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The Welfare State, Like Christendom, Is Over

19 Jun 2014

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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5 Comments

Niall Cooper

19/06/2014 15:21

Thanks Chris, I don’t give up so easily on the concept of the welfare state – at least in the sense of a welfare safety net. It’s not clear that any other institution(s) have either the resources or capacity to provide the safety net of last resort – and there would appear to be very widespread support for the state providing it rather than food banks (even amongst those who run food banks). In the face of growing inequality and economic insecurity it may be that the ‘welfare state’ does not any longer have the capacity to protect citizens from chronic poverty, but I’ve heard no politician or commentator suggesting that there is no need for a welfare safety net.

Niall Cooper

19/06/2014 15:21

… don’t lose sight of the fact that without taxation and income transfers (i.e. the welfare state), the UK would be the most unequal of all developed western nations – more unequal even than the US. See http://niallcooper.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/global-wealth-and-local-poverty-the-latest-evidence/ The problem isn’t the welfare state, the real problem is that it can no longer compensate for the huge inequities of wealth and income – bigger even than Temple and Beveridge had to face.

Chris Baker

19/06/2014 15:21

Thanks Niall,

I agree with much of what you say, and thanks for the link to you article. I think what Steve Chalke was alluding to was the idea that the State has an interest in, and therefore is committed in some way to, the welfare and flourishing of its citizens is longer a policy assumption. This assumption and expectation is being systematically dismantled and lowered with I believe catastrophic social, psychological and civic consequences. We are in the process of being disciplined into entrepreneurs and consumers with sole responsibility for our fate with very little expectation that the State is there to support us in our aspirations and wellbeing. Rather, the State now seems only to intervene to impose sanctions on you or harangue you if you don’t have time, in-between holding down three part-time, zero-hour contracted jobs, to read to your kids at bedtime. If there is a safety net, the stigma associated with it makes using it seem a crime.
As Steve Richards pointed out in the Guardian earlier this week, in most aspects of our life – from energy, to education to health – all intermediate tiers of accountability have been dismantled. So when something goes wrong, no one knows where to go to for help or redress. The stress and anxiety it causes is enormous.

As to your accurate point about the welfare state not being able to compensate for huge inequalities of wealth and income, I guess we need to remember that this state of affairs is not a ‘given’ that has emerged from nowhere. Rather, it is the result of deliberate political choices dictated by a rigid adherence to a narrow ideological consensus framed by a discredited form of neo-liberal capitalism and
the distorting role of the media. A further five years of austerity in the context of 3% growth and soaring house prices, seems a decision that defies all logical and moral reasoning. Of course the welfare state needs reforming and re-directing (and the IPPR report seems an interesting step in the right direction). And perhaps we begin by removing the word ‘welfare’ and replacing it with another signifying word – like ‘enabling’. But what must be restored to our public life is three things. 1) People matter and are of worth for who they are, not what they consume (and especially the young, the elderly and other vulnerable minorities) 2) We restore the link between the state and the people in terms of communicating the idea that the state is on their side not there to trip them up 3) There are always alternatives to the political and economic metanarratives, even when we are told ‘There is No Alternative’. Thanks again Niall, for the interesting reflections.

William Temple Foundation | Working For A Politics Of Hope In An Age Of Uncertainty

19/06/2014 15:21

[…] The Welfare State, Like Christendom, Is Over by Chris Baker […]

John Symons

19/06/2014 15:21

A very interesting discussion. I profoundly respect Archbp. Temple. I suspect that the basis on which he was able to write as he did, in 1942 and in ‘Plato and Christianity’ in 1915, was the all but universally shared basic Christian principles and faith and ‘near faith’ in our country. It is not easy to expect people to embrace or even tolerate his Platonic and Christian idea of the state in our present circumstances, as they have been corroded in the years since his death.

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