Bit of an odd-sounding title, isn’t it? But, it’s the title given to an initiative being explored at present by the Church of England and the Government. Slipped on to the Church of England website the other day (wisely not trumpeted as it is ‘work in progress’), it shows some entrepreneurial spirit on behalf of the Church in testing out the reality of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ notion. After all, being a ‘good neighbour’ is what Jesus told his people to be.
The Church of England is actively discussing with Government plans for a major extension to the pastoral work of parish churches, particularly in multi-religious neighbourhoods. These propose a variety of ways in which the recognised strengths of the Church of England can contribute to the flourishing of people in these neighbourhoods. The Church Urban Fund with its 25 years of experience of supporting local communities in deprived urban areas, will oversee the programme.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and Baroness Warsi, Minister in the Cabinet Office, have affirmed the role of the Churches and Faith communities at the heart of local communities and have spoken positively of the unique contribution of the Church of England’s 20,000 local churches, schools and centres at the heart of every neighbourhood.
What is particularly significant about this is the recognition that the Church of England is committed to the thriving of all in our communities, not just those who ‘belong’ to the church. This is rooted in the theological assumption that the church is a means to an end and not the end in itself – the church is called to be a sign of the kingdom (presence) of God and to give its life to that end. We may fail a million times – and need to be recalled to that central vocation – but this remains our commitment.
The statement goes on:
The Church of England’s ethos as the national Church is to have a duty of care for all parishioners irrespective of their religious belief or none. A consequence of this has been its very substantial contribution to inter faith initiatives at local, regional and national levels and with all Faith communities.
The proposals have the strapline “Being Neighbourly” and could include new support for street and neighbourhood level initiatives; partnerships with national faith based and inter faith organisations and work with young adults.
The Church of England believe these proposals could be a significant affirmation of the contribution of faith communities to the ‘Big Society’.
This reinforces the point that what is often loosely called ‘establishment’ does not have to do with privilege and status, but with service, obligation and sacrificial commitment to our communities. And rather than whinge about the deficiencies of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ (is it a con or a concept?) or the slowness of the Church of England as an institution in responding to a changing social scene, it attempts to get on and shape something for the future.
The Minister responsible, Eric Pickles, said:
For years, churches and other faith communities have been quietly making a huge difference day-in and day-out, to every single neighbourhood in the country – something that has not been sufficiently recognised by central Government. We can together build on the huge amount of experience faith groups have in getting out into the community. The Church of England’s proposals to extend their work with communities are very interesting and we are looking at them closely.”
The Church of England gets used to being knocked – often with good reason. This looks to me like a good reason for optimism and support. Detailed proposals are to be discussed in the autumn and we will watch this space to see what emerges in due course.