Friday, 24 November 2017

For Good: The Church and the Future of Welfare by Samuel Wells et al Reviewed

There are various stories around the decline in the significance of the Church in the UK. Some start in the mid to late 1800’s, others focus on the first world war, some look at the changes in British society in the late ‘60’s whilst more argue it is to do with the introduction of the welfare state in the mid 1940’s. In truth it’s probably most appropriate to draw a timeline which marks all of these as significant stages in a process, which have differing significance to different denominations and churches. For Good: The Church and the Future of Welfare by Samuel Wells with Russell Rook and David Barclay lay out an argument which focuses on the argument that the introduction of the Welfare State was the key point of significance. Hence this book engages with a re-evaluation of how the Church can engage with the review of welfare occurring 75 years after the Beveridge Report.

The significance of the date they choose to effectively link secularisation to matters, because it underlines a narrative which can be used to argue that the state has come in and replaced some of the functions of the church in providing care, education of the young and support those in distress. To argue that these were the “right functions” for a church in a society one has to buy into the argument, to some extent at least, that Christianity should have a privileged position in society where it is the recognised provider of essential services. Therein lies my problem with what is excellent a really good book which has some excellent arguments which I will go on to talk about.

There is a catch 22 situation which was excellently illustrated by Steve Chalke, of the Oasis Foundation, at the launch event for this book, which took place at Lamberth Palace. At the conference Chalke, one of the speakers, spoke about the need for infrastructure and governance to be in place for effective engagement at a national level in the provision of goods and services. He identified why, certainly regarding infrastructure, the Church of England was able to do this in ways others aren’t because they are a state church with a parish system. Yet, he was the only speaker that day to talk of spirituality rather than the Church/ Christianity or occasionally faith. The Oasis hub project in Birmingham which is one of the case studies in the book is also the only one which stems from the values we associate with spirituality and Christianity rather than from a congregation looking at how they can help the community, and seeks to work in a truly collaborative way where people are done “with” rather than “to”. Whilst the others reflect these values this hub has this as it's primary purpose rather than an additional one, which a congregation has. His organisation is also the only one to have actively, and I use this word advisedly, seek to oppose institutional homophobia and trans-phobia rather than seeking to protect privilege by continuing to give people the right to discriminate. (see their about section on their website).

I underline these points at the start of my review because they are important in understanding the unease as well as feelings of joy and hope this book unleashed in me as I read it.

The book is essentially as is recognised a report, and as such is too short to be truly nuanced. At 90 pages it can only ever be an overview. Hence, I think having a set of underlying assumptions which are not properly argued.

However, as I said it is a valuable text which provides much hope and gives a useful tool for thinking through social engagement in the contemporary society.

The biggest contribution I think this book makes is seeking to move from a deficit approach (which is what Beveridge took) to an asset based approach. Where as Beveridge said there were five great giants to be slayed (and if you’re not familiar I would point you to You Tube and a rather useful revision guide from History Helper) Wells et al argue there are five great goods society should be aspiring to: relationship, creativity, partnership, compassion and joy.

We have to be careful when talking about these things because focusing on the assets can detract from identifying the reasons these are lacking in our society and dealing with the root causes. This is avoided by the approach of dealing with some of the root causes by focusing on the assets as active verbs rather than simply ends to be achieved. It is an approach which can be seen in the case studies given.

Another strength of the book is it’s recognition of the need for flexibility and fluidity in approaches of social action looking across the spectrum from contradiction to co-operation. This is talked about in a real way which recognises what might start as a protest can end up in active collaboration with those who were at some point in the process “the opposition”.
There are also practical warnings in the book regarding making sure a project is fit for purpose and time sensitive.

So would I recommend it, yes but with the caveats referred to earlier. I’d also recommend some useful supplementary reading to go alongside it though, in order to develop it into the most useful text it might be.

The first text is Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. My reason for suggesting this as accompanying reading is that it looks at the way modern developments in technology are acting as barriers to the assets being discussed and diminishing these assets in our modern society. It is not a Luddite text, but rather it articulately discusses how our technology is a tool which we need to use well. Churches and Christians need to be as aware of their use of technology as other sectors.

The second text which I would suggest the reader engage with is Michael Volland’s The Minister as Entrepreneur: Leading and Growing the Church in an Age of Rapid Change. This book both provides a theological exploration of the approaches being advocated in the Wells text as well as some practical pointers on how to go about this. It also deals with some of the criticisms that might internally be leveled against congregations and ministers taking the type of approach advocated in the book.

A third text, for those wanting to see some different case studies and to examine how spirituality and supporting social action can come together would be The Pioneer Gift: Explorations in Mission edited by Jonny Baker and Cathy Ross. (Which I have also reviewed in the past on this blog)

My final piece of accompanying reading would be Prophetic Dialogue: Reflections on Christian Mission Today by Stephen Bevans and Roger P. Schroeder. This enables one to reflect on how context matters and how to shape this type of work as Christian but in a society which is more pluralistic than the Wells text might acknowledge.