What is the role of the Church of England in caring for the nation?

St George Beckenham. Image, Twitter, fair use.

What is the role of the Church of England in caring for the nation?

Religion in Civil Society: a Church for the Nation, not the National Church

This is seductive, to be sure. But it poses difficult questions for the Church of England’s social action in a context where the landscape of religion and belief is not what it was last time it called itself the national church.

For governments across the West, the attraction is not beliefs and traditions themselves, but how they can be turned to the common good. As states roll back, they are well aware of the need to fill the gaps, and faith groups have increasingly been seen as repositories of resources – networks, staff, volunteers, buildings and money. There is nothing new here. But in Britain there was an important turn in the 1940s, when two Williams – Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942-44, and Beveridge, his civil servant friend from their Oxford and Settlement Movement days – thought welfare simply too important to leave to the well-meaning amateurs. They envisaged a welfare state – a phrase coined by Temple himself.

Much changed as a result. The transfer of welfare from church to state undid centuries of paternalism, sexism and top-down philanthropy which reeked of the noblesse oblige which the two great wars had done so much to undermine. It also challenged the random nature of welfare provision. Until then, the parish you found yourself in would determine the quality and availability of services you could draw on. Church-based social action had been the biggest post-code lottery of all. State, on the other hand, would have the power and capacity to redistribute care, according to need.

The reality of the welfare state has always been more mixed than it looked. The evidence is scattered, but it is clear that state never did do it all. Church-based community work was especially active throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and the tradition continues today. More recently, various reports by faith groups themselves claim a crucial contribution in social action projects, contributing countless services in thousands of faith buildings. In the West Midlands, for example, Believing in the Region (May 2006) reported that 80% of faith groups deliver some kind of service to the wider community; and in the North West, Faith in England’s North West (November 2003) claims that faith communities were running more than 5000 social action projects generating income of £69m – £94m per annum. This is mirrored right round the country.
In the New Labour years this was especially encouraged, and policy coalesced around the government report, Face to Face and Side by Side: a framework for partnership in our multi-faith society. This promoted faith-based social action and dialogue, accompanied by national funding streams, as well as support for nine regional multi-faith forums. The vision was of a ‘multi-faith society’, echoing a multicultural one which had already long been promoted.

Accompanying this was an understanding that things had changed since the Church of England had last dared to call itself the national church. Policy envisaged the re-population of the now mixed economy of welfare, not with the well-meaning Anglicans of pre-1948 Britain, but with providers from the full plurality of religious traditions.

But the Conservative-Liberal and Conservative governments after 2010 have had an anachronistic streak when it comes to religion, seeing in the Church of England the ability to lead the faith contribution as a national church. It observes in the parish system a presence in every neighbourhood from which to reach across the whole range of traditions. Near Neighbours is the church’s enthusiastic response – an initiative of the Church of England delivered through the Church Urban Fund. While it looks like a timely stream of funding from a well-established body, it reflects significant changes of political direction in relation to faiths since 2010. The programme valorizes the Anglican parishes as a primary source and focus: “Near Neighbours taps into the unique Church of England parish system, which has presence in all neighbourhoods and an ethos as the national Church with a responsibility towards all in the parish.” It depends upon the parish system, not only of a single faith but a single denomination within that faith and regards itself as building on the Church of England as “the national church”.

It also makes clear that “People of any faith will be able to bid for funding through the local parish church”, and this is raising questions for people from other denominations, let alone other faith traditions, about what ‘multi-faith’ really means in a context which requires all faiths and traditions to access funding via the Church of England vicar.

There is a shift represented here from a multi-faith social action to one in which the Church of England gate-keeps for everyone, and is valorized as the ‘national church’. What is risked is a return to the philanthropy, paternalism, and imperial-minded randomness, so disliked by Beveridge and Temple. At the same time, the Church of England has fewer – and older people in the pews and in the pulpits, and they are not being replaced. Many parishes can barely afford to keep the roof on, and pay clergy pensions, let alone provide the repositories of social action which government expects. And even if the old ladies could live forever, and the money and structures were still there to universalize Christian social action, a multi-faith society is unlikely to want to see it happen. The future lies in the Church of England, not as the national church, but as a church for the nation, alongside all kinds of faith groups.

The participation of these Christians, and every other faith group in Britain, is an essential part of the future of civil society, plugging gaps left by a retreating welfare state, and connecting communities across difference in a context of more religious diversity than ever. But fraying faith networks can’t simply be treated as bottomless pits. It’s time for the rest of civil society, and the state, to take the role of religious groups seriously, rather than leaving them to pick up the pieces when everything else fails.

A version of this article first appeared in Church Times, UK, in Spring 2014

25th May 2017

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