The Big Society: How should Christians engage in partnerships with government?


So David Cameron launched the new government initiative of The Big Society.  Where I live has been chosen to pilot applications by local communities for government money for their projects.  In the hope to devolve power to local communities, and to give them resources to do what Government cannot do, and in the current climate can't afford to do.

The Evangelical Alliance UK, have contacted UK churches encouraging them to make the most of this possible initiative.  I've just asked to meet my local MP to explore what this might mean for our church and its community projects.

How do churches navigate this initiative and think through some of the issues of what working in partnership with local government entails? Churches are the largest national group of volunteers in the UK, able to bring to every community, the most important important resources for community...people.

But how do churches avoid naively being swallowed up and hijacked by the dominant UK secular anti christian political agenda, and at the same time not miss out on what could be the most amazing time and space for engagement with community?

A great place to start is with the book by Luke Bretherton, 'Christianity and Contemporary Politics'.  I wish this book have been around when our church plant started it's community projects and partnerships.  But I think this work is almost prophetic for helping churches navigate this new possibility.

Churches need to do the hard work of reflecting carefully how they understand their role and place in society as they approach this project.  Luke maps out how churches are usually 1) Co-opted:  one self interest group in civic society, working with others 2) Competitive:  Using the language of 'rights' and 'freedoms' to express themselves publicly and 3) Commodified:  a private lifestyle choice, in the market place of clubs and societies.

Of course Luke argues that all these are unhelpful and that there is better way to understand church in relationship with society.  Luke shows how if Churches don't think through this role and relationship that when they get involved in local politics and government partnerships, several problems ensue.

1)  Co-ercive:  Churches are forced to stop religious practices and identity to enter into partnerships, losing their focus on people as whole and spiritual being, and losing integrity in the process
2) Mimetic:  Becoming like the state and other professional bodies, seeking to be 'effective'
3) Normative:  The people in churches who take the lead in these partnership become professionalised, and distant from the church communities that enable their partnership in the first place (this was the most painful example with a project in our own church, that broke away from the church once established)

In summary partnerships by the state with churches can cause social conflict rather than achieve a common good, with the aims and values of churches being undermined by them.
No wonder churches, either do their own thing, or get swallowed up within state partnerships and either lose their identity, or the people from their churches involved, leave their churches and lose the church identity, as the projects become secular projects. (my interpretation not Luke's comments btw).

So Luke asks the most important question, how can Churches partner without these outcomes?  Luke then draws on Christian theological resources to think this through and make some suggestions, which is the bulk of the book.

His conclusion is a call for the Church (at least I heat it as a call), 1) seek peace and prosperity of the city, 2) witness to the eschatological fulfilment of life in Christ & 3) to be a public agent for healing and repair within political, social and economic order. Church is constituted as public body by doing two things, listening to the word, and to the world/others.

Now that might sound very conceptual, and it is, but churches are unconsciously living out other conceptions.  But Luke does end with some 'rules for faithful engagement' in political life:

1) Listening to scripture to discern what goods in common we have locally and with our neighbours
2) See the 'local' as the distinct place of church in this for action, compared to global
3) This action is associational as opposed to legal and bureaucratic
4) This involves the church as a legal, physical and social institution, formed by it’s worship life.  Worship is political and reveals our social relations
5) Such actions take seriously ordinary life, with work, home, civic life, neighbours etc
6) Actions involve ‘generative contradiction’ not saying yes or no to the status qou (sometimes yes, sometimes no).  Work in partnership but also criticise government when needed
7) Action does not look to the state or market in first instance to address concerns, but rather ‘self organisation and mutual support’