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Role of Churches in civic life PAUL DONOVAN

Seize the day of the Big Society

Faith groups are being urged to embrace the opportunities offered by the Big Society, which came under scrutiny at a church conference last week – but won the backing of a surprise supporter


hen the coalition Government came into power, it was clear it had two priorities. One – dealing with the deficit – was

clear-cut and easily definable by press and public alike. But the other – the Big Society initiative – was the exact opposite: hard to communicate, and even harder to grasp. Ever since the election it has remained a

somewhat nebulous concept, sometimes con- sidered to be a shorthand for developing a civic society where voluntary and non-gov- ernmental organisations take over the provision of care and services, previously entrusted to the state. But it seems that even those organisations that the Government would want to be involved in this reshaping of society are strug- gling to come to terms with the concept. That puzzlement became clear at a one-day con- ference organised last week by the London Churches Group, Mission in London’s Economy and the Anglican Diocese of Southwark Public Policy Group. With advocates of the Big Society using

rhetoric familiar from Catholic Social Teaching – terms such as subsidiarity, solidarity and individual responsibility abound – the Big Society agenda seems to match much of the Catholic Church’s. So is it a means for Catholics and other Christians to put their social justice teachings into action or is it a cover for the severity of the Government’s austerity pro- gramme? And if the Church is co-opted by government as a Big Society partner, could it compromise its vital prophetic voice for justice? Yet for all these doubts and questions, there was one surprising strong voice in favour of the Big Society at last week’s conference: Catholic Labour MP Jon Cruddas, who declared himself from the platform “a big fan of the Big Society”. “I come from an Irish Catholic working- class background in that order; joining the Labour Party was consequential,” said Mr Cruddas, who credited his upbringing with giving him the sense of an obligation to con- tribute to society. “It meant a deep communitarian disposition.” The Dagenham and Rainham MP gave the

distinct impression that the Big Society is really a Labour idea that should have been introduced by his government at a time of plenty. Instead, Labour in power became increasingly statist, moving away from com- munity involvement. “The Big Society debate shines a light on what Labour was and what it should be,” said Cruddas. “The Big Society could be the cornerstone of the new politics, the new centre ground.” Another speaker, vicar general of Brentwood Diocese Mgr John Armitage, pointed to the failure of the state to tackle social problems at local level. He hopes that the Big Society will allow the setting up of local civil parish councils that connect with people. “Certain things should be done by the local council and government but now there is a gap between the local council and the rest of us,” said Armitage, who believes that the wel- fare state became problematic when it encouraged a culture of welfare not work. “A culture of work means that you will work and if you can’t you get support and care. But what we now have in some areas is a dependency of some on state provision: some are not taking responsibility. We need to replace the welfare class with the working class, with people tak- ing personal responsibility.”

But Armitage was also clear that justice will always be at the forefront of the Church’s concern and will not become subservient to charity. He supported this assertion by quoting the Church’s backing for the idea of a living wage.

One of the difficulties that may develop if the Big Society is to play a major role is that the Government’s austerity programme would mean cuts are made to the grants for the very organisations that could deliver the Big Society – something that the chief executive of the Directory for Social Change, Debra Allcock Tyler, identified. Yet Allcock Tyler did think this could also be a silver lining for voluntary, charity and faith-based organisations. “Where the sector has gone off course over recent years is in seeking to deliver a political agenda,” said Allcock Tyler, adding that recip- ients of government money often lost their independent voice. “We need to get our voice back, carry on

Jon Cruddas: a self-proclaimed ‘big fan of the Big Society’. Photo: Reuters

doing what we have been doing well and stay true to what we do. The politicians have just taken our idea.” Richard Farnell, professor of neighbour- hood regeneration at Coventry University and Canon Theologian of Coventry Cathedral, also stressed the dangers of faith groups being too intertwined with government. “Issues around inequality should be the start point for the Church around the Big Society,” said Mr Farnell, urging the Church to continue to profess its prophetic role and put justice at the forefront of its mission, as did Tim Bissett, chief executive of the Church Urban Fund. What all seemed agreed on is that the

Church has been doing the work of the Big Society for many years and should be in a position to maximise its impact. That required, said Allcock Tyler, faith groups to overcome their lack of confidence: “If ever there is a time when we can take the agenda, this is it. We give more bang for our buck than government or business. We have little to learn from them, other than often how not to do something.” It’s something the Government recognises.

Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Andrew Stunell MP stressed the capacity of people to deliver for themselves: “Faith communities have been filling some of the gaps for years. The approach of faith communities is outward looking, looking for engagement with the community.” The Minister stressed how the coalition

Government was committed to changing the way that power was distributed in the com- munity. And with him describing the Localism Bill as bringing “the biggest transfer of power out of Whitehall and back to local commu- nities”, it was clear that the task facing Churches and faith organisations is one of the most daunting of recent times.

■Paul Donovan is a journalist specialising in social justice issues. He will be talking about the Big Society at the National Council for Lay Associations on 6 February.

29 January 2011 | THE TABLET | 11

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