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Phillip Blond: Why the Government needs to let the Church of England deliver more public services

PBPhillip Blond is Director of ResPublica. Follow him on Twitter.

To many, the Church is a charming but hopelessly outdated institution, part of this country’s past but with little to do with its future. The secular cosmopolitan elite regard the church as at best a quaint anachronism, at worst a redoubt of reactionary values. But this self-satisfied contention is founded on an unsustainable confidence about the present order and an ignorance of what life is like for many people in our country.

One of the hallmarks of British society over the last 30 years or so is that those who fall behind do so progressively and aggressively; rewards accrue more and more to the winners and less and less to the losers. And as the winners get fewer, the losers grow and proliferate. In Britain this divide seems brutal and permanent; when you fail in Britain there seems to be no second chance, no way back. When the postcode of our birth is perhaps one of the most successful indicators of our future, it is no surprise that we are one of the most socially immobile countries in the developed world, fractured by generational inequality and deep social damage.

Trapped between the extremes of a radical collectivist and individualist politics we Britons have, since the Second World War, gradually eliminated most of our mediating and immediate institutions. Grammar schools have been denied to the poor, trade unions have abandoned the low paid (the living wage campaign has been led by civil society, not organised labour), and successful regional businesses employing people at scale have largely vanished.

In modern Britain, it is very hard now to envisage how one might exit a perilous situation or transform a disadvantaged area; there are no clear routes out for individuals or communities. Our institutions which were designed to save the poor from their fate are no longer fit for purpose; at best they maintain people in inequality rather than saving them from its deeply damaging consequences. Neither state welfare nor contracting out to monopolies will save the poor from their lot or secure the middle classes against the coming future. Our public and private sector are suffering from institutional miscarriage. From the banks to the NHS, the current order is failing us.

What Britain lacks is what has been taken away: institutions that can provide holistic, personal and hyper-local care, service and response. Currently the state delivers via departmental silos, resulting in disjointed and partial care with Government services often conflicting in aims and outcomes. Private sector provision has similarly failed, with “cherry picking” privatisation producing fragmented services and a profit motive which all too often conspires against pricing in the holistic solutions needed. Communities exhausted by the break-up of traditional structures of both families and communities are simply unable to access the all-inclusive and bespoke provision that alone can transform their lives.

Unless we tackle this institutional deficit we will not save the poor from poverty or secure the middle classes against a similar fate. We need new, transformative institutions that speak to our widest needs and tackle the multiple and interrelated problems that people face. The government has already tacitly accepted this analysis, with free schools attempting to bridge just this sort of institutional deficit, and the holistic approach to troubled families already having been inaugurated. Let’s follow this progressive logic forward to where it next leads – the Church of England.

Last Wednesday evening at Lambeth Palace, the Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, launched ResPublica’s report on the Church of England, Holistic Mission: Social action and the Church of England, and Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, responded. In this report, we argue that the Church could be just the type of institution that our country so desperately needs. First of all, it is already universal, it is everywhere, and its mission is to care for the needs and hopes of its immediate parish. As such, it is in a unique position to be a foundation, a hub and partner for the type of transformation now needed.

And this is not impossible. After all, the Church is already doing an enormous amount of good: from Chapel St in Blackburn which runs a health centre that tackles the causes of sickness like debt and depression, to the work that Town Pastors have done in Ipswich to help the police keep the peace while setting up a rehabilitation project for sex workers. And that’s before we mention the hundreds of food banks around the country that are run by Church-based groups. In short, the Church is in places excellent and is doing the type of transformative work that the state simply cannot do.

So, if it has the experience does it have the will? Do the people who do such good wish to step up and become a universal transformative institution? The evidence from our Research Survey, especially commissioned for the report, suggests they do:

  • The Church already promotes social action: 79 per cent of Anglican congregations formally volunteer, compared with only 49 per cent of the general public. 90 per cent of church congregations informally volunteer, compared to 54 per cent of the general public.
  • The Church is already a hyper-local institution: 90 per cent of Anglican volunteers are participating in social action within 2 miles of their home – and 88 per cent travel under 2 miles to attend church.
  • Belief drives volunteering, but volunteers don’t proselytise: 61 per cent of Anglican volunteers strongly agreed they were motivated by their faith – but 88 per cent are strongly comfortable with helping those with different beliefs or values.

What about the leadership required to help the Church to fulfil its potential? Currently, this excellence is there but sporadic: present in some areas, entirely absent in others. Co-ordination and learning across dioceses is limited or entirely lacking. Similarly from the perspective of the Government, we have no office of State taking seriously the idea of the Church as an institution that it can and should partner with.

We called, in the report, for the Church to recognise that its social mission is its mission for the 21st Century and to incorporate this into its core offering to the country. And we called on the Cabinet Office to do for faith-based provision what it has done so well with Public Sector Mutuals, to set up a faith based task force to help the Church compete for and deliver public services.

So, at the launch, it was deeply encouraging to hear the Archbishop welcome the ResPublica report as a profound and welcome challenge to the Church that he would like to meet, and to hear Nick Hurd, the persistently visionary Minister for Civil Society, say that his door was always open to the Church – and that he would seriously consider creating a unit in the Cabinet Office to help the Church become the type of 21st century enabling institution that we so urgently need. 


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