense of their capacity to shape their own environment and to take longer views. That is a real part of humanising growing people into a kind of environment in which they can indeed give to one another as they ought to be giving.

But of course this point about virtue - and this perhaps is the second full cheer for Big Society language - this stuff about virtue, does remind us that people do not learn these human qualities just by being lectured, just by being exalted or even inspired in a rather vague way. They learn them by growing up in dependable communities, in families, in local communities and associations where they know they're taken seriously. I think I used earlier the phrase about a thickly textured society, and one of the contributions of the religious perspective in all this is of course that we do believe, as people of faith, in thickly textured communities. We believe in and we try to model communities where people are taken seriously in that way, and where there is a kind of dependability about the environment in which people grow.

If the churches and other religious communities are interested in the family for instance, it's not because we're wedded to some distant and abstract notion of Family Values, (capital F, capital V,) but because of a deep conviction that what people need most as they grow is a sense of security and dependability in their emotional environment, and that can happen in many different ways but it is crucial. And I think that some of what we're hearing from government at the moment about working with the grain of these thickly textured communities could be quite encouraging. We'll see, but I think there is a willingness to take seriously some of what such communities do have to offer.

Well, I think I've probably spoken for nearly long enough, or even more than long enough, by way of introduction. But let me just try to summarise what I've been trying to sketch for you in these opening remarks. I think at the heart of it all is the conviction that for society to change, people need to change. Well, you've heard that often enough before, and it's sometimes an alibi for not thinking about social change. But I think what I'm saying is, society will change, not by lots of individuals becoming nicer, but by people recognising more and more deeply, how much they depend on one another and how much they are impoverished by the poverty of the neighbour - how much they are impoverished by the poverty of the neighbour.

Now that recognition, however it happens, in whatever context, that begins to turn around our sense of what we owe to one another. And I use that language deliberately because, while we talk, again rather abstractly sometimes about human rights, we don't always pin it down to the concrete meaning of the language of human rights, which is simply what do we owe to one another? What level of attention, care and faithfulness do we owe to one another? Simply because the other person is another person, whom we recognise with whom we have this mutual sympathy and social recognition that Adrian Pabst talks about. That's at the heart of it. That's, I would say, what the vision of my own faith, as far as society is concerned, is fundamentally about. And if that is in place at the centre, then you begin to see how social institutions and social expectations shape themselves around that.

You begin perhaps to see a little bit of what is wrong about over centralism around government, but also about the rather bland reliance on the private to solve problems that are genuinely social. And as I've said, at some length, I think what we're really talking about therefore is national government and statutory institutions that really take seriously the challenge of how they are to shape a particular kind of person. It connects a little bit of course with what our society rewards. And in the last couple of years, as we've been wrestling with the fallout from the financial crisis, most of us, I would say, have begun to scratch our heads quite a lot about what it is that we reward, conspicuously in our society. And many of us have got rather puzzled about what it is that we reward extravagantly in our society. If what we rewarded socially was the capacity to build the kind of mutual sympathy and social recognition I've mentioned, well - a lot would look different in our environment.

So there we are, that's the beginning of a basis for the churches, and perhaps other religious communities, responding to the Big Society talk that's around. Two-and-a-half cheers, I said. A cheer for a sense that the face-to-face, the local is important. A cheer for the sense that this somehow has to build around existing thickly textured communities with lots of image and ritual to support the vision of human beings. And a half cheer, because we don't quite yet know how far this could be a buck-passing exercise. How far this is going to be accompanied by imaginative, lateral thinking, about how to invest afresh in the development of human beings, in the nurture and growth of people who are capable of these virtues and this mutual sympathy and social recognition.

So an interesting point, a bit of a watershed, I think, in the history of this country. An interesting moment because quite a lot of what I sometimes think of as the tribal paradigms of British politics are looking a bit battered and a bit stale. A watershed moment where maybe we can help to put a bit more flesh on the social ideal and the social good than we have for a while, and shift some of the assumptions. And I think that if voluntary bodies, churches, other religious communities are willing to join in that argument and pursue it vigorously we may yet be in for a couple of rather interesting decades in the politics of this country. I certainly hope so and pray so and hope that we can all be part of that.

Thank you.

© Rowan Williams 2010

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