Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Can Religious Groups and the Public Sector Work Together?

29 Oct 2015

Guest blogger Matthew Barber is a PhD student, Researcher for the Centre for Faith and Public Policy at Chester University and Director of Faith Sector. His interests include faith in the post-secular public sphere, the evolution of faith based organisations, and spiritual capital.

Reimagining Religion & Belief for Public Policy & Practice is an AHRC funded initiative that is seeking to understand more about religion in the public sphere. Prof Luke Bretherton is one of the global thought leaders in this and related areas of enquiry and was asked how he would characterise the current debate? Prof Bretherton said,

“The metaphor I use is the shift from being in a shower to being in a jacuzzi … everything was moving in the same direction and the bath would gradually fill up with secularity and thereby become a less religious space … I think in reality the context is more like a jacuzzi in that everything is bubbling up from everywhere.”

 Bretherton’s metaphor is nuanced yet accessible. It conjures ideas of being washed clean and locating a sense of wellbeing and relaxation, as well as turbulence and contestation. There are myriad contested issues and spaces that define our public engagement and in turn there are differing views on how and where to engage. These contributions are the jacuzzi jets, the spectrum of which I will try to outline.

The political zeitgeist has generated debate around centrist, One Nation ideology. During party conference season, George Osborne articulated the need for us to live within our means. A message that dovetailed with Jeremy Hunt’s call for the removal of tax credits as an incentive for a new culture of hard work. David Cameron captured the Conservatives’ agenda to address poverty that builds upon the cuts, reforms and culture change saying, “if you want a lecture about poverty, ask Labour, if you want something done about it, come to us, the Conservative party”.  Labour wants to install “a kinder politics, a more caring society”. Jeremy Corbyn argued that we should not be “[reduced] to believing in anything less … [he said] don’t accept injustice and stand up against prejudice … let us put our values, the people’s values, back into politics”. This rhetoric captures the difference between austerity and progressive politics, but between these poles, people are searching for something that they can believe in. The election of Jeremy Corbyn is a recent example of this in the political sphere, not because people knew Corbyn, because they didn’t, but because what he represents resonates with a movement for change.

People are looking beyond, the established framing and are locating a sense of what is missing. Last week Justin Welby spoke at St Aldates Church in Oxford and located Jesus in the margins, with the lost, with those in need.  He said “Jesus Christ was not one who got on well with the people of power. He was not an easy person to have to supper if you were in a position of influence.” The Archbishop was saying that Christ shared truth and loved his neighbour even when institutionally speaking, it was uncomfortable. Christ called people in faith to mirror this in the world. In a context of institutional reform and austerity, faith should be seen in the margins and exhibited through intentional acts of care and love wherever there is need. Christ’s call spoke into, but exists independently from the constructions that make up the world in which we live today. This engagement dovetails with the centrist ideology of our political parties and introduces an organic aspect that requires a suitable metaphor to help locate it, along with 3 short case studies I will offer to finish.

Instead of a shower, we have a meandering river, slowly shaping the topography, flowing in a clearly defined channel. Rather than a jacuzzi, we have springs welling up into cracks and gaps formed as the ground shifts. Religious groups represent abundant aquifers, full of physical, social and spiritual resources that can lie latent for prolonged periods, but when the terrain shifts, are open and accessible and flowing. Religious groups are embedded in our communities and their networks permeate below and between the political structures that we are having to revise.

Geological mapping has helped us understand the terrain and the role of religious groups in Local Authority areas. Link Up operates alongside Cheshire West and Chester Local Authority, auditing and sharing best practice and facilitating forums for local leaders. I want to share two examples of work Link Up has supported, which illustrates how religious groups are working at the margins and within the gaps that have been created by public service reform.

Elsie Ever After is a bereavement support group that has been set up in memory of Elspeth Georgie Lyons, who passed away at a very young age.  Elspeth’s parents found themselves in need of support, but due to geography and the cause of Elspeth’s death, found that there was no bereavement provision available to them.  With the help of their local church, Elsie Ever After was born and EEA is now on a mission to ‘link all existing services and plug the gap where services are lacking’.

Project Andrew is facilitated by The Church Army and based at Ellesmere Port boat museum. They are working with young men and Youth Offender Teams, to help restore a narrow boat. The projects aims are to engage with young people as they restore the narrow boat to help them restore a sense of purpose in their lives and to give them self-worth.

Religious groups are uniquely located to support and feed those who have suffered loss, are seeking self-worth, and those who are in need of hospitality and a safe space, as per the case studies I have shared.  The springs that produce and nourish in the cracks and gaps are flowing with potential and are able to facilitate flourishing through organic and sustained growth. Geological exploration and mapping is unearthing rich resources all the time and through partnership and coproduction, Religious groups such as Link Up are able to enrich and facilitate vast and varied groundswells of growth in our society and are an asset as we engage with the current reform agenda.

In November, Chester University, Link Up Faith Forum and Cheshire West and Chester are hosting a strategic summit with public and faith sector professionals from across the north of England to broker understanding of the possibilities for religion in the public sphere and specifically Local Authorities and faith based organisations in the context of public service reform. Follow the hashtag #ProgressiveLocalism for more.

The views of guest bloggers do not necessary reflect those of the William Temple Foundation.

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