Shaping debate on religion in public life.

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The Limits of Neighbourliness: Being a Good Neighbour Needs a Political Outcome


A timely and insightful report produced by the Church Urban Fund and Theos was launched in the House of Commons last week. Entitled Good Neighbours – How Churches help Communities Flourish, the report aimed to be a ‘critical appreciation’ of what churches offer their local communities.

There are some great ideas in this report. There is the idea of church-based social engagement providing a ‘stable place’ for both individual and community wellbeing and flourishing. Then there is the concept of church-based community projects as ‘hubs’ and ‘platforms’. In localities where church groups are often the last institution providing any form of community-based welfare, there is a growing trend for their projects to become spaces of gathering and debate which attract other citizens who not only want to become involved in practical help (‘to do something about something’) but also debate what sort of local communities we want to create.

The Church Urban Fund/Theos report helpfully deepens and refreshes what other commentators and researchers have been reporting from the field. A key point of connection with the work of the William Temple Foundation was their finding which showed the importance of worship and shared theological ideas as the motivating and driving force of faith–based civic engagement. This finding resonates with our definition of “spiritual capital” which emerged from research into church-led urban regeneration in Manchester in the early 2000s. We proposed that as a contribution to social capital, churches and other faith groups provide both religious and spiritual capital. Religious capital is ‘the practical contribution to local and national life made by faith groups’. Spiritual capital meanwhile ‘energises religious capital by providing a theological identity and worshipping tradition, but also a value system, moral vision and a basis of faith’. Religious capital is the ‘what’:i.e. the concrete actions and resources that faith communities contribute. The ‘why’ is spiritual capital: i.e. the motivating basis of faith, belief and values that shapes these concrete actions.

Meanwhile Church Urban Fund/Theos’ reference to the local  church as a platform ‘for neighbourliness, relationship and social connection’ whereby others from outside feel able to join in practical action for the sake of the local common good resonates strongly with ideas being developed around ‘progressive localism’ and ‘postsecular rapprochement’.  Progressive localism describes the potential of new political networks comprising of any groups who are prepared to be ‘outward looking and so create positive affinities between places and social groups negotiating global processes’. Postsecular rapprochement meanwhile, describes new spaces of partnership and encounter which involve  ‘a coming together of citizens who might previously have been divided by differences in theological, political or moral principles – a willingness to work together to address crucial social issues in the city, and in doing so put aside other frameworks of difference involving faith and secularism’.

I would have liked to have read more in the Good Neighbours report on the deeper political questions raised by its research. There is a danger that as faith groups become more efficient and indispensable to local welfare and service provision that we lose sight of a more joined up critique of the role of the state and the market, and the growing inequality and power vacuums their policies and practices are creating.

I also think more could have been made of the political potential for local faith-based leadership created by these new spaces of progressive localism and good neighbourliness. I believe the time is right to consider the strategic leveraging of the new political power that is being generated by the authenticity, integrity and knowledge base of the sort of the projects that Good Neighbours identifies, and which are being viewed with increasing admiration by those outside the faith communities themselves.

How might we do this? Well, emerging from our research on religious and spiritual capital, the Foundation identified three dimensions of faith-based engagement at work in the public sphere: being there; mainstream and alternative. The ‘being there’ dimension refers to those mundane spaces of engagement and support that religious groups offer to their local community as a seamless part of their everyday sense of mission and purpose. They contribute in ways that are organic, based on habit and personal contact; and which are distinctly low tech and volunteer-led.

The ‘mainstream’ dimension described the type of engagement where religious groups formally accept that they will partake in state initiatives or partnership schemes; they will bid for government contracts, or apply for government training funds in order to fulfil government-led targets and initiatives as part of a strategy that forms bridges and connections beyond the confines of membership. They will often employ professional workers and managers.

The ‘alternative’ dimension seeks to tap into both volunteer and professionally based knowledge, but puts the views and experience of the stakeholder much more to the fore. It is flexible, responsive, and highly entrepreneurial as well as technically skilled. In terms of social capital theory, its desire to challenge some of the dominant forms of political economy that trap people in cycles of poverty and inequality, means that it exemplifies linking social capital – i.e., brings resources of knowledge and funding and education to those most powerless in society so that their capital assets can be enhanced to bring about deep and more permanent change

Since we first developed these ideas, we now know that austerity will continue as a government policy until 2019. This means that the ‘mainstream’ dimension will more or less disappear, thus making the ‘being there’ and ‘alternative’ dimensions more significant. I would contend that we need to develop much more of an explicit link between the political leverage associated with ‘being there’ and use that political leverage as part of a national debate on the importance of creating an alternative idea of politics and alternative social order. We need to give voice to a critique of neo-liberal capitalism and the idea there is no alternative to the social order currently on offer. But this can only happen if churches and other faith groups grasp the opportunities to capitalise on their new credibility and proactively take a lead in being political hubs around which others can coalesce.

There seems to be a growing consensus that the state simply exits to provide the barest of safety nets and to provide this with as much unpleasantness as possible. I disagree with this profoundly and would argue instead that, in one of the richest global economies, the role of the state is to be much more of an ‘enabling’ one. William Temple envisaged the state not as a safety net but as an active progenitor of intermediate and networked communities of interest and shared concern. Localism doesn’t just happen on its own – it needs nuanced, careful, and strategic investment and support from the state in a rhetoric that moves away from stigmatisation and ‘shirkers vs strivers’ and starts from a stance of recognising the intrinsic value and worth of every human being, made in the image of God. Thank you Theos and Church Urban Fund for highlighting case studies of ‘good neighbour welfare’ and the ‘being there’ that does this. But going about this work quietly, or in ways that assume the current status quo, will never change a punitive and unsustainable vision of society.

Chris Baker is Director of Research for William Temple Foundation

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Never Mind What Jesus Would Do: Progressive Atheism & the Big Society

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David Cameron’s recent Easter message continues to attract media attention. In the unlikely case that you didn’t see it or hear about it, the message affirmed not only a deepening development of his own Christian faith, but also reminds the nation as a whole of the importance of its Christian identity and heritage. Some have welcomed this message as an example of refreshing candour and a riposte to the assumption that Britain has become irretrievably secular and humanist – indeed post-Christian. Others interpreted it is as a more strategically motivated attempt to appease traditional Conservative voters in the rural heartlands, disenchanted with Cameron’s more liberal pronouncements on issues such as same–sex marriage, and tempted to join the UKIP fold. Another sector of opinion claimed these pronouncements were designed to neutralise church–led criticism of the more devastating impacts of government welfare policy on the most vulnerable sectors of our society, which has led, for example, to the unwelcome but increasingly normalised provision of food banks.

But perhaps most eye-catching was the Prime Minister’s (repeated) claim that, ‘Jesus invented the Big Society 2000 years ago; I just want to see more of it’. In particular he cited, ‘the millions of Christians … who live out the letter of the Bible’ by setting up clubs and volunteering (including the setting up of food banks). He also recommended Christianity as a moral code by which to raise children. The increasingly confident and comfortable way in which Cameron claims the public space back for Christianity (and religion in general) seems out of step with what on the surface appears to be a widely-held assumption that religion is increasingly irrelevant and in terminal decline.

The marginalised atheist and socially conservative Christian – strange bedfellows?
A collection of atheist and humanist voices were quick to object to Cameron’s claim that Britain is a ‘Christian country’, stepping-up to the challenge set by Guardian columnist Zoe Williams for ‘atheists to show faith in themselves’. Williams’ arresting article published earlier this year depicted a well-meaning group of tolerant and decent people who don’t like to make a fuss, but who find themselves ignored for it. Williams’ writes of British atheists yet her illustration reminded me of so many popular depictions of the Church of England and hand-wringing Anglican vicars (think Derek Nimmo sitcoms from the 70s).

Meanwhile, Williams’ complaints that the public debate is generally hostile to the atheist/humanist perspective, runs parallel to conservative voices who cry foul over institutional and cultural discrimination of Christianity (despite Cameron’s more recent protestations of ‘evangelical’ fervour). Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury has claimed, for example, that it is no longer possible to state traditional Christian views about the uniqueness of Christ or marriage without being accused of being anti ‘other faiths’ or homophobic.

How have we managed to create a public square where both atheist and religiously conservative citizens are so equally convinced of their marginalisation that they contemplate political lobbying to address their plight?

The confused space of the postsecular public sphere
One possible answer to this pressing conundrum is the idea developed by the Marxist-influenced social theorist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas – we have moved from a secular to a postsecular society. The postsecular is not the triumphant return of religion into the public sphere at the expense of secularism and secularisation, but rather a new and uncharted territory whereby, ‘the vigorous continuation of religion in a continually secularizing environment must be reckoned with’. The twentieth century ‘one-size fits all’ version of the public square, in which religion is confined to the private sphere and only neutral (i.e. secular) symbols and language are permitted, no longer addresses the realities of the twenty-first.

Habermas argues that the religious and secular actually need each other. The relationship between the two is symbiotic, not hierarchical. Religion, he claims, helps provide the deepest ethical and moral imperatives by which to shape public life. On the other side, the dynamism of the secular helps convert religious ideas into progressive political agendas; for example, the Christian doctrine of Imago Dei (that every human being is created in the image of God) is translated into secular ideas of human rights and equalities. This complementary understanding of the religious and the secular provides a profound ethical challenge: to forsake our right to feel offended by others in favour of something far more risky; a willingness to engage and listen and then act together. It makes, says Habermas, ‘a difference whether we speak with one another or merely about one another’.

No one has the monopoly on being progressive
The key word here is progressive. Progressive is a word that has been used as a stick to publically beat others with. To label your opponents as non-progressive suggests that they are ignorant and backward looking – i.e. regressive.But this is a sterile and immature debate.  We need to capture less narrow understandings of these terms.

To be progressive means essentially that you are outward looking, ready for opportunities to move forward with others for the sake of the common good. To be regressive is to be inward looking, and willing to work only with those who share your view of the world. There is growing evidence to suggest that as many citizens seek alternatives to the current politics of despair, that ‘progressive’ people of religion and no-religion are coming together ‘to do something about something’. This coming together can be risky and contested, but at least it’s real. And more often than not it is remarkably effective and helps challenge reductive stereotypes.

Can we create together a genuinely bold and transformative vision of the Big Society?
Regressive minded people of whatever stripe, who are interested only in policing the public sphere and looking for wrongs to be righted, are of no help in the present context. That is why we need a progressive atheism and humanism, proud and comfortable in its own skin and willing to work in honest collaboration with those who share agendas for hope and transformation across the ideological divide. To shift the debate about the Big Society on from Cameron’s preferred vision of familial morality and enthusiastic volunteering, we need to develop together a more transformative view of the Big Society that offers much more than just warm hearts and a safe pair of hands (not to mention opportunities for still further privatisation of public services). I am not opposed to the flourishing of enthusiastic local groups caring for those less fortunate citizens amongst whom they live and work. But we also need to generate genuine alternatives to the way society is structured, and the distribution of wealth and opportunity. New affinities or alliances between progressive people of all religions and of none-religious beliefs can create a genuinely progressive shared (Big?) society.

For the postsecular society is here to stay – let’s see it as a glass half-full, not half-empty.

Chris Baker is Director of Research at William Temple Foundation.


Read more blog posts:

“Blurred Encounters in a Messy Church” by Greg Smith

“A Change of Climate for Political Theology” by John Reader

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