In his excellent novel A Week in December, Sebastian Faulks characterises a pretty bleak contemporary Britain, riddled with uncertainty about identity, who ‘belongs’ and which values are driving us as a society. In my last post I briefly described the book. The book is timely because it raises in ‘flesh and blood’ terms the huge challenge to a diverse and disparate society such as ours of identifying the values which we want to shape our future.

This is pertinent because for the first time since the Second World War (in my humble opinion) we are all faced with making defining choices about what we want our society to look like. Having muddled through the relatively affluent post-war decades, the global financial crash has made hard choices unavoidable. We cannot simply go on the way we were; we must now change direction. But that direction should be informed by values and not simply be a reaction to immediate circumstances (such as economic challenge).

Last week we held a consultation in Croydon on the theme of the ‘Big Society’. Leaders of our very many faith communities came together with community and Council leaders to explore what the concept means and how we might engage with it. We met under Chatham House rules, so I will not give a resume of what was said. However, I will outline my speech (in response to the Council Leader) and my perceptions of where we go from here.

As with any concept emerging from the mind of a politician in the run-up to a General Election, the temptation we all face is to critically take apart the concept, question the motives behind it and justify our clever non-engagement by picking holes in it. Of course, it is always easier to critique someone else’s proposals than to come up with our own original and positive ones.

The problem with the ‘Big Society’ concept is that none of us has been sure what was intended by it – even in the minds of those who invented it. Some months ago I rather rudely compared it to the Millennium Dome in Greenwich: build a big tent and then wake up one day and realise we have to actually put something in it. The term ‘Big Society’ began as a rhetorical device to contrast with ‘Big State’ or ‘Big Government’. (Unfortunately, the term ‘big’ evokes memories of the bragging Barclays Bank adverts of just a very few years ago in which the actor Anthony Hopkins captured the hubris of the ultra-Capitalist nineties and noughties with that sneery ‘big is self-evidently right and best’ claim to universal power and identity.)

The further problem we now face is that the debate about the ‘Big Society’ has become confused with the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) and the programme of drastic cuts to public expenditure in Britain (while bankers’ bonuses seem to have resumed after their inconvenient interruption). Whereas the CSR impacts on what society will look like, it says little directly about the value base of the society we are now shaping. ‘Big Society’ is a debate about values – what should characterise our common life, politics, government, economics, education, etc. – and what sort of people we wish to become; it is not primarily or intially about the particular economics of a particular government.

In fact, this is my starting point in engaging positively with the ‘Big Society’ project (which was also debated at last week’s General Synod of the Church of England in London). A couple of opening salvoes to remind me of the nature of the game:

  • Either we shape our future or we become victims of other people’s decisions. It can be easier to opt out and then blame other people for creating what we don’t particularly like – but that is puerile and irresponsible.
  • The language we use matters: and here I think the word ‘Big’ should be dropped and the word ‘Good’ instated in its place. The ‘Good Society’ asks us to question more than its size, compass or mechanics; it goes to the heart of its values and gets the priority right: values should shape our behaviour – our behaviour should not simply be an ad hoc reaction to other stimuli, through which our real values might then be discerned. ‘The common good’ is the term used in Roman Catholic social ethics and it is the right one.
  • The ‘Big Society’ as a descriptor of a way of living that (a) asks people to take responsibility for their lives, (b) takes subsidiarity in decision making seriously, and (c) asks people to be responsible for the well-being of their neighbour is thoroughly commendable. But it is not original. Many thousands of our communities have schools, hospitals and hospices because the Church (of England, usually) saw the need and created them generations ago. This might be an uncomfortable fact, but there it is. Croydon’s schools and hospitals were shaped by the compassionate ingenuity of an Archbishop of Canterbury over 400 years ago: John Whitgift.

How, then, should we engage with the ‘Big Society’ debate? I think the first thing the Christian community needs to do is recover its nerve and remember its history. ‘Big Society’ is what we do – and what we have always done. We are not here to serve only our own Christian community, but the whole of the community in which we live. Every time I institute or license a Vicar I am reminded that he/she is the Vicar of the Parish and not simply the chaplain of their congregation(s). Even if (as was suggested to me) 80% of churches are not ‘volunteering’ enough in our communities, it is still true that nearly 80% of volunteers in the community come from and through the churches. Why? For theological reasons, no doubt; but also because we are there in every community and it is in our blood.

Anyway, to cut to the chase and suggest a dynamic for positive engagement in a rather complex morass of competing ideas about our current social challenges, here goes – as simply as I can make it.

First, we need to identify the values that we want to shape our society and cultures for the next two or three generations (long-term). For example, we might say we want all children to have (a) equal educational opportunity and (b) equal aspiration. We might want to have our economics driven by our moral choices and not by assumed inevitabilities (the personalised ‘Market’, for example). We might want freedom and justice – with proper sanction when the irresponsible abuse that freedom and cause injustice.

Second, we need to ‘earth’ those values in the stuff of (for example) housing, education, transport, access to law, immigration issues, etc. Values cease to be of any value if they do not ‘take flesh’ in the real and mucky world of money, structures and things.

Third, we then shape political action and decisions according to the values we have enjoined. But, in all the detail we keep holding up the bigger picture of the values we commonly hold to be the shapers of our society. It is these that should guide our political judgement and critique.

If you want a good example of where this has not worked thus far, look at (a) Rowan Williams’ critique of ‘childhood’ in (for just one example) Lost Icons and (b) The Good Childhood Report by the Children’s Society in 2009. How might they be used to shape policy and all that goes with implementation of it?

So, there’s a starter for ten. So-called ‘faith communities’ (a misnomer which drives me mad because it ignores differentiation between those communities and assumes that only religious communities have ‘faith’ – which shows woeful ignorance of how world views function) can organise to get this simple three-step process going in focused discussion, debate and communication with those who wield the political and economic axes.