EVERYPLACE civic gospel


The new government initiative of the Big Society has arrived in Trafford our local council with a mixed reaction. Trafford is one of the 10 Boroughs of Greater Manchester and as the only Conservative majority council you would expect it to be enthusiastically endorsed. However there are some hesitations from the leaders of the Trafford Partnership (Group that draws together the Police, Council, Health, Voluntary sector, Faith groups, Housing trust etc). The misgivings are about the message it could send out to the thousands of volunteers around our borough who every day serve their communities with great dedication and the Faith groups who studies tell us provide up to 50% of the warp and weft of local community life (Social Capital). Big Society has been going on for decades and people don’t need to be told they are now part of a new idea dreamed up in Whitehall.

The other major concern is that Big Society may be just a “Big Excuse” not to provide essential services. Over 100 years ago there was no such thing as Big Government there was only Big Society and most of it was delivered by Christians with a heart for the most vulnerable. Our schools, hospitals, Universities and social assistance programs were financed and run by local people with a heart of social justice. With the advent of the heath service, social security and free education those Big Society activities were transferred to the state to be run more extensively across the nation. Some decades later with massive changes in our culture a number of worrying trends emerged. Consumerism has created a passivity in regard to social responsibility, we have moved from a participative democracy to a representative democracy, where we pay our money to get the service we desire. This attitude is particularly strong in local government where consumerism has created a culture of the Professionals who provide the services to the Customer.

Arriving in the arena of local government over the last 12 years as a Pastor of a socially active Church community has been education. I found a huge gap between the so called professionals and the local amateurs and a serious lack of faith literacy. The Churches of our borough provide thousands of hours of volunteer support to hundreds of projects, they employ more youth workers and have more buildings and reach more kids that the local authority and much more besides. However this impressive list of civic and social activity is hidden away often not seen or acknowledged. Working with an Anglican colleague from the North of the borough over these last 12 years we have seen a huge change in knowledge, affirmation and support. We started by simply gathering Church leaders and the Civic leaders together to say thank you for their service and tried to build good relationships. We began a Faith Forum joining together the main faith groups in the borough and I serve as the Faith representative on the Trafford Partnership. We are now taking the lead on the Big society initiative in the Borough and faith groups and Churches in particular are viewed in a very positive light.

Churches have vacated the arena of Civic life over the last 100 years, finding themselves doing there own thing in with little reference to other Churches and less so the statutory authorities. We feel it is now time for us to take our place in Civic life alongside others. Our Victorian forebears would be shocked by this withdrawal, they believed not only in a personal Gospel but also a Civic Gospel. A vision of unity of humanity under Christ, who is drawing all things together. The thing I like about the Big Society is its call to this joint vision for our lives, where each of us is taking our responsibility for our area and our borough. As I said to the leaders of our statutory authorities last week “This is our Trafford, a partnership between state and individual, local government and local group. The local needs the borough its resources, expertise and accountability, but the borough needs the local its heart, knowledge and specialism.”

I think this, when it is seen is a glimpse of the the Kingdom where the disparate, divided and individualistic  is slowly gathered together in a culture of respect, forgiveness and unity. The role of the Church is to witness to this coming Kingdom, to set the pace in partnership working, to prioritise those who are most vulnerable, to work against injustice and to work for a society that is healthier, happier and more peaceful. When people begin to see this happen they may start to at last take notice of the people who live and speak this message and their God who leads them to love the world.

Roger Sutton.