I was at the House of Lords last week attending the unveiling of the newly-launched Oasis Foundation. In front of a packed and appreciative audience of politicians, civil servants, think tanks, local authorities, senior church leaders and grassroots activists its first report Faith in Public Service – the role of the church in Public Service Delivery was launched. Its aim is to re-invigorate momentum in the Big Society agenda by placing the role of churches and other faith groups in the driving seat.
Oasis has shown over 30 years of experimentation and creative entrepreneurship how churches can become pivotal providers of social infrastructure – schools, housing, business start-ups, libraries and parks, mental health and social care. Oasis now provides education for 25,000 children in its academies and works across several countries. This report challenges other churches to think of themselves as hubs and networks of care, institutionally organising themselves in regional clusters so that they can combine resources, brand themselves and become commissioned providers of public services. It calls for a change in mindset of local authorities in the way that they commission services from the faith sector, and advocates a kite-branding system for faith groups to prove to funders that they are commission compliant. It also calls for better integrated patterns of meetings between churches/faith groups and government in the form of a new Civil Society Taskforce, a better resourced Office for Civil Society and a Church Commission on Social Action.
This is a bold and confident move into a confused, depleted and demoralised public sector by Oasis on behalf of the churches in the UK to argue for a permanent shift in the policy landscape towards religious providers. Much of it fits into our developing agenda at William Temple of faith groups as the new ‘curators of spaces of convergence’ (such as foodbanks) that many citizens find meet their needs for more values-driven and ethical forms of civic engagement.
However, there are also unacknowledged risks to the Oasis approach that need to be addressed.
In many ways, what is being advocated feels like a replication of the clinical commissioning groups (CCGS) brought in as a top-down reform of the NHS by the last Coalition Government. These clusters replaced Primary Health Care Trusts who had a strategic and integrated view of a whole region’s health and social needs. A recent King’s Fund Report has identified huge problems associated with trying to deliver health and social care between 211 CCGs and 152 local authorities. These include: lack of clarity over what is meant by joint commissioning (is it geographically or thematically-based?); duplication; over-complex administration protocols involving the pooling of staff and locations and integrating systems; and the consequent reduction in the time clinical practitioners can invest in front-line care. Lessons like this need to be learnt alongside the bold vision of the sunny uplands.
Steve Chalke, the founder of Oasis, whose vision and drive has led to such an impressive legacy of action for future research, quoted Marx’s famous ‘religion as the opium of the people’ dictum at the launch. On the contrary, he rightly claimed, religion wakes people up – it catalyses the motivation and vision for transformational social change and justice. However, there is no theological critique in this report of the drive towards the reduced state and the expansion of the commissioning culture and its role in the continuation of social inequality. They are assumed as given.
Whilst fully in favour of the church developing a theology of enterprise, the lack of a critique of the inherent power dynamics arising from the current ‘reduced state strategy’ seems a significant omission. The church must develop a coherent and sustainable view of the enabling state before it leaps into the commissioning swimming pool. With whom does the legal buck stop when millions of vulnerable people are callously stigmatised by the welfare system? Or are told instead that they are now ‘social entrepreneurs’ who are entirely responsible for their own welfare? In its eager willingness to mop up the tragedy of wasted and downtrodden lives, the omnicompetent church plays into the hands of the neo-liberal agenda of the marketisation of our compassion and moral duty to care for the vulnerable and the weak.
Religion has a language and view of the human being that transcends this form of idolatry. This is an integral part of its ‘offer’ when it engages with the mainstream. Faith groups are vital co-producers of social capital, but not at the cost of hiding their own theological sources of wisdom and energy (what the William Temple Foundation refers to as spiritual capital). When it brings a prophetic critique to bear, even in ‘technical’ reports like this, then I think, in the present post-secular climate, it encourages everyone else to raise their moral and ethical game.
Without a robust and prophetic theology of the state by which to hold the state to account, the churches, like the doctors now handling huge commissioning budgets, will become worn out by making cuts and balancing books, rather than making the social transformation they were called to make. And when (perhaps rather than if) it all goes belly-up, I fear the faith sector, because it has taken all the risk, will receive all the flak. I want this report to work. I want the pioneering work of Oasis to effect real change. But we need to change the language of transformation as well as the structures – and they need to be seen unequivocally side by side and interwoven in reports such as these.
Chris Baker is Director of Research at William Temple Foundation
21st Century Religion: Violent Extremism to Civil Society? by Chris Baker and John Reader is available to download now >>