Children, Churches and the Big Society Forum: a Challenge to Church and Nation

Big Society Forum                      November 2011
Outline of a Vision Paper

Title:  Children, Churches and the Big Society Forum:
a Challenge to Church and Nation

CCCF and why it is convening the coalition and conference

CCCF has been around for thirty years in one shape or form.  It has its roots in Christian endeavours to give practical support and care to children and families in the name of Jesus Christ.  Founder members include Spurgeons, Fegans, Mullers, Mill Grove, CCPAS, and Mission of Hope. Since then it has gathered together hundreds of Christians and Christian organisations engaged with children and families in conferences, and initiatives.

Over the years it has crystallised its vision as:

promoting a contemporary society in which children and young people have a rightful place, and… responding in love, from common Christian perspectives, to the needs of children and families.

When it comes to the “Big Society” therefore we find that CCCF, like a number of churches and denominations, has already anticipated and put into action many of the ideas and concepts.

For this reason the launch of a Christian coalition under the banner Children, Churches and the Big Society Partnership, of which the national conference is a part, is a logical step in this process.

Background to the “Big Society”

Although the words may be relatively new, the ideas and themes that seem to make up what the Prime Minister, David Cameron means when he uses them, have a long history. Of course no words uttered by a politician can ever be used as if they are without political significance.  In this case one common interpretation is that in an age of austerity, with cuts to central and local government budgets, the Big Society is an attempt to get voluntary effort and charitable organisations to fill the gaps.  CCCF and the coalition it has drawn together is not unaware of this perspective.

One way of understanding the Big Society is to contrast it with what it stands against.  And that is relatively uncontroversial.  Throughout history there have been those who have argued for a strong state that provides universal services for its citizens.  In this way the needs of all, including the weak and vulnerable are best met.  It follows that to have a strong society of this sort, there needs to be Big Government. Examples of this in world history can be found on the right and left of the political spectrum.

The Big Society is not about Big Government, but it intended to represent an alternative to it.

In its present form in the UK it was launched in the 2010 Conservative manifesto.  It had five main aims/themes:

  1. Give communities more powers (localism and devolution)
  2. Encourage people to take an active role in their communities (volunteerism)
  3. Transfer power from central to local government
  4. Support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises
  5. Publish government data (open/transparent government)

It is supported by a Big Society Network, and the plans include setting up a Big Society Bank and introducing a national citizen service.

Much of this thinking resonates with ideas that contributed to the European Union, for example, “subsidiarity”.  And the whole concept is closer to Edmund Burke’s political philosophy that values “the small platoons”, than grand schemes and ideas for the betterment of society at the cost of traditional local groups, communities and organisations.

The notion has been criticised for its lack of clarity, but that is inherent in the very idea.  If a government were to set out a template for what it meant in every community, then it would inevitably represent a Big Government!  Rather there is the idea that a proper role of governments is to create the space, opportunities and resources which local communities and voluntary organisations need if they are to thrive.  There are many countries around the world where political and economic conditions undermine the social fabric of neighbourhoods, kinship and voluntary networks.

There is disagreement between political parties on how best a government creates such conditions, and what minimum levels of government funding and resources are needed to do so.

Aware of some of the pitfalls CCCF believes that it is appropriate to be involved in the process, and in particular in spelling out what Christian churches and organisations believe a Big Society that is child-friendly would look like.

A good example that has come to our attention is from community leaders among black neighbourhoods in London.  Rather than criticise the Big Society as a cover up for the lack of government funding to underprivileged groups in society, these leaders have included those who welcome the opportunity to shape aspects of future society.  For too long, such groups have been enlisted to support government projects and initiatives. In this new idea they see the possibility of having a significant say in how they would like society to be, and in helping to build it alongside government, local and central.

A Child Friendly Big Society

It is neither the intention, nor the role of CCCF to seek to speak for the whole Christian church about every aspect of the Big Society.  Rather it focuses on what it chooses to call “child-friendly” society.  It is our view that where societies, are at every level, child- friendly, then they will inevitably be just and benevolent.  One of the members of the coalition has been engaged for several years in what it has called “the good childhood”, and the essence of that research and programme chimes with what CCCF means for a child-friendly society.

Children have however often been marginal in society, and in political, sociological, economic, theological and psychiatric discourses.  And one of the dangers of the Big Society is that it perpetuates, albeit unwittingly, this marginalisation.

One of the purposes of the Children, Churches and Big Society Partnership is therefore to articulate those aspects of a Big Society that we believe from our long experience alongside children and families, are crucial in the creation and sustenance of a child-friendly Big Society.

Resources of Christian Churches in the UK

This section reminds both members of the coalition and the state of the huge resources represented by the Christian churches when Big Society is in view.

There are estimated to be 47,000 places of worship in the UK. There are 27,000 parent and toddler groups run by or held in churches.

Faith groups play a vital role in serving poor and disadvantaged communities and despite the growing recognition of the significant resources available in the third sector, many underestimate their importance.

Faith based organisations represent approximately 14 per cent of the sector (25,500 out of 180,000 charities registered have a religious basis by Charity Commission estimates).

Faith based organisations often have a large volunteer base. The Home Office Citizenship Survey (2003) estimated that in the previous year, 57 per cent of those actively practising a religion had also been involved in formal volunteering in comparison to 38 per cent of others.

According to research conducted on behalf of the Northwest Regional Development Agency (2005) faith based organisations in the contributed approximately 8.1 million volunteer hours per annum, with an estimated economic value of a little under £64.7 million.

Faith communities often exist in areas where there are few, if any, community buildings, making them crucial cohesive agents in their communities.

Apart from economic contribution, local faith sector organisations often have extensive community knowledge and presence. They are often able to quickly assess community need and deliver a highly personalised service.

Church Schools are one of the most popular institutions in the UK.

Heritage:

Strategic Issues to Inform Debate and Action

In 2006 CCCF convened a group of leaders of Christian children’s organisations at Royal St Katharine to explore some of the key strategic themes to be held firmly in such a process.

These included:

multi-culturalism and the increasing questioning of it in Europe, as it affects our life and work alongside children and young people;

a chronic concern with education/learning models, and an emerging sense that new technologies and demography may well result in profound changes (will schools become as obsolete as workhouses and large psychiatric hospitals, for example?);

the significance of play and story in children’s lives;

the importance of attachment and permanent commitment of at least one adult in each child’s life to nurture the potential for resilient attitudes and behaviour;

concerns over the relation of children and young people to a democratic process that excludes them (one adult: one vote) locally and nationally while all the time paying sincere attention to “children’s rights” and “children as agents”;

faith-based organisations operating on behalf of the state and all that this implies;

the prophetic role (often known as “advocacy”) of Christian organisations and people alongside children;

the growth of capitalism and consumerism as they affect children and childhood;

critiques of “child development theories” in their inherent stress on the “not yet” of adulthood at the expense of the “now” of childhood;

the future of Planet Earth, climate change and the associated anxieties…

These were set in a changing global context that included major changes in family relationships and life, values, globalisation, media, capitalism, consumerism, communication, identity formation and meaning, peer groups, travel, religious awareness, fundamentalism, belonging, learning, the storage and dissemination of knowledge and information.

This is a timely reminder that any Big Society that seeks to replicate a new version of Little England, is doomed from the start: completely out of touch with the social world that our children and young people encounter and help to form in new ways.  In many ways children will be leaders in the creation of the Big Society: agents in the process, rather than passive recipients of services or structured information.

Conclusion

CCCF has stated aims:

By providing a means of sharing experience and insights, and of increasing understanding and cooperation on matters of policy and practice the Forum seeks to sustain and develop the contribution of Christian resources to the well-being of children and young people.

It recognises the following:

1.1 The great potential of co-operation within an interdenominational Christian grouping such as a Forum.

1.2 The importance of guarding the spiritual dimension of children’s lives at a time when there is evidence of some anti-religious feeling, or antipathy to Christianity, in some sectors of the children’s services.

1.3 The need to keep the spiritual element to the forefront and to help those people who are grappling with the inter-face between religion, race and culture.

1.4 The frequent lack of opportunity for (daily) religious observance in schools; yet recognition of the role of OFSTED in affirming the right to Christian nurture.

1.5 The need to discern/comprehend the ‘value-base’ in secular child care organisations.

1.6 The difference that it would make if our organisation did not exist.

1.7 The value of Advocacy with and for children, among Christians and the churches, as well as in the public domain.

And underlines the following distinctive contribution of Christian organisations in child care:

2.1 Their foundation within, and inspiration from, the Christian faith.

2.2 Theological understanding of the nature and integrity of the individual; physical, mental and   spiritual development through and beyond childhood; the value of relationships within and between generations.

2.3 A particular commitment and sense of vocation, able to engage with both religious and secular structures/communities. The opportunity, among Christians, both to offer and to receive support.

2.4 Roots and relationships within local communities, denominational structures and varied     communities within the Christian faith.

2.5 Links with other faith communities, as distinct from simply ethnic and cultural links.

2.6 A willingness and the resources (not restricted to State funding) to provide services either        distinctive from, or complementary, to the formal care system.

2.7 A desire to optimise Christian support in response to the needs of children and families within the four nations.

Given these aims and resources it seeks to draw together all those who identify with them to play their part in shaping and developing a Big Society that is child-friendly, and in line with our understanding of God’s will for human beings in community.

As part of the process CCCF has convened a national conference in November 2011.  Before this it seeks to widen the membership and increase the input of the coalition, and after the conference, it seeks to work with church and nation in pursuit of its goals.

Keith J. White

28.06.2011

Comments

Leave a Reply