Friday, August 3, 2018

Books Worth Reading (13): For Good: The Church and the Future of Welfare

Samuel Wells, Russel Rook and David Barclay, For Good: The Church and the Future of Welfare (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2017).

This short (90 pages) and highly-readable book addresses the  role of the British churches in welfare in the light of the economic and political fragility of Britain's famous post-World
War 2 Welfare State. Its starting point is the need to reflect (theologically, sociologically and politically) on the phenomenon of growing church involvement in welfare as the securities provided by government welfare weaken.

The authors provide a brief sketch of the history and foundations of state welfare, focusing particularly on the impetus and legacy of the 1942 Beveridge Report which set up Britain's approach to welfare. From its beginning the approach was oriented to the alleviation of (to use Beveridge's now anachronistic terms) 'Want, Idleness, Ignorance, Disease and Squalor'.

Whilst acknowledging the immense achievement of the welfare state, the authors argue that welfare must do more than alleviate such deficits, it must be oriented to the development of assets and/or goods. Economic circumstances also mean that there needs to be a reconsideration of the allocation of respective responsibilities to the state and other institutions (including churches) in order to effect that shift in the aims and practices of welfare. In place of Beveridge's 'deficit approach', the authors identify five 'good's or 'assets' which should be cultivated: relationship, creativity, partnership, compassion and joy (see pp 13-17). In a key plank of the argument, it is proposed that among the roles of the churches is the need to:
work actively and tirelessly to model a social role that is appropriately modest - because it doesn't demand that they step in where they  have relatively little expertise and where the scale of the challenge is enormous - but is eminently achievable, in that it affirms what the churches do best, which is create cross-generational community and cherish people for what they are, not what they are not (p.12).
The book is grounded in the actual experience of churches navigating their way into this new situation. In addition to a well-sketched but brief and accessible theological rationale, there is a whole chapter devoted to case studies of church social action. The case studies are stories of successful engagement with developing goods and assets in local communities. Yet they are not 'glossy' stories - the problems and challenges are identified and engaged. The first is of a Pentecostal church in Burnley, Lancashire, responding to the social divisions  manifested and reinforced by community riots in 2001. The second is of a Baptist-based movement, Oasis, which has developed community hubs through sponsorship of, and engagement with, poorly-funded state schools. The third is an Anglican parish in Shadwell, East London which, through an alliance with the Centre for Theology and Community (which had been renting the church's crypt), became intentional about linking worship with social activism.

Another, more theoretical, chapter articulates various models of church social action. It is based around a 'spectrum' of such models. They authors maintain that different churches are called to adopt different modes of engagement depending on their context. That context might also required them to adopt more than one such mode at any one time. They use the following diagram to set out the range of models.

From p. 66
It is important to note that spectrum is not intended as an abstract model of church-state relations (as if there was ever one thing called 'church' and one thing called 'state'). It is, as the heading indicates, a social 'action' spectrum. This conforms to what is a warning earlier in the book:
The danger is that, for all their growing social impact, churches become defined more by what they believe about the state's role than what they believe about their own (p.33).
Indeed, the church's self-understanding is one of the most important themes of the book. It also picks up the issue of what it is about Christianity that means that the church should have such a role in the first place. There is an endorsement of Pope Francis' comment that the church needs to be more than a "compassionate NGO". There are some very helpful reflections which subvert the binary between, say, social action and disciple-making (especially pp. 31-36), but the relationship between the church as a gathered community and the development of social goods is perhaps best captured in some remarks about the work of the Anglican parish in East London. The more the congregation engaged in its various projects of social activism and renewal, the congregation itself was renewed. The authors suggest that this should not be surprising:
After all, the worshipping community is the place where goods often abound. Here men and women find new relationships, means of expression, opportunities to serve, individuals to love and reasons to celebrate (p. 63).
It is this quote which has been for me the most helpful bridge between this British study and the similar, but quite different, issues faced in the Australian context, and in the Uniting Church in particular. Of course, much of what is outlined in this book is already in place in such movements as Common Grace, Sydney Alliance and Assets Based Community Development.

Anyone familiar with the UCA, however, will know that there for some time there has been discussion about the relationship between congregations and our community services agencies. Sometimes it has been as silly as a tussle between the two to be the  'future face of the church'. Other times, it is a discussion seemingly caught in conflicts between corporate and ecclesial cultures. Then there are times when the discussion gets trapped in a mixture of nostalgia and mutual suspicion. I've argued elsewhere that whilst there is indeed an urgent need to address the ecclesiology of large-scale institutions such as UnitingCare, there is also a need (equally urgent) to address the nature of congregations as communities oriented to the world precisely and simultaneously because they are oriented to God.* We would have achieved nothing if we did sort out the ecclesiology of the agencies, but didn't similarly renew our reflection on the nature and purpose of congregations as communities of worship, witness and service. This where I find the above quote so helpful.

What if we unpacked the idea of our congregations being places where 'goods abound'? This is not an alternative to thinking of congregations as communities of worship, witness and service. It does, however, provide a different language by which to ground and interpret our activities of worship, witness and service. It might also help us move beyond the now almost-hackneyed term 'mission'. The idea of 'goods abounding' might help us more easily see the connections  between the life of congregations and the church's involvement in developing goods in the wider community. There is no doubt that these connections do exist, but much of our received language for these issues hides them or plays them down. A shift to the language of 'goods' and a commitment to their 'abundance' both within and beyond the gathered community could be sustained by a well-grounded confidence and orientation to the gospel of God's love made known in Jesus Christ. For it is, after all, that love which unites, and is the common focus and driving force of, our worship, witness and service. Equipped with that confidence, churches could be relieved of the pressure to legitimate their contribution to society by the scale of that contribution. A gospel-grounded confidence would nurture the 'appropriate modesty' of the church's role which the authors of For Good call for (see quote from p.12 above).

For Good is written with just such a quiet confidence that the church and the gospel it proclaims in word and deed actually matters, not least in the world of welfare. Notwithstanding the need to make adjustments for its British provenance, I found it the most helpful overview I have read of the vexed question of the church's engagement in welfare. Without question this is a book worth reading.

*See A Genuinely Theological Church: Ministry, Theology and the Uniting Church (Reservoir: Uniting Academic Press, 2018), 69-76.


This occasional series of 'books worth reading' engages an eclectic selection of books: some directly related to my teaching, some to the UCA, and some of more general theological interest. They are not offered as technical book reviews, but as summaries which highlight why I think they might be useful resources, good conversation starters, or volumes that make helpful contributions to scholarly debate.

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