In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, talked about the Big Society and the role of volunteering. His words are significant as they come at a time when the meaning of the Big Society for the voluntary sector in policy terms is still just emerging.
So it’s interesting that the Archbishop should find echoes of Catholic teaching “emerging in the language of the new Coalition Government”. The interview describes him as, “enthusiastic at the opportunities offered by Mr Cameron’s call for a Big Society…”.
There is no better model for this [the Big Society, he [Archbishop Nichols] says, than in Lourdes.
While it is doubtful that David Cameron had the French market town in mind when he launched the policy, across the cobbled road from the garden where we talk, smiling teenagers push elderly pilgrims in their wheelchairs. Around the corner in the hospital, groups of volunteers care for the sick and the frail…
One of the things that we see in Lourdes is the great value of tapping into people’s goodwill. If we can generate that sense of volunteering and the sense of fulfilment that comes from it in our society, then we would be better for it. The Big Society is a step in that direction.
Now, however, he expresses an excitement at the potential for the Coalition and reveals he had become disillusioned with the Labour administration.
The last government was too overarching. In attempting to create a state that provided everything, it ended up losing touch with the people it was trying to serve.
Up to now Cameron has been careful to present the concept of the Big Society in secular terms, but it’s clear that there’s a certain amount of jostling for position in the anticipation of policy space opened up in the loose and adaptable notion of the Big Society. If the space vacated by the state isn’t immediately occupied by the corporate sector, it seems the UK’s organised religions are standing by to gain in political influence in the hoped expansion of the voluntary sector aka civil society aka the Third Sector.
What might this mean for the way we understand volunteering in the future if the church and organised religion were to play a greater part in the public discourse about volunteering’s role in society?
Nathan Coombs, co-editor of the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies, writing in the Guardian last November wrote a piece that pointed out the links between Big Society thinking and recent theological debates, “The red Tories’ true colours- Philip Blond’s ‘red Toryism’ is inspired by a brand of theology that sits strangely with Cameron’s modernising image”. Coombs writes:
Blond’s advocacy of “red Toryism” – a kind of communitarian, post-Thatcherite, traditional ruralist disdain for capitalism and liberalism – is really the only game in town, at least on the centre-right. It is then unlikely, as some argue, that red Tory ideas represented a mere flash in the pan in early 2009 before Cameron’s reversion to more conventional Thatcherite policies. Instead, their ideas should be seen as providing critical “mood music” for Conservative electioneering.
It is therefore surprising that the philosophical roots of the red Tory doctrine have been subject to only passing examination. One only has to dig very superficially to find the religious doppelganger of the Red Tories – a school of theology called “radical orthodoxy”. With its hub in a theological research centre directed by Professor John Milbank, radical orthodoxy is notable for theorising the roots of what they see as the dystopia of global capitalism and cultural liberalism.
Back in April, John Gray wrote this in his review in The Independent of Blond’s book, Red Tory that sums up how this critique of liberalism could play out in our multi-cultural reality:
A theologian in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of Radical Orthodoxy, Blond is the only significant thinker in the Cameron entourage, so his view of the condition of Britain has more than theoretical interest. Britain is in the state it is, he argues, as a result of an unholy alliance of the permissive counter-culture with market individualism. By giving personal choice supremacy over all other values, these seemingly opposed movements of the 1960s and the 1980s produced Britain as it is today: a society with no conception of the common good that is held together by the anonymous forces of the market and the coercive power of the state…
This rich and interesting diversity is one reason why Blond’s project of reinstating a more unitary culture is so deeply problematic. Today there is no possibility of reaching society-wide agreement on ultimate questions. Happily such agreement is not necessary, nor even desirable. No government can roll back modernity, and none should try. We may be in a mess. But the pluralist society that Britain has become is more hospitable to the good life than the imagined order of an earlier age, which in the end is just one more stifling utopia.
In many of Blond’s articles on this subject (see here and here for example) about the deficiencies of liberalism and secularism, several are written in collaboration with Adrian Pabst. Pabst wrote a piece in the Guardian the other week titled “The ‘big society’ needs religion“ that argued that it’s through religion that we’ll achieve the Big Society. In a nutshell, Pabst’s point, is that religion has a preeminent role in the voluntary sector:
By viewing human associations and intermediary institutions as more fundamental than either state or market, religious traditions are indispensable to a vibrant civil society.
It’s worth looking at Pabst’s argument to get a better sense of its implications:
Much of secular politics still views the voluntary sector either as extension of the state or a sub-section of the market. This subordinates social bonds either to uniform state law or to proprietary market relations or both. Indeed, state and market collude by subjecting the whole of society to formal standards that abstract from real, embodied relations of family, friendship, community, habit, ritual and celebration – as Archbishop Rowan recently argued.
Moreover, the purpose and scope of voluntary, civic activity is severely constrained: it merely compensates for state and market failures, rather than supporting the autonomy of the communities, groups and associations that compose civil society.
Even when this autonomy is acknowledged (as with Cameron), voluntary action, philanthropic giving or social enterprise are often seen as a “third sector” separate from secular politics and for-profit business. If austerity is not just about retrenching government and expanding private delivery of public services, then both state and market must be radically reformed to support rather than undermine civic institutions.
Religions are central to an alternative vision that seeks to transform political and economic practices in line with gift-exchange and strong notions of the sacred. Linked to this is the inalienable dignity of persons and the intrinsic worth of our shared natural habitat. For life is ultimately a gift bestowed upon us and not a matter of legal entitlement or individual possession. For Christians that means a divine source creating the universe out of love and goodness – hence the sanctity of life and land.
Despite the presentation by David Cameron of the ‘big society’ in strictly secular terms, it’s clear that at the theoretical level it’s an argument that finds a lot of resonance in theology. So does this mean those with a theological bent, the voluntary sector goliaths of organised religion, have a head start here over the ‘Davids’ (small, local grassroots groups) in the process to shape and influence the development of Big Society policy?
Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, recently spoke about the Church’s response to the Big Society which he gave two and a half cheers.
He actually referred to Adrian Pabst’s article in the Guardian and highlighted his agreement. In particular, he picked out Pabst’s terms of mutual sympathy and social recognition- and notion of gift exchange.
“The common good of a society depends on deep empathy, the real ability to see something from another’s point of view, and recognition, that is the awareness the other person has the same issues as you do. What’s good for you and what’s good for them are sooner or later going to have to be woven together.”
These alignments between the theoretical roots behind the ‘big society’ and modern theological thinking may well influence the terms in which volunteering is thought about in this country in the future, if the notion of ‘big society’ takes root in policy thinking in the coming years.
The challenge, therefore, is for the sector to respond effectively and articulate a clear and rounded secular notion on the role of volunteering in society with it’s roots in the experience of all those involved in volunteering in all its forms and guises (both in and out of religious contexts).
UPDATE: 7th August 2010
Daily Telegraph reporting: “Church of England charity set to receive £5million from Government“.
“The Church Urban Fund, the Church of England’s poverty relief arm, is expected to be given the substantial sum by the Department for Communities and Local Government later this year. It would constitute by far the largest single grant from Whitehall to a church group in recent years.
The move would prove particularly contentious as the money is likely to be diverted from Preventing Violent Extremism, Labour’s £140million programme aimed at stopping young Muslims turning to radical Islam.
The Government said the grant could not be confirmed, but agreed it did want to use the experience and presence of church groups in every area of the country to help realise David Cameron’s idea of volunteers in the Big Society taking over some of the state’s functions.”