the i in the big society

24 03 2011

For someone often caricatured as putting the ‘er’ into Canterbury, Archbishop Rowan Williams spoke about the Big Society this week, and he was surprisingly direct. You can read a summary of his speech entitled “Big Society  – Small World?” on his website, along with the full text, if you are feeling brave! I am not normally an avid reader of his, mostly because he is very wordy, but was pointed to this by Nick Baines’ blog.

The Archbishop reflected theologically on the notion of Big Society – in which we all chip in to help each other out motivated by our own aspirations and desire to be involved – concluding that it is a meaningless concept if we do not know who we are and what we stand for. If we exist simply for our own personal gain and that of our immediate family, and if we show interest only in things that have an immediate benefit for us, then Big Society falls at the first hurdle.

Footwashing in Canterbury Cathedral

What follows is my interpretation his thoughts, with quotes from him, relating to the ideas of power, empathy and community.

Talking about the response to the economic situation that we have found ourselves in, largely due to lack of financial regulation and turning a blind in in the hope things will work out, he says:

“Strictly economic remedies and alternatives of various sorts have been much discussed.  But along with this, there has been a more clearly political response – political in the sense that it asks questions about the proper location of power, about where the levers of change and control lie in society.  And this in turn generates a crucial set of questions about political ethics or political virtue: if we need to explore where power lies, we need also to explore what we want power to do and why.  It is in this context that discussion has been developing about – for example – the proper definition of wealth and well-being, about individual and communal goals, about the sort of human character that is fostered by unregulated competition and a focus on individual achievement, and about where we derive robust ideas of the common good and the social compact.  It is in this context that the ‘Big Society’ theme has to be understood.”

‘Common good’ and any kind of ‘social compact’ only apply to those who think outside of themselves and are prepared to give up power and personal interest. And so to empathy and virtue…

Empathy is  understanding another’s point of view, and acting on it in ways that may not necessarily benefit ‘me’. The Big Society relies on empathy and emotional awareness. He puts it like this:

“If we live in a milieu where a great many signals discourage empathy and self-scrutiny, and thus emotional awareness, we shall develop habits of self-absorption, the urge for dominance, and short-term perspective.  Our motivation to change anything other than what we feel to be our immediate circumstances will be weak, because our sense of ourselves as continuous, reflective agents will be weak.  And the clear implication of all this is that without an education of the emotions – which means among other things the nurture of empathy – public or political life becomes simply a matter of managing the competition of egos with limited capacity to question themselves.  It will amount to little more than the kind of damage limitation that arises when we have nothing robust to appeal to except universal entitlements.”

Jesus command to love our neighbour as ourselves has far-reaching personal and political consequences. Constantly we are reminded to think outside of our own needs, our own desires; think of the Good Samaritan story in which the Samaritan helps the wounded Jew for no personal benefit, and actually at great personal cost. Without this sort of thinking, the Big Society will end up with a lot of people passing by on the other side. A simple illustration is when people volunteer to help with the youth club only for the time their kids are in it; or lobby to save only local facilities they use. And no-one can admit to knowing prostitutes (except Jesus).

Rowan Williams goes on to talk about implications for the wider global community; the ways in which aid money is distributed, the ways in which the wealthy economies fix and fiddle and manipulate the global economy to ensure they stay at the top of the pile, and he challenges politicians to apply the same thinking globally as they are wanting us to apply locally.

“The priority is to keep a clear focus on the need to guarantee that power in the global economy does not simply continue to flow towards those who are already secure and wealthy.  What I am here arguing for is a thoroughly coherent account of what ‘Big Society’ ideals might mean, in such a way that the theme of a transfer of power is pursued at every level, national and global.”

Thankfully for those of us in low income communities, the Archbishop is well aware that the church exists to provide a presence in every community. That is one of the benefits of our parish system. He also makes clear that one of the dangers of the Big Society approach is that it depends on who you have in your community. If your community is full of people who are used to organising and managing and debating and acting in a professional capacity, and have money to spare, it may be that your community will be full to the brim with sports clubs, music lessons, protest groups and lobbying unions with lots of people wanting to be involved.

But if your community is full of people for whom daily life is a constant struggle with finances, with parenting, with complex relationships, with mental health issues and a lack of engagement with institutions from school to the Police to politics, backed up by poor education and literacy, then it is unlikely there will be many community groups. There will be some, of course, though they are likely to be under-resourced, centrally-organised and reliant on a few to keep them going.

“Unless we can think intelligently about what really does need doing and can only be done at national and international level, localism risks becoming a rather sinister programme in which every local community sinks or swims according to its immediate local capacity.  This is not only a morally and theologically insupportable picture; it is also a wholly unreal one, given the more and more sophisticated kinds of interdependence that bind us.”

Big Community
I have heard others say that we are actually wanting is a Big Community, not a Big Society; but community is too personal a concept. Community speaks of responsibilities and not of rights; community speaks of self-giving, of sacrifice. Of participation. And I think that in the many and varied church communities up and down the country, we achieve this. In small ways, and often it goes wrong, but we achieve this. And if nothing else, we aspire to it. Because Jesus teaches us that thinking outside of ourselves is one of the keys to being who we were made to be and acting as a forgiven people; that power clung to like a toddler is not the power that he displayed when he emptied himself and became a slave for us, and is not the model for us; and that we work together as a community like a body, each part dependent on the other.

When we get those things straight, maybe the Big Society can have some depth and even, maybe and possibly, some meaning. Even if it means sitting through Local Committees discussing 20% cuts to our rubbish collection budget.

Thank you Rowan for pointing out the I in the Big Society. May it soon become a we.




3 responses

25 03 2011

As usual the Archbishop makes some very valid and thoughful comments and leads us to think in what seems to be the right direction. Thank God for leaders like him.

I do think we need to to give more consideration to what we mean by the Big Society. As Kevin rightly points out most of us live in local communities, some of us are better off, some are very needy, at the moment many are struggling. Yet somehow I feel this is the place to start, giving people the ability to help themselves and get out of despair. I think people can do it, and will do it given encouragement and a few resources. Its the same principle as international aid, don’t give it to the big schemes, give it to the mums and farmers to let them become self sufficient.

These days the local community is often also a representation of the global community, people from many races, creeds and nations. It is in working together within the community that we learn about each other and ultimately it is that knowledge that stops wars and brings about respect.

What sits in between? I am not sure what value there is in local government when many of the decisions are taken at higher levels and pushed down on the people. I had hoped big society would stop this, but so far – dream on! I am also not sure what value there is in national Government when even they have little scope for decision making which is made by the EU or by the superpowers. We need a structure that builds from the community to world government.

I am also very worried that the Big Society seems in some ways to mean privatising services presently adminsitered by public service. That is fine if they are privatised to small local companies who care and are accountable. My experience, howerev suggests that these contracts go to the few multinational big firms, already very rich, whose sole aim is to make more profit for their shareholders.

We seem to be caught where intuitively we want local communities to make decisions but in fact we hace ceded power to those, companies and economic communities and pacts, who are bigger than our national governments and out of control. How do we get the power back so that people are respected? And who do we trust to lead us in that revolution?

28 03 2011
Little Edge of the Big Society

I’ve been thinking about this blog on and off over the weekend. It strikes me as one of your most significant posts in recent times. Thanks – it really is excellent.
I confess I’ve been waiting for an army of commentators to offer their thoughts and give me something to hook my own comments on. But other than the inimitable speedy feedback from c2drl (who is always worth reading), it has been very quiet out there in pundit-land. So I wonder why that is. And somehow, I think that is significant in itself.
The Big Society is something that churches should be right at the heart of. Whatever our politics, there is much for Christians to be challenged and engaged with in this emerging adventure playground of local possibilities. But the doing thing feels problematical, doesn’t it? Where do we start? Where will it end? And the politics gets in the way too (no Chancellor, cuts are not savings!). But we are where we are. Where might we be able to get to from here is an interesting thing to think about too.
Anyway, the Archbishop is right when he says we need to think intelligently about what we need to do. It is always wise to stop and think about whether we should be thinking, or doing something differently. And we should certainly always think about what the AB says, because he is a smart and interesting thinker.
But although I’ve been thinking about all this stuff, I don’t really know what to think about it. I’m even less sure what it is I may need to do about it. I suspect this might be a time to leave the thinking to the strategists and just do something. Maybe if we can break the Big Society idea down into small society chunks we can each make a small difference, which might add up to lots of small differences (sometimes known as a BIG DIFFERENCE), and that might give us plenty more things to think about?
I still don’t know what that might mean in practice. I’m a bloke, so I’m meant to prefer getting on and doing practical stuff anyway. So let’s not think too much! I’m inclined to believe that this may be an opportunity for Christians and churches to just try to act our way into a new way of thinking. And if, by the fruits of our actions, the Big Society feels less like a concept and more like a practical reality, that would be something, I guess.

29 03 2011

Thank you C2DRL and Edge for your comments – as often happens, you make points I didn’t make and the whole thing gets more interesting. I guess the crux of it is are we actually going to do anything… or just talk about it. I think that’s the point you both made. That is something to think about…!

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