James Bell: Look no further to see the Big Society in action

I WAS asked recently by a big man: “What do you think of the Big Society?” So I told him: “The Big Society? The Church has been doing it for over 2,000 years.”

I’m quoting the Archbishop of York, and what the Archbishop said is not just an opinion. We have good evidence, undertaken by Coventry University, that this is so in the rural parishes up and down the land.

That research was presented in Faith in Rural Communities: Contributions of Social Capital to Community Vibrancy, published in October 2006.

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This research showed that rural churches contribute a great deal to rural community life through building bridges between different social groups and creating a place where all can meet on equal terms. The young and old are served in a variety of ways.

Churches offer pastoral and social care to their faithful and to the whole community. This is done through regular services of prayer and worship, through formal and informal visiting and practical care.

This can include end-of-life and bereavement support, practical care for those who are unwell, those suffering from mental health issues, the lonely and isolated. Parent and toddler groups, midweek activities for children, work with schools and clubs for young people are all part of the work of rural churches.

Extensive work is done with older people through lunchtime events, morning or evening gatherings and more formal programmes of visiting or provision of day care services in some cases.

This is not to say that every rural church carries out all these activities, rather that rural churches play to their strengths, perhaps carrying out one or two of these activities or seeking to serve a specific need within a community.

The contributions of congregation members to community life are of various types – daily village living, networks with other churchgoers, formal worship opportunities, community activities organised through the church, activities organised through other village groups and networks created through family, friendships, work and community service of one kind and another, including work with voluntary organisations and the parish council.

There are now numerous examples of where, through partnership working with other village organisations and external bodies, the church has become the place where a Post Office or village shop is permanently located.

Partnership with the Post Office has ensured that many communities that have lost a permanent post office are able to benefit from outreach services situated on church premises.

The creation of a village shop in the church is a good example of how an ancient building can be adapted to house a resource open to all, while retaining most of the church building for its original purpose.

Partnership working at the more local level takes place formally, often with the parish council or another village organisation or informally through the contacts and relationships of church members.

Partnerships can be formed around the provision of community meeting space, a green project, work with children and young people, a village event or the provision of affordable housing.

So, in many ways and in many places, the rural church is already doing the Big Society and will have more to offer.

To make that offer and to establish good partnerships with others in the endeavour, I think we need a clearer definition of what we are aspiring to.

This is, in fact, a key recommendation in Powerful People, Responsible Society, the report of the Commission on Big Society, which offers this suggestion: “A society in which power and responsibility have shifted: one in which, at every level in our national life, individuals and communities have more aspiration, power and capacity to take decisions and solve problems themselves, and where all of us take greater responsibility for ourselves, our communities and one another.”

The Big Society concept includes much which commends it to the Church. Within the core concept is a move away from the dominant emphasis on the individual to a focus on the importance of the person in thecommunity.

We welcome the emphasis that the concept places on neighbourliness and mutual support. Encouraging problem solving at the most local level, particularly to address difficult issues, offers encouragement for people to think of themselves as citizens rather than just consumers.

The phrase “the common good,” current in Catholic teaching, sums up rather well that idea of all of us taking greater responsibility for ourselves, our communities and one another.

Christians seek to contribute to the common good in each and every community (and at every level of national life) by taking responsibility, motivated not least by the commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself”, which Jesus describes as being like the first commandment to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength.

The Right Reverend James Bell is the Bishop of Knaresborough. He will be among the religious leaders debating “the Big Society and the Role of the Church” at Ripon Cathedral tomorrow.