a starter for ten…

I’ve been thinking recently a little bit about the idea of the state and the role that the church should play in society – especially since currently – from church and from government – there is something of a call for the church to get more involved in its communities, as austerity policies bites.

In coming at this I’m bouncing off a few of things:

* the recent Res Publica report, Holistic Mission: Social Action and the Church of England

* a recent forum I was at that talked about the relationship between the church and civic society

* a seminar from Stephen Backhouse who visited work the other week to speak about ‘Powers and Principalities’

Basically the key questions go something like this:
“Does the church, by stepping in to run community projects and by actively promoting local churches to take them up, let the state of the hook for the social care of its citizens?”
Followed by:
“Does the government, by acknowledging and promoting the missional role of the church in the community, take advantage of it, and roll back the State without a proper discussion of what we think the state should do?”
The answers to which may be ‘potentially’ and (currently) ‘probably’ – but which, in a more nuanced way lie somewhere in a long and complicated discussion about social contract (and covenant), the nature of the state, the church and civic society.

The question of what the state is and ought to be, and what civic society is and ought to be, are, probably, not key questions for Tearfund as a whole. They’re a matter of politics, and while your views might be influenced by your faith, I don’t think there’s a hard and fast line on where that influence might take you, because you have to engage your brains and interpret the way you think that state and society negotiate social responsibility. For example, the question, ‘Do you think that the State should be responsible for social care, or that it should, rather, enable other bodies to be able to be responsible for social care in a number of ways – and regulate them?’ is not one you can plug into the bible and get an answer out.

(1) So, in thinking about: ‘What is the State?’ I’m not planning on spending a large amount of time (presently) digging into political theory – although at some point I think I should, in order to refine my own views (Yay, a weekend of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau!). I just want to say that there are a number of assumptions about the state in play in politics, and they’re worth bearing in mind when reading people talking about the way the church and the state interrelate.

For example, the recent Res Publica report, while well researched and considered and with some interesting recommendations (etc. etc.) does work froma particular understanding of the state, which generally thinks that the state should have a limited reach and that civil society should do more, but which is not fully explored (and which is ripe for being imaginatively challenged (and not just from a ‘left of centre / the state is good’ position). So they say, “Either the state is presented to us as replacement for the social good and its delivery, or we are abandoned to the free market, robbed of our institutions all together and left to rely on our own resources, however depleted they may be” (p.6). They want to find a middle ground, which is fair enough, but while they decry the lack of functioning civic institutions or imaginative other options, they don’t really provide any, beyond arguing that the Church of England is well placed to fill in the gap. If we’re seriously going to think about the church stepping in and filling this gap in civic society formally, then we need to have that conversation about what we think state and civic society look like.

That said, it’s less important for the church to worry about the proper role of the state and nature of civic society than for it to worry about its own mission – because, frankly, it should be carrying on doing what it believes it should be doing, regardless of the state of the State.

(2) The Res Publica report also makes some assumptions about the church. So: “The Church has to make itself fit for purpose. If the Church is to fulfil its purpose and its potential, it has to substantially upgrade its internal and external structures” (p.4) which makes a heckuva lot of assumptions about the church’s purpose and potential. I’m pretty strongly of the belief that the church has a role in its community, to support it and meet it’s needs – but I’m also aware that the church is a place where a community of believers comes together and is discipled, and I’m a little bit worried about the report’s argument that we should, basically, formally institutionalise the Church of England as a primary locus of community and social care. There’s a tension between the idea (which I support) that the Church should get better at engaging with local government as it gets involved in its community, and the idea that the government should expect / support the institutionalisation of the church in this role.

(Hence this question, earlier this month)

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Stephen Backhouse, when he came to speak at a seminar at my work a couple of weeks ago (replicating his session at the Holy Spirit in the World Today conference I went to in the spring) said a couple of things that provoked debate and interest:

* The church is gloriously irrelevant

* The success of the church is not about how well it changes government, it’s about how true it says to Christ.

* We have become obsessed with the state and with government: we need to be less focused on it as the only solution.

Fundamentally, he was saying that the church should discern what it ought to be doing, and then do it. He talked about Romans 13.1–7, making a distinction between submission and obedience:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

He argued that you can submit without obeying – for example, you might disobey the law, if you believed the law was wrong, but you would submit to it as a reality and to the punishment that comes from breaking it. In this picture, the members of the church should submit to the law of the land (which, fortunately in the UK doesn’t preclude being Christian), but carry on doing what the church should be doing.

And when it comes to social care and the community, he argued, the biblical principle is always to put a face to the faceless. He reminded me of something, that the status of the persona in Roman law and society – and noted that the early Christians, as can be seen in Paul’s letters, started to apply that term to everyone: making everyone made in God’s image equally important, regardless of legal status. Lobby and campaigning to government to change the state’s treatment of people is a part of that – but not the only part of that – and, perhaps, not the primary part. Backhouse noted that early Christians didn’t strategise to agitate or to embarrass government, or even to speak to power. Paul (like Jesus, in fact) spoke to the authorities when he was called to speak. They did what they did, and answered questions about it. And in the end, it became so destabilising to Rome that the state religion changed…

In the current context, this might well look like the church growing its work in its communities, promoting this work, and engaging with local government to secure funding and make this work work well (while not, as Res Publica seem wont to do, ignoring the other aspects of being church!) – but also challenging the government on its responsibilities, on taking the church for granted and not having a thought-out idea of civic society (it doesn’t – and I’m inclined to think that a part of the reason for the ongoing flunking of the Big Society is that the Conservative Party just kind-of assumed it would reassert itself if the state went away…)

(3) Personally, I veer towards the idea that the government has the responsibility to ensure that the weakest members of its society don’t fall through the cracks and aren’t taken advantage of. I’m less wedded to the idea that this must be done through the state (and I tend towards loathing the emerging ‘nanny state’). And then there’s this question:

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There is a difference between a poverty that is relational and emotional and a poverty that is material – even though they are, in reality, intertwined (and the former particularly hard to define). I tend to see the former as primarily the preserve of the Church (though I don’t think the church has the monopoly on answers to this), and the latter as the responsibility of the state – and the lines between the two as blurry and debatable.

You?

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