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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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The Welfare State, Like Christendom, Is Over


The title is taken from the bracing, and stark, prognosis offered by Steve Chalke MBE, founder of the charity Oasis UK, as he concluded a public lecture at the University of Chester on ‘The Progressive Power of Religion in the Public Sphere’. Steve’s words, those of a highly successful social entrepreneur (he repeatedly quipped that Oasis has a higher budget than many Local Authorities) offer a profound challenge. How can we salvage something of the spirit and ethos that created the welfare state and reinstate that ethos back into public life and the fabric of our localities? This clarion call, whilst offering many opportunities, also holds many dangers.

The twin policy drivers of localism and austerity are creating new spaces of hands-on engagement and partnership between local authorities and local communities, with faith-based organisations often taking a lead. As I outline in my book The Hybrid Church in the City – Third Space Thinking faith groups are also pioneers in innovative forms of social care and community empowerment, and often where they lead, secular agencies will follow.

The faith sector, as Steve Chalke showed, can also take advantage of the neo-liberalisation of the welfare state by pitching for procurement  contracts to run key public services in areas such as housing, health and education. Oasis now runs over forty primary and secondary schools and several housing and care schemes for at-risk young people and the homeless. A key welfare innovation that faith groups are offering is the concept of the ‘hub’ or co-ordinating centre for a series of other outreach activities aimed at increasing local resilience and social capacity. These hubs include children’s and youth work services, debt advice and credit unions and foodbanks.

As Steve himself remarked, this local engagement grows the church as well as the community. New members of Oasis churches are asked if they would like to volunteer on one of many community programmes. It is an invitation to get stuck in, to discover God (if you like) in direct, no-strings attached service for one’s fellow citizens. And it is the prioritisation of orthopraxis (doing the right thing) over orthodoxy (believing the right thing) that lies at the heart of so much faith-based engagement since the financial crash of 2008. This stripping back of the idea of ‘church’ to bare essentials of praxis and forms of civic engagement that creates a sense of hope also brings to life other significant ideas about how we construct a new expression of politics.

These new, emerging political spaces are based on shared concerns and a new openness to engage with others who are shaped by different worldviews – including other faiths, but also across the faith/no religion divide. As I have written elsewhere, ‘The reality is that increasing numbers of leaders and citizens are more open than ever to allowing space for progressive (i.e. outward–looking) religion to deploy its wisdom, experience and resources. Not only in leading debates, but also acting as political hubs for emergent networks and affinity groups committed to creating flourishing localities. It is a two-way, dialogical model of the public sphere where wisdom, resources, expertise and political leadership is shared – and not a one-size-fits all model where one version of the truth dominates and suppresses any others.’ What is not to like?

And yet there are grave dangers associated with this emerging post-welfare/localism economy and politics in which the faith sector finds itself increasingly centre stage. Firstly, there is the issue of the lack of resources in many faith communities. Then there is the ecclesial equivalent of postcode lotteries. Not all religious leadership is as dynamic and progressive as that exemplified by Steve Chalke and other ‘new evangelicals’, and not all faith groups can aspire to fill the huge gaps in social care that are now opening up. Especially when we factor in the knowledge that austerity budgeting is scheduled to last for the rest of the decade.

But there is a deeper danger than even these trends. The success of Oasis, and other faith-based organisations in providing ‘cradle to grave’ welfare in some of our local communities, normalises the idea that the state is no longer there to protect its citizens and provide the economic and social framework by which we have the basic rights and needs that allow us to flourish. The modern state has become the stumbling block to the people, not its friend and enabler. It is a world away from William Temple’s vision of the state which he saw in terms of a covenantal relationship with its citizens based on mutual moral interaction.

Based on Biblical notions of divine covenant, this relationship or bond between the state and its citizens was a prophylactic against a decline in the ethical ordering of economic and political life; a decline that would either lead to political forms of totalitarianism or to individualised forms of life. His moral ‘contract’ was designed to safeguard a communal form of life that creates the right conditions for human fulfilment. In return for the guaranteed basic needs laid out in his famous six middle axioms articulated in Christianity and the New Social Order (i.e. access to universal healthcare, education and housing irrespective of income or status), the citizen had the moral duty to improve their own material and non-material standards; to increase the human capital investment already provided by the state. But this self-improvement was not to be done in a selfish or solipsistic way. Rather all citizens (but especially Christian citizens) had the moral duty to undertake politically engaged and ‘responsible’ forms of citizenship so that the investment of that state in its own people was distributed evenly at the local associational level, in the form of membership of institutions designed to strengthen civil society such as resident groups, trades associations, trades unions, faith groups, adult learning groups, and parent teacher associations.

Now clearly Temple’s vision of the relationship between the state and the citizen, and its relevance to the present age, is up for debate, and one we will be precisely addressing at our forthcoming conference commemorating the 70th anniversary of his death.

But the real danger for the church, as one of these intermediate distributive bodies, is that in the absence of an increasingly unaccountable state we end up propping up a form of political economy that is decimating the life chances of so many of our citizens.  A recent University of Bristol report highlights the continuing social inequality in the UK and the its shocking impact on everyday life: 1.5 million children live in households that cannot afford to heat the home; more than half a million children live in families who cannot afford to feed them properly; 15% of all workers are still trapped in poverty by low wages.

It falls to us therefore, not simply to plug the gaps in welfare spending but to transfer our social and spiritual capital into real political power: to articulate a better alternative based on the rebuilding of national and regional infrastructures providing proper protection and a decent life for everyone; especially for those who are most vulnerable. Let’s not call it the welfare state – let’s call it the enabling state.

Chris Baker is Director of Research at William Temple Foundation.

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Spiritual Capital & the Evangelical Churches

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At the William Temple Foundation Chris Baker and I have made much of the importance of religious and spiritual capital in the context of faith based local involvement and partnership work. The definitions we have used so far go like this:

 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.

In our discussions and ponderings we have mused about the nature of this spiritual capital: is it reducible to psychological terms within the heads and hearts of believers, or is there some reality of the idea of God at work or immanent in these processes? In Christian terms this would be linked to the work of the Holy Spirit, indwelling in believers, and equipping them with spiritual gifts to do the work of God. But maybe also the Spirit is at work in the world beyond the church – as in the Genesis account, “brooding over the surface of the waters”. John Taylor explored this idea several decades ago in his classic book The Go Between God.

In a multi-faith setting a publicly accessible theology of spiritual capital becomes even more complex, and some Christians would undoubtedly want to argue that there is something unique about the Holy Spirit at work in and through individual Christians and in the church. But spiritual capital also resonates with a religious culture in which spirituality is popular and religion is not. Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead explore this in The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality.  Inevitably in our individualistic consumer oriented society “spiritual capital” will tend to be read as associated with the spirtual life of the individual. Here I want to argue that this is a mistake and that we will do better to look at spiritual capital as a collective property. Indeed a careful reading of spiritual capital, such as in Chris Baker’s article on moral freighting and civic engagement, makes it clear that we think of spirtual capital as grounded in social relationships in communities of faith.

Putnam and Campbell in American Grace seek to trace the dynamics of believer’s pro-social involvements in casual good neighbouring and in more purposeful associational life for the benefit of the community. Working with the well known theory of social capital – as developed by Putnam – they pose the question of the role paid by believing and belonging in driving good citizenship. The evidence comes down in favour of belonging, the strongest correlations seem to be with church attendance or religious participation and civic engagement, more or less regardless of what a person believes.  Putnam and Campbell

………. suggest it is down to something they call “moral freighting” whereby individually based propensities for altruism, already shown to exist more in religious people, become connected to other religious/spiritual individuals of similar propensity. This connective process “tends to evoke peer pressure for you to do good deeds as well” (i.e., to “freight” or carry over your moral codes into actions undertaken in the public sphere), (Baker 2013).

To any practitioner in faith based community work this is hardly a surprise. Volunteers or social action projects linked to a church most readily come from church congregations, where people who know each other well through their weekly worship and fellowship, either initiate, or are recruited – often as a group – to work together in an activity that serves the “needy” they have recognized in the locality of the church.  It is much harder to recruit outsiders to join such projects, or to persuade faithful church members to offer voluntary service through an existing organisation outside the home church. In the absence of strong research evidence or personal experience of involvement in other faith communities it is impossible to determine if these dynamics apply universally.

However, a recent survey by the Evangelical Alliance on the theme “who is my neighbour?” offers at least tangential evidence that this is the case among evangelical Christians.  Some 59% of the respondents said they were actively involved in at least one church social action or community outreach project. The most common types of projects were food banks, work with elderly people or families, youth outreach work and homelessness ministries. However only 21% were actively involved in a secular project or activity, among which work with people with disabilities or learning difficulties or hospices was the most common; significantly those fields in which professional – and secular – medical input could be valuable.

However it is in some of the comments reflecting the ethos of such work that we see much deeper into the evangelical brand of spiritual capital.  We have only space for one example, though many other respondents expressed similar ideas.

 There are many very close inter-church projects in the community.  Debt advice, prayer, Street Pastors, healing rooms, extensive schools work, on street prayer, food bank and other projects being prayed over.

The striking things here are the juxtaposition of prayer and anti poverty work, and the strength of the inter-church partnerships. Indeed most of the churches where the survey respondents attend partner with other churches on social action or mission projects, both locally (82%) and overseas (75%). While partnerships with Christian organisations are also frequent (59%), only about a third go to a church which partners with secular charities or the local council, and less than one in ten where there is an in interfaith partnership.

The clarification of our notion of spiritual capital means that for some Christians at least it is more of a shared corporate ethos than an individual motivational force. It is based on shared values and plausibility structures, and definition of religious boundaries. It is expressed in a shared commitment to mission, which is strengthened by a shared commitment to prayer and the regular rehearsal of these values by collective worship, preaching and shared reflection on the scriptures. Perhaps it is for this very reason that some Christians (especially Evangelicals) find it so hard to take their spiritual capital out of the cocoon of the Christian sub culture, and to express their faith explicitly in the secular world. Perhaps this too is why partnership with secular bodies is so challenging and why secular actors find it so hard to comprehend and fully engage with the efforts of churches and other faith communities, unless on a purely instrumental and contractual basis.

Greg Smith is Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation

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