I have to confess to being a little puzzled about David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. The term appears to have been coined originally as a rhetorical antithesis to the bogey ‘Big State’, but we have had to wait to see it cashed out in terms of substance we can understand. If it is not to be simply a slogan, what does it actually mean?

It is already painfully obvious that the politicians who so loved the freedom of Opposition are now having to endure the ordeal of accountability. This coalition government has had the courage to address hard economic challenges (even if their solutions beg many questions – such as why the financial measures that got us into this mess came about in order to rescue banks which are now making huge profits which don’t seem to be paying off the debts incurred by the public purse…) and is approaching some issues with fresh vision after several years of stale over-legislation. But, the concept of the ‘Big Society’ has remained somewhat elusive. It feels as if what began as a mere rhetorical device has had to be filled with some sort of content after all… but simply being posited as the opposite of what we had before (as certain ideologues would see it) is clearly not enough.

Cameron’s speech in Liverpool offered a good start at helping us understand his ‘passion’. But it was striking for two reasons: (a) yes, it is a concept capable of some really interesting content, and (b) it has already been going on (largely unrecognised) under his nose for decades.

Commentators have been questioning whether the ‘Big Society’ is a concept or simply a con. Bloggers have launched in, too – sometimes helpfully identifying the right questions to be asking of the concept (or con). But, what is being missed is the recognition that what Cameron wants, the Church already does. He is walking on our territory without realising we have been there for years. It is what we do.

Take some basic facts which can be found among others on the Church of England website (now outdated by a year or two). The C of E isn’t always very good at telling its good news stories or conveying its successes. This is partly because we are busy getting on with the job instead of talking about it. Here are some facts:

  • More people do unpaid work for church organisations than any other organisation.  Eight per cent of adults undertake voluntary work for church organisations while sixteen per cent of adults belong to religious or church organisations.  
  • A quarter of regular churchgoers (among both Anglicans and other Christians separately) are involved in voluntary community service outside the church. Churchgoers overall contribute 23.2 million hours voluntary service each month in their local communities outside the church.
  • The Church of England provides activities outside church worship in the local community for 407,000 children and young people (aged under 16 years) and 32,900 young people (aged 16 to 25 years). More than 116,000 volunteers and an additional 4900 employed adults run children/young people activity groups sponsored by the Church of England outside church worship.
  • Church of England congregations give more than £51.7 million each year to other charities – that’s even more than the BBC’s annual Children in Need appeal.
  • More than half a million worshippers subscribe to tax-efficient giving schemes such as Gift Aid, accounting for half the voluntary income of parish churches.

It is easy to hear David Cameron and his colleagues speaking as if we need to begin creating the ‘Big Society’ when it is already here, but unappreciated.

Of course, time will tell whether or not the concept is really a cover for getting stuff done on the cheap by volunteers. What also remains to be seen is whether churches and other groups have the capacity or competence to do some of what is likely to fall into their collective lap. Cameron says,

It’s about saying if we want real change for the long-term, we need people to come together and work together – because we’re all in this together.

But, we are not. Some people and some communities are ‘in it’ more than others and some are replete with the resources and skills to make differences less likely elsewhere.

It will be interesting to see where this will all lead – as the concept takes flesh and we find out what it really looks and feels like. Cameron says:

Not long ago, four parts of our country – Eden Valley in Cumbria, Windsor and Maidenhead, Sutton and here in Liverpool – came to us and said: ‘we want more power and control. You’ve spoken about it long enough. Now give it to us’.

Really? I cover Sutton and so far I haven’t found anyone who remembers saying anything of the sort.

Watch this space and join in the debate. It’s going to be an interesting ride.