By Rev Steve Williams, Priest in Charge of East & West Horndon, Childerditch and Little Warley and the Bishop of Bradwell’s Thames Gateway and Regeneration Officer.

With the visit of Steve Chalke and the Faithworks team for The Big Response just a couple of weeks away, we felt Steve’s recent article was timely and so with his permission are reproducing it here.

imagesIt could be claimed that the Christian Church has been advocating the ‘Big Society’ for 2000 years.

On most Sundays many of us will affirm: “Our Lord Jesus Christ said: The first commandment is this… ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.“

But we live in a secular, materialistic society whose great commandments could, possibly, be summarized as:

  • The first commandment is: Belief in God, or not, is a personal, private matter
  • The second is this: Do not directly harm your neighbour

After these two commandments the individual and their rights are paramount.

There is a conflict between these two definitions and between the second and the Big Society.
For Christians the rights of the individual come second to the rights of our family, our neighbour, our community. Our calling is to serve others, surely what is what is implied by the Big Society!
Whatever our political allegiance, Christians should encourage the idea of the Big Society – after all it’s only the world coming round to sharing our ideals. But this encouraging may not be easy to achieve.

Firstly the ideBIG SOC JPEGa needs to be understood and accepted. A recent survey produced the headline: “Cameron’s Big Society is ‘a mystery to many’”. The report went on to say that only 60% where aware of it (63% men, 50% women, 72% over 55s, 36% 16-24 year olds) and only 40% supported more private sector/charities involvement in Public Service delivery.

Secondly the Big Society requires that we accept that we have a responsibility to our community which is more than just paying our taxes, keeping the law and voting in elections. It means our community has a call on our time and talents and this may challenge what is considered ‘acceptable behaviour’ – we might even restrict what we consider quite reasonable behaviour just because it will offend others. This could be quite a big cultural change, especially for our media!

wordle30However we do need to remember that there are already many caring community minded individuals, both within and outside the Church, who already live to these principles and so we need to think how to encourage them and build their numbers.

It may be unfortunate that the Big Society idea has come at a time when there is a reduction in public sector money available and caused some to believe the idea is just a cover for cutting public services. We are in a time of public austerity but the concept can be seen as separate to cut backs and desirable for a better world to live in. The underlying principle should not be the State offloading public services but State and people working together to ensure maximum value either from a public service or from a private business or from a voluntary service initiated by a community group or from a social enterprise.

However there are a number of questions and issues that arise in relation to the Big Society:

  • The ‘credibility gap’. How can we help to overcome the view that increasing volunteering, etc. is just a cover for cuts?
  • Is there a difference between running a public service and having a say in how it is run for your locality? Recent surveys indicate people have the appetite for the latter but not the former.
  • How do you promote a ‘bottom up’ approach from the ‘top’? Is it even possible?
  • How can the third sector develop when we are in a period with significant cuts in the finances available? (There is a cost to implementing change!)
  • Should we (how can we) encourage Social Enterprises and similar community controlled structures? (The ‘John Lewising’ of society)
  • One of the biggest complaints from people is that they are never listened to! It is felt that all consultation exercises are just box ticking. How can we over overcome this – either because it is true and needs changing or it is untrue and just a perception?
  • How can the Church play its part and encourage greater social responsibility?

Big Society is a very wide concept including not only our immediate relationships but wider society, our nation, the world and creation. It could be said that it is as big as God himself.

imagesThe New Economics Foundation puts it in the context of survival: “We need to shift from our current unsustainable path, to a system where everyone is able to survive and thrive on equal terms, without over-stretching the earth’s resources. This means changing how we live and work, relate to each other. It’s a route towards good lives for all, now and in the future. It needs a growing movement of individuals and organizations that recognize that a different world is possible, working together to make it happen. Only with a transition on this scale can the best elements of the ‘Big Society’ vision be realised and sustained over time.”

That’s quite a challenge!

See the link to the left of this page advertising The Big Response at Thurrock Christian Fellowship’s Corringham Centre on Thursday 30 June.