Tag Archives: Big Society

Reflections on #fabworld

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Solutions for a Broken World (#fabworld)

Last Saturday I went along to an event at St Michael Le Belfrey called ‘Solutions for a broken world’ held in response to the Occupy movement. I live blogged the introduction from the Bishop of Selby as well as the three sessions asking what’s broken?; what does the Bible say? and what would Jesus have US do?. We also heard from York CVS and Besom about how we could get involved through their organisations.

These are my reflections on the format and overall theme of the day. Continue reading Reflections on #fabworld

>Reinventing the wheel

>Sunday evening took this passage from Acts as its backdrop.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved…All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.”
Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37

That’s a revolutionary expression of community. That model of fellowship without borders was the hallmark of Jesus’ relationships. Not just with his disciples but with those society wouldn’t touch. The church of Acts are living with that same authenticity, vulnerability and generosity. They live grace, they are church. Those words aren’t theological constructs, they’re dynamic adjectives.

Their faith changed the world. Theirs a religion built around the service and love of those around them. Theirs a fundamentally relational pursuit of Jesus. Somewhere in the annals of history we dropped the ball. Religion became a dirty word bound up in ritual and show, dominated by fear, judgement and hypocrisy, not synonymous with the Gospel of ‘good news’ but seen to be something manipulative and controlling.

That’s not the true story. When the Archbishop of York was asked about his thoughts on Big Society he claimed the idea as a rebranding of what the church has been doing since its birth. For Sentamu (whose full article is well worth a read), Big Society’s just another name for the wheels which the church, alongside others, has consistently been involved with oiling for the last couple of thousand years.

Following the Spending Review the state is going to shrink, and there will be a reduction in services. There will be increasing needs and the church has the infrastructure, human resources and experience to contribute to finding solutions – the Church of England provides 23.2 million hours of voluntary service per month (and that’s just one chunk of The Church). More specific is Acts 4:35 an initiative of Archbishop Sentamu that provides a mechanism for giving money directly to others for specific purposes (in many ways it’s a local version of Kiva).

That’s great, as is our local commitment to The Besom. But we are absolutely wrong if we think that we’re the only people who care about kindling community and getting involved with transforming the lives around us. I might not enjoy the political rhetoric and cost-cutting reality that surrounds us at the moment but I do love the fact that there are lots of people who are exploring opportunities and experimenting with technology to give voice to the voiceless and support those who might otherwise fall through the gaps.

Sadly God’s hands and feet are conspicuous in their absence. This just doesn’t make sense. I can’t get my head around why we’re not round those tables, entering those debates and talking about the kind of compassion that hurts. The Acts model of community was radical 2,000 years ago and nothing has changed. What are we waiting for?

If it’s permission we’re looking for then the irony is that Acts 2 models of community are being spoken about and developed, probably by people completely oblivious to what’s written in the New Testament. Maybe it’s time we twigged that there’s universality to the wheel? God doesn’t always need us to start something, or for it to wear his brand or come under his ‘ownership’ for it to bring him glory and transform lives.

Is the Acts 2 challenge too hard given the busyness of life? I hear that, my daily commute sees me out of York for 12 hours a day. How do I foster meaningful community with those around me?Well, perhaps these four things which are already set up and focused on building relationship, fostering community and living generously can provide us with a platform inside church but also in dismantling the walls around our worshipping community.

The Big Lunch began life at The Eden Project a couple of years ago and encourages neighbours to spend the day with one another through street parties. Christine and I hosted one for our street in 2008 and it was brilliant (sadly we were both out of the country this year), instead of church on June 5th 2011 why don’t we shut up St Mike’s and break bread with our neighbours?

Flock Local was born at Glasgow’s Social Innovation Camp last June. The premise is pretty simple – directing the energy of a flash mob into an activity with a social purpose. The website provides a front end for listing local events and a mechanism for people to register, communicate and pitch in.

Street Bank exists to help people share what they’ve got with people in their locality. Sign up, list the skills you can offer your neighbours or the things you’ve got to lend or give away and see what happens.

Street Club overlaps the others and is a sophisticated approach to providing digital foundations to a local community. It’s designed to be a private online members club that revolves around ten key words – discuss, volunteer, ask, share, recommend, give, trade, play, save and party. There is something daunting about a resource this comprehensive but then it isn’t a website designed for individuals is it?

This week Conversations starts life in its latest venue (upstairs in The Graduate, formerly Varsity). I’m (justifiably) proud to belong to a community that hopefully looks like that early church. I hope we’re not just a community for ourselves but one that is committed to getting stuck into the world around us. We’re here to follow Jesus and that means pouring ourselves out for the people of York, til it hurts. Maybe signing up to a few websites can help?

>OK, so what’s next?

>While we don’t yet have a new government the thirteen years of Labour rule are almost certain to come to an end. Even if there is no agreement between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats with the result that a LibDemLab coalition is birthed it would be met with consternation by the 10.7m people represented by those who won the popular vote.

Whatever box you crossed, and whoever your local representative is our future is a future heavy on Cameron, Osbourne, Gove et al. It is one in which Conservative policies you agreed with, or detested, will lurk. Irrespective of a coalition with Clegg the Conservatives have the greater clout, outnumbering their prospective bed-fellows by 5 to 1.

And so, Big Society will be the order of the day.

The Conservative campaign left me uneasy. I found it contradiction heavy and substance light. An invitation to be part of the next government is hollow when it goes hand in hand with state bribes for a given value of ‘family’. It is a ludicrous claim to propose that we’re ‘all in this together’ when referring to austerity whilst simultaneously rewarding those who have amassed estates valued at £1m.

On Thursday I read this chilling article in the Independent of what Compassionate Conservatism looks like when put into practice. If you haven’t already seen it, please take a few minutes to read it.

It should hardly be a surprise that in the quest for lower taxation, which this article suggests is the mark of ‘success’, services would be cut. Nor should it come as a shock that the drive for smaller government means lines are drawn in the sand about what’s important and what’s not, what’s funded and what isn’t.

Big Society, compassionate Conservatism holds as the ideal that individuals build community, that they are the solution to any or all issues and that the state should facilitate but not provide. Clearly in Hammersmith & Fulham the facilitation hasn’t always worked and people have suffered as a result. If this is the nature of the politics to come and the outcome of the government we have chosen what are we going to do about it?

Our response, at every level, has to be more than just disappointment at the outcome and more than just thinking about what a politics of opposition can achieve in the next 5 years with an eye to the next election. A lot is being said about a hung parliament being a wonderful opportunity for parties to work together. The unspoken subtitle to this is ‘because they’re forced to’.

I hope that I’m not alone in believing that the men and women we ask to represent us would have a greater desire to work alongside the other parties than this seems to indicate.

A politics of opposition is what we’ve had and from my perspective that has created a tit for tat world where across the country it’s all about finding the silver bullet that is the solution, or the flaw that will deal it a fatal blow. It’s a tear up and start again approach because if you hold opposing views and the balance of power swings then necessarily Everything Must Go. Take the Pupil Premium, it may be a good way of targeting deprivation but it is such a departure from the current mechanics that it is not just a tweak but a rewriting.

Big society might not be something we like. We might believe that those who are vulnerable (to whatever extent) are the whole point of public services and the whole raison d’etre of sending men and women to Westminster to give voice to the voiceless and for government to be nothing if not a tool of social justice.

We also might be very uneasy with the Conservatives having the balance of power. But this is democracy, sometimes you lose. We might be concerned about where the scythe will fall, how important areas of policy are approached and what the long-term holds in a bluer nation. But, this is democracy and when your politics loses, other people have the opportunity to govern.

Conservative influence and Big Society will characterise the immediate future of Britain. And that means everyone will have to play ball, to embrace those ideas and get stuck in. Because if you don’t volunteer, then who will?

We now need to be part of our communities in a way that delivers social justice and challenges the gaps a withdrawing state might leave behind.

History is claimed to go in cycles and whilst we will not return to a true laissez-faire regime (marriage tax breaks for example are a fairly obvious example of state interventionism) as that found in the 19th century we might end up closer to it than we are now. In a Britain with low taxation, bureaucracy and state intervention there was little in the way of education, health or support that didn’t come from the generosity and compassion of those in local communities. It was on the back of socially conscientious pioneers who challenged this status quo that the Welfare State was eventually built.

I believe that the Welfare State is one of the greatest things about this country. Not just for what it has done and will continue to do but because it places at the heart of the nation a fundamental understanding that there is justice in the state acting corporately in support of those who have the least as well as those with the most. A humility to understand that we are ‘all in this together’ which breeds compassion and mercy, not self-interest.

It’s obviously both premature and extreme to say that there will be a systematic dismantling of it. But with the extent of cuts forecast something will have to give. There’s serious talk of Proportional Representation amongst the non-Cons but isn’t this just losing badly? After over a decade in power in which they have enjoyed a stonking majority rule, and even then subverted the legislature, the Labour Party have turned to this now they are faced by the spectre of losing influence. It’s worth remembering that in 2005 a majority government was elected with 35.2% of the vote, less than Thursday’s Conservatives.

What is real from the point of view of the people is a genuine desire for engagement. Even though the hyped ‘massive turnout’ did not materialise (the total increased a mere 4% to 65%) there is an enthusiasm to be involved with the political process where our MPs represent us and do what we tell them to do (even if so far they have fallen short of what we’ve asked on issues like 10:10 and the Digital Economy Bill).

Organisations like MySociety and 38Degrees demonstrate the potential for people to get involved. Tom Steinberg, founder of MySociety, has been co-opted by the Tories so does this mean that Big Society is being planned to harness this basic enthusiasm for participation, and the ability for people to self organise?

The state is about to shrink, the services and opportunities people have access to must not be allowed to follow. Standing on the sidelines and complaining about the incompatibility of Conservative and Liberal Democratic politics doesn’t fix that, continuing the petty and snide mockery that has characterised too much of the election serves the needs of nobody, hoping that in 4 years’ time the public are disappointed and crave another change in government is selfish.

We should all be striving for this Parliament, which will be one of the hardest five years in a very long time, to be a success and to be able to turn around in a few years and declare

‘you know actually Cameron has done a good job, Osbourne hasn’t seen a double dip recession, Gove’s schools have genuinely raised standards, Compassionate Conservatism has reduced inequality and we’ve surpassed commitments to international development and the environment’.

At this moment in time I don’t see it, but even as a Labour voter there’s nothing wrong in my saying I want it to happen. How do we, the public, put our politics and disappointment to one side in order to help make sure it becomes a reality? And for all we might want to whinge about Westminster, we make that happen by being part of the solution ourselves. I hope that the 10.7m people who voted Conservative follow that up by being wherever the state no longer is. But more than that I hope that the other 19m do that too.

There will be reasons people say they can’t do it. But people have turned out to campaign for Proportional Representation as I type. Would we be so keen if it meant having to volunteer at the sharp end of service delivery? In the toss up between flopping on the sofa at the end of a long day or going to support others what will we choose? And how do we achieve it with anything like the coordination that’s required? Who provides the leadership and the steer and the guidance?

I’m fairly disengaged – I work in one city and live in another, I’m out of the house for 12 hours a weekday. Am I willing to foresake my comforts to help the least? To add something else to my weekly diary? What will I do with my married couple’s allowance, if we qualify? Will people use it to support those no longer helped through SureStart? Will those who benefit from an inheritance tax break be bothered that encouraging their wealth might mean denying support to those on the margins?

Unless we use what we have the state is not going to deliver a fairer Britain. We will have to be part of the solution from the pitch, not just the sidelines. And that might mean that Conservative policy works, and you’d be involved with making that so. Like I say, politics and ideology on one side. Big Society here we come…