Research | C-of-E churches responses to need

I’m studying Church of England (C-of-E) churches responses to need. The C-of-E is unusual, on the one-hand present across England in ‘every community’, active in neighbourhoods, managing volunteers, delivering projects and services. Its stated mission even includes to transform unjust structures of society. On the other-hand, it has a unique place at the heart of UK legislature, its bishops in the House of Lords. The C-of-E is distinctive!

After years of working with churches in disadvantaged communities (ongoing community work on housing estates, or with Church Urban Fund and more recently with Church Action on Poverty and St Martin in the Fields), I want to learn more about the response of C-of-E churches to need. I’m looking at a context of social change – we could talk about ‘deficit reduction‘ or more broadly, austerity – cuts to public services and increased need. What are C-of-E churches doing and how do they do it?

To help understand the responses of C-of-E churches to need, I’m using a theoretical framework developed by sociologist David Howe*. Howe building on original work by Burrell and Morgan (1979) wrote about four ‘types’ of intervention or responses to need used by social workers. I found his model a useful reference point. Here are Howe’s four types:

  • Fixers help individuals in need adapt to a changing context and envionment. Fixers use their experience and knowledge to help a person get back on track, dealing with complex issues. Examples include: Food bank, winter night shelter and money advice services.
  • Seekers after Meaning focus on understanding the perspective and experience of the person in need. This about using individual client centred approaches. Examples include: Counselling support, debt counselling and listening projects.
  • Raisers of Consciousness tackle wider inequality in society. Here individuals confront their own complex issues gaining control of their life. This approach recognises society must change. Examples include Asset Based Community Development, Community Organising and Poverty & Truth commissions.
  • Revolutionaries work to shift society, via a radical and political critique. Here, collective anger might lead to collegiate responses, campaigning and political engagement. Examples include direct action, protest, campaigns and lobbying.

Howe had his critics, however, I think his model is useful in framing responses to need.

Which ‘type’ best fits your churches response to need? More than one type maybe? Which is the dominant type? Where do you place your church activity on the doodle below? (Click on the doodle for a bigger view.)

Where would you place your churches general response to need?

My research is developing case studies focusing on four C-of-E churches, one for each of those four types. So, each church responds to need differently, and in varied contexts. It’s not a comparative study or looking to evaluate activity – I want to understand how churches do what they do. I will spend between 5 to 10 weeks with each, helping out with activity as a participant and interviewing some of those involved. Can you help?

If you are interested and want to learn more about this study and how to participate in the research, please be in touch (contact details on the illustration above). We can then go from there.

My study is independent, not commissioned by any organisation and has ethical approval by Goldsmiths University of London. All information provided by participants is confidential.

I’ll use this space to post updates and insights about the research.

Howe, D. (2008) “An Introduction to Social Work Theory”, Oxford: Routledge

Burrell, G; Morgan, G. (1979). “Sociological Paradigms and Organisational Analysis: Elements of the Sociology of Corporate Life”. London: Heinemann


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Remembering John Smith

Friend and regular to the festival in the 1980s and 90s, Ozzie theologian and activist John Smith has died. 

In the early 70s John ditched the Methodist minister suit and tie, grew his hair and a beard, switching to boots, leather and skins, embracing the outlaw bike scene. The rest is history. In 1972 ‘God’s Squad’ was established. As the beard grew, the leathers scuffed and outlaw bikers defected to Gods Squad, so the club established its reputation across Australia as a legitimate ‘outlaw’ gang. John embraced the rituals of the outlaw biker with a compassion and commitment, that helped grow the Squad’s credibility. Alongside friendships with outsiders John co-founded churches, organisations and social welfare programmes, penetrating Aussie media long after interest in the Squad had moved on. John brought a distinctive comment on social, cultural and ethical issues, challenging his audience to find meaning beyond consumption and materialism. 

If you made it to Greenbelt in the late 80s and early 90’s you’d have struggled to miss John. He first spoke at Greenbelt in 1986, the year of Hurricane Charlie, attending the festival with his beloved family and close friends, the Maddocks. It was John’s blend of intellect, passion and a fearless oratory that helped grow a loyal UK following – that, along with the cassette tape. I first heard about Smithy from a biker in a Stockport tower block in ‘87 who gave me a tape of his ’86 Greenbelt talks as we sipped sherry. It was a revelation. John returned to Greenbelt in ‘87 to launch his autobiography. The book and his Greenbelt talks became best-sellers. For a time U2’s Bono and Edge adopted Smithy as unofficial chaplain, and his followers grew. 

John was unusual – a genuine, old school polymath. A walk round the neighbourhood and he introduced varieties of grass, types of eucalyptus, the hidden or ignored revealed and celebrated. Ten minutes with Smith and you might cover protons and particle physics, Hamlet, Tolstoy, Lady Gaga, alongside youth homelessness, or marine conservation. Which is maybe why a generation of Greenbelt audiences loved him. His empathy with artists and passion for, and knowledge of art was infectious. John referred to art as ‘the nerve ends of the soul’ coupling his commitment to artists alongside a rage against injustice, racism, treatment of indigenous people, inequality. Though he inspired many in truth John was complex – an impossible, absurd mix of contradictions. Intense, chaotic, tactless, driven, at times heavy handed. Curious, compassionate, tender, broken. And brilliant. 

His final Greenbelt was in 2007. Track #RIP John Smith on your social media and you’ll see a legacy in tributes from performers, artists, musicians, medics, teachers, social-workers and activists. Many who trace their vocation back to Smithy and an encounter at Greenbelt. It says it all. People who joined John and ditched one life for something else all-together.

Written for the Greenbelt blog 11 March 2019.

I, Daniel Blake –

Little gang of us saw ‘I, Daniel Blake’ tonight. A great film! Brave story telling only enhanced by some understated performances and direction. No surprise the film put Ian Duncan Smith – the architect of five-years welfare reform – on the defensive. Here’s a measured indictment of UK’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) benefits system since the crash, austerity and the political decision to clobber all the ‘skivers’ and ‘shirkers’ with £15 billion cuts to the welfare budget. The film affirms what we all know – the skivers and shirkers are an insignificant number, while most of us want to work, a place to call home and some feeling of self-worth. “When you loose your self-respect, you’re done for”, says Daniel Blake.

Social security can function as a vital safety net supporting people through crisis. The DWP system in the film is appalling for its absence of humanity. On its launch, IDS did a Gove and refuted all the ‘experts’ and army of researchers credited at the end of the film – immediately betraying a profound lack of insight about his own system!

The film is shot through with compassion. The food bank scene is one of many celebrating the generosity, kindness and the tender response of a bunch of people, getting organised to help others. And at the end there’s a quiet plea from Blake for authorities (organisations, charities) and systems to engage fully with, and affirm the reality and complexity of our humanity. “I’m not a ‘client’, I’m not a ‘customer’, I’m not a ‘service user’! I’m a person!”

Lots more to say. But, go see! It’s a BBC Film, so will hopefully soon pop up on iPlayer for months. Essential viewing!

Sport Relief: Luther Special & a Quick Text Won’t Do it!

We’re watching Sport Relief, an unrelenting mash up of fun, sporting heroics, comedy and conviction. The banter, unlikely competitions, silly stunts, heroic feats (Eddie Izzard) and comedy sketches are fun and at times it’s all very inspiring. The short, beautifully crafted films capture eye-watering poverty with grim commentary that pulls no punches. The whole venture feels like a great endeavour.

On the night, if the extreme silliness and comedy jars with the hard-hitting stories, then on the whole Sport Relief seem to pull it off.

For me it’s the big sponsors that are the problem. The absence of any comment on corporate and government policy, affecting the lives of those featured.

Alongside all the hard work, team building and back patting about sponsorship we don’t get to hear corporates siting changes in their investment policies. Or the impact of mainstreaming their Fairtrade range. Or paying workers a living Wage.

So the Premier League raise over a £1 million. When Deloitte reports that in 2013-14 the combined revenues of Premier League clubs soared by 29% to £3.26bn – and pre-tax profits of £187m. A million seems a bit piffling.

I’d like to hear Sport Relief highlight this absurd inequality. I’d love to hear the Premier League report all its clubs are paying a Living Wage.

John Bishop recalls a rubbish dump in Kenya – and returning we cheer Margaret who is away from the tip and going to school. And her Grandma has started a business. We don’t hear that the rubbish dump is still there, and remains a magnet to the poorest and most vulnerable. The system remains.

It’s ironic to hear pronouncements about UK government matching donations to Sport Relief via Gift Aid, when so many of the projects that will benefit are facing crippling cuts or closure because of government policies introduced targeting cuts to small voluntary organisations. Or that users of the services are victims to cuts targeting the most vulnerable. Or victims of welfare reform. We don’t hear about this. It’s a huge absence.

“We need to show you what you, what we, need to change” says Danny Dyer. The problem is no amount of donations will bring the change he’s calling for. We need system change – and that comes through progressive policies, the ballot box and an ethical, regulated market. It won’t happen after a mini-Luther, and a quick text on a Friday night.

I’m up for Sport Relief, Comic Relief. Here’s to more comedy and creativity and acts of individual generosity – and extraordinary projects that inspire!

And alongside this real stories about unregulated markets – about landlords raising rents and making life intolerable for the poorest. Or the impact of a social ‘safety net’ quietly dismantled and a spike in the numbers of homeless. The human cost of closures, cuts, of policies pursuing profits and privatisation.

And alongside stories of individuals who have had their lives transformed, lets include a Danny Boyle style celebration of systems we need – decent public health, public housing and public education – systems that benefit the poorest and most vulnerable, that we need to keep and preserve.

Christmas Star

My blog for the Chatsworth Road Advent Stars thing.

An advent star for when the sky clears and it’s an inky blackness. Lost in space, without a prayer, courage fades; the campaign fails, the cause has gone.

When hope is lost and you’re uncertain where to go.

Christmas recalls an improbable story of astrologers guided to a Palestinian baby in a country under military occupation. For those of faith, the story finds God in solidarity with humanity, in a stable, sharing the view with farmyard animals, and a teenage mum.

It’s a great tale.

Amongst many things, the legacy is a movement of all kinds of people living for justice, mercy and peace.

Another story last week, this time of east Londoners travelling to Calais. Taking food and clothing to refugees and asylum seekers searching for sanctuary on European soil, many from countries battered and bombed.

And those bearing gifts return speaking of extraordinary welcome, and astonishing hospitality.

Sitting with lives that un-expectantly burn bright, under a makeshift tarpaulin in the rain.

So, here’s to moments shared, that challenge and illuminate in wilderness days.

To flickers of grace and mercy extended to each other when we least expect it.

To flames of solidarity with the refugee and those on the margins, a commitment to justice and right living that take us beyond charity.

Here’s to some modest visions and great adventures this week. You never know where it might lead.

Finding home

Each Monday we host people in our neighbourhood, cooking food and eating together. For some, it’s a bit weird being in another home, others roll with it, bringing or preparing food. Numbers vary from half a dozen to 25 or more. People muck in and somehow we all eat together.

A recent Monday meal and I’m looking round the room. Times are tough and everyone is looking weighed down. I ask Marcia a regular question I’ve been asking her every week for the last few months. It’s about the flat she’s been renting (for 18 years) and the imminent eviction. “Oh, its been sold” she responds deadpan, “not that it means anything…”. The new owner is likely to let them stay she thinks, though they haven’t said that. What they will do if they’re evicted? Don’t know she says. Find another place, “though there’s nothing round here, it’s all too pricey.”

Hackney is becoming expensive, and rented accommodation scarce. Another conversation – this time Trevor. “I can count rented properties available in this area on one hand. Rent has gone up. People will pay. We’re priced out. Landlords are selling up cashing in on the Olympics.” Janice and her young kids are in tonight. Last seen months ago facing eviction and nowhere to go, she and her two disappeared overnight. This isn’t uncommon. A crisis or catastrophe and people vanish, somehow showing up weeks or months later. Janice is back. She’s found a place round. “We’re OK now. We haven’t unpacked. We never unpack. We may have to move out – it’s not worth it.”

Across London the demographics are changing. This week I’ve had more conversations with people making plans to move out. We read about attempts to move 500 families from their homes in Newham to Stoke on Trent. The cost of a flat to rent, has become too much. Research just published finds 700,000 Londoners needing to do two or more jobs to meet living costs. At least 270,000 sofa-surf, sleeping on a friend’s or family’s sofa and almost 130,000 continue living with an ex-partner for financial reasons.

I listen to Marcia. I can see them turfed out of the flat losing not just the place, but the friendships and supportive networks built up over a lifetime ‘round here’. It’s losing your home, pushed out by owners who are selling up, while landlords prepared to increase rents to eye-watering levels, price out others. I’m anticipating Janice disappearing again. Trevor will move out. What do you do?

Some follow a prophetic tradition like that recorded in the Old Book of Amos, where the author lashes out at landlords raising the rent, making life intolerable for the poor. Others campaign for change. We can all lament at the mess. Maybe we can also be inspired by people and churches, on the ground working for change.

In Hackney, the Round Chapel – a United Reform Church – has worked with individuals and churches to raise money to buy a house. This provides affordable accommodation to local missionaries, community and social workers, people working to support the local area. In a context of impossible house prices, its a small, practical and costly expression of community and hospitality. In Bradford people got together to establish ‘Inn Churches’ – growing a volunteer base of over 350 people who together offer hospitality providing almost 2000 temporary beds for homeless people over the winter. It’s a very practical offering of hope.

I’m still feeling hopeless about Marcia, long-term unemployed, beset with health problems, a friend over the years. I imagine it could be OK, maybe even the making of her. But I don’t believe it. It feels this is the last thing she needs right now. As I write she’s facing up to moving out. Out of the blue I get a text from Trevor. He’s been offered a flat with affordable rent just round the corner. It feels like a reprieve, a shock of hope in the gloom. “It’s going to be home, just for now.”