This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

Yesterday a conference on Inclusive Capitalism was held at the Mansion House in London with eminent speakers such as Bill Clinton, Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde and the Prince of Wales debating how capitalism needs to be re-imagined for a changing world. One of the questions being addressed was which type of capitalism works best to build economic and social value?

Now, I am not an economist, and I get a bit weary of listening to economic language that seems to assume that economic questions have purely economic answers. So, I am encouraged that at the heart of yesterday's international conference lay a fundamental question that puts economics in its rightful place: who and what is the economic system there for? In other words, you can't look at economics without querying social value and human interest.

This is obvious, really, isn't it? A strong economy cannot be an end in itself, but, rather, must be a means to an end. But, what that end should be – and how it should be achieved – is a matter of considerable and often aggressive debate. Yet, it asks of us what we think society is about, and uncomfortably focuses our attention on our anthropology: that is, who we think people are and why they matter. 'Inclusive Capitalism' sounds good, but is it possible to have an economic system that doesn't exclude?

One of the phrases quoted a good deal in relation to this conference – including on this programme yesterday – was Jesus's remark in what we often call 'The Sermon on the Mount': “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” But, it seems to me that Jesus is polarising to make a point. In fact, he precedes this statement with: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”

This is a very powerful way of putting the question raised earlier: who is money for? If you love people – and not just in a generic way, but in the detail of the real people who come uninvited across your path (think Good Samaritan, for example) – then money is a means of enabling people to thrive … or, maybe in the short term, just survive. But, what if you assume that money and wealth exist for their own sake – and for the sole good of the person who accumulates both? It is not hard to see what sort of an economist Jesus might have been…

Undoubtedly, the system we have grown in the last century has brought massive benefits. But, we are now responsible for how we hand this on to our grandchildren. So, we are still left with the question that the conference began with yesterday: does the economy serve people or do people serve the economy? The answer will tell us what sort of people we have chosen to be.

 

Yesterday an open letter from thirty church leaders in Yorkshire and Humberside was published. Addressed to the Prime Minister and copied to the Deputy Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, the letter aims to highlight concerns about the impact of welfare cuts in the part of England we serve. It was timed to preempt the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement due tomorrow.

The thing about church leaders is that we have people in every community, from every stratum of society, and of a huge diversity of origins and backgrounds. Perhaps we are unique in that respect. Our reach goes deep and wide – and the pictures we build are not fabricated according to ideology, prejudice or even theology.

The letter caught local headlines, but managed to omit reference to a crucial paragraph in which the potential for getting people off welfare and into work is applauded. However, we also have to maintain a concern for those who cannot work, cannot get work or who fall through all the nets. Churches (among others) are currently and quietly providing night shelters for homeless people, running food banks, caring for people (and families) whose life has been radically changed for the worse.

The letter adds the voice of thirty church leaders (on behalf of those who tell us their stories of grassroots experience) to others attempting to inform the Government how its proposals are impacting on people (in our case) who live outside London; welfare cuts are having an impact on people every day and the poorest are paying the highest. In Bradford we have 38,000 children living below the poverty line. We still see the poorest people getting poorer, while the richest people are getting richer – and that’s a scandal.

The letter, accompanying a study entitled Am I my Brother’s Keeper? A Christian Overview of Welfare Reform and Cuts in Public Spending (Churches Regional Commission for Yorkshire and the Humber), reads as follows:

As Church leaders in the North of England, we would like to express our concern over the way that cuts in public spending and reforms to the welfare system are beginning to play out in the communities we serve. We commend to you a policy paper written by the Churches Regional Commission for Yorkshire and the Humber, Am I My Brother’s Keeper, which offers an informed overview of welfare reform and cuts in public spending in the context of the values that have driven welfare since the inception of the Welfare State.

We are concerned that the ideology behind many cuts and reforms serves to undermine fundamental principles of mutual care that are basic to our vision of a good society. We are similarly disturbed that the political rhetoric that is increasingly used of benefits claimants, “scrounger” and “feckless” to name but two, stigmatises welfare in such a way that those who are in genuine need become reluctant to make claims, to the detriment of themselves, their families and the communities in which they live.

We express support for those aspects of Universal Credit which make a genuine attempt to address longer term problems within the welfare system that can act as a deterrent to work. Indeed, we agree that work is the best route out of poverty for many people. However, we would also wish to draw your attention to the need to ensure that full-employment remains a policy aim for the Government in support of a system that sees welfare as transitional assistance for those that are capable of work.

We are especially troubled by welfare reforms that time-limit benefits at a time when structural unemployment makes it impossible for many to get the jobs they need for themselves and their families.

We would also urge care in applying means-testing in an aggressive way that further polarizes the debate about welfare into one in which the independent and self-sufficient think of themselves as being in permanent support of the dependent and “feckless”. Our view of the good society as interdependent and of people as fundamentally of equal worth, makes it impossible to support that polarization.

We wish to confirm our support for:

  • The Welfare State
    • As a mechanism for remedying the worst effects of laissez faire capitalism
    • As a way of addressing social inequality
    • As a safety net for those who are temporarily, or permanently, in need
  • A system of taxation that encourages responsibility among the wealthy to share their good fortune with other members of the society to which they belong
  • A work ethic which encourages all people towards employment and the duty to care for themselves and their own families in the first place, as they are able and when economic life permits
  • Full-employment as a policy goal that allows the Welfare State to function properly

Finally, our experience in the North underlines the need to achieve a better balance in the UK economy between the South – and especially the South-East – and the North. This would enable people in northern communities to deploy and benefit from their skills and abilities and thus contribute to enhancing the productivity of the country as a whole.

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.