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.

Consultation: Avoid the con’

The last few weeks I found myself on an estate facilitating a community consultation. It raised various challenges. Here are five insights:

1. Find the corporate memory

Here estate residents are frustrated at staff turnover in local authority departments. The churn of staff coming and goings generates an ‘institutional amnesia’ with new staff ‘forgetting’ decisions, key papers, documents, reports and findings from even recent consultations. Findings of previous consultations are ‘forgotten’. They forget they ever conducted consultations!

This is ‘institutional dementia’, where insight is lost, ignored or impossible to retrieve. This erodes confidence in local government and agency.

Dig around and find all the previous research and consultations you can. Bring it all together, on a website or at meetings. Find a way to summarise the research and recover the memory from previous studies.

2. Highlight uncoordinated plans 

Duplication happens all the time.  Councils commission, re-commission, inadvertently duplicating work going on in the office next door or down the corridor.

Competition between council departments hardly helps. This uncoordinated approach generates perceptions the local authority is unaware of work its doing.

Spot and challenge the lack of coordination and duplication. Highlight opportunities to collaborate between department and agency – finding ways to save cash.

3. Be clear it isn’t a stitch up

Residents talked about private contractors running consultations on behalf of the local authority. For residents, the contractors were ‘going through the motions’ – with no intentions of digging deep, finding reality and then producing recommendations informed by the findings. In fact the contractors and local authority had their plans.

The conflict of interest raises questions about the integrity of the consultation and the research findings. What is going on? What is the funders agenda?

Consultation is a great opportunity to promote the people, department and researchers – affirming the process and all those involved and invited to participate. It’s a moment to say options are open and this isn’t a stitch up. If you’re clear with the research funder the consultation isn’t a stitch up.

4. Find the Shops

You’d be surprised how much the ‘market place’, the centre of a community gets missed off conultations. Newsagents, grocers and adjacent bus stops have a big footfall.

I once surveyed an estate, inviting residents to return completed forms to the local supermarket, where the completed form became a £1 off discount coupon! The survey received a 38% return rate.

Your parade of shops is central to the community – get in there and spend time asking questions and listening to people.

5. Work with the funder on what comes next.

It’s important what happens to the findings once a consultation is completed. Consultation creates expectations amongst participants and disappointment and resentment when outcomes don’t turn out as anticipated.

How do you manage expectation?

Any confidence in an excellent consultation process turns to cynicism when the findings are forgotten, or the process is duplicated a week, month or year later. So, what’s the plan? It’s worth talking this through with the council department, agency or funder.

We could talk about using a local café as a base for people to find you. Or the importance of door to door, or consulting people outside of office hours and getting a feel for the estate early or late. More for next time!

Church and their Buildings

Church buildings are a challenge. Sure, buildings can be useful, but viability and costly maintenance clog up work and the agenda of church meetings. And when you’ve only a tiny congregation – the pressure builds up.

How, when the vicars vocation is about people and community, is so much time given to buildings? What is ‘church’ – a pseudo heritage organisation?

A church building is a great opportunity:

  • A presence in a neighbourhood, on the skyline and landscape.
  • A continuity, reassuring in a changing world.
  • A resource to host all kinds of activity.

On the other hand, they are a nuisance:

  • Space is often unused for most of the week.
  • Expensive to maintain.
  • Refurbishment or modernising plans can dominate forever.
  • People resources get diverted to focus on bricks and mortar.

With small congregations and affordable alternatives, why a building anyway?

As soon as a minister starts at a church they get a bunch of keys. Incumbent to the building, keeping it open is a key measure of success. For most vicars the building becomes the constant headache – the ongoing distraction.

You can see the building ‘managing’ the minister and their congregation.

What is the alternative?

In Cornwall I met a vicar set free from managing the plant. A new Trust has been set up with support from the diocese to manage a huge listed rural church building.

  • The Trust is independent of the Parochial Church Council (PCC).
  • The local vicar is not on the board of the Trust.
  • The Trust is enabling those outside the church interested in the building to oversee and develop the space.

I sat in on a meeting of the Trust and PCC as they agreed responsibility for every aspect of the building – who looks after and oversees what? Like a couple deciding who had custody, this was in a brilliant exercise in pragmatism. The PCC prioritising use of space within the building and responsibility only for those items required for a worshiping congregation. The devil is in the detail, and the detail is a lease signed in January 2016 by the PCC

It’s not a straight forward exercise for the vicar.

Happy to loose responsibility for the upkeep of the building while (outside regular use on a Sunday and occasional meetings and events) loosing control of the space can feel like too much. In Cornwall they’ve struck a good deal. The congregation retain full use for meeting Sundays and for weddings, baptisms etc, and PCC oversee their meeting area in the chancellery. The rest of the building and time during the week is overseen by the Trust.

It’s early days for the vicar, the PCC and the Trust but this new approach could make a huge difference. The congregation and vicar can get on working on interpreting ‘church’ as a group of people. The Trust focus on working with stakeholders (including the congregation) to develop the space.

The project raises important questions about a population’s relationship with their local church building.

  • What are the priorities for small congregations with limited resources?
  • What does a phrase like ‘our church’ mean to members of a worshiping congregation and the vast majority of the local population who aren’t?
  • Who is responsible for maintaining and developing a church building when its beyond the reach of the congregation and incumbent? What are the implications and possibilities for seeding responsibility to a wider circle of people beyond the congregations?

What’s clear is that while the church faces a tsunami of redundant church buildings, many buildings still present a huge opportunity. Bold solutions – like the one in Cornwall – offer learning and maybe some answers.

Staying Power

Sorry to read the Community Development Foundation (CDF) will close later in 2016. The news snuck out mid-December lost amidst a flurry of tinsel. It’s demise is a blow for the community sector.

The CDF has its roots in Harold Wilson’s  Community Development Projects (CDP) of the 60’s and 70’s. IMG_0134A government funded community programme, the CDP’s galvanised neighbourhoods, while it’s community workers went native, radically critiquing the state for allowing the collapse of industry and manufacturing. Something along the lines of “If people have their jobs taken, community work is no substitute for employment and justice!”

CDP’s became the ‘Community Projects Foundation’ and eventually the CDF – a public body, publicly funded.

The irony of a state funded organisation working to support independent grassroots community work was not lost on everyone. CDF had its critics, concerned ‘community development’ with all its potential for empowering radical grassroots change, was being commandeered and diluted by government. By the 90’s CDF operated alongside a bunch of alternative independent agencies, each active in supporting different aspects of community development and its paid and unpaid workers.

CDF’s closure follows Urban Forum and Community Development Exchange (CDX) – both supporting distinctive aspects of independent, grassroots community work. Each noted withdrawal of government funding as a factor in their demise.

Maybe in a world of community organising, social enterprise, competitive tendering and commissioning, CDF struggled to find its place. Yet CDF’s closure is a loss to the community sector.

Badly eroded from 2010, CDF had a unique connection to government and once, a seat at the table. This at least provided government with a formal mechanism to engage with and fund community development work. With its closure any trace of this is now lost with little opportunity for remaining national community organisations to fill the gap.

The context for national organisations (Locality, Community Matters etc) to nurture collaboration, assert the importance  of independent grassroots community work and lobby for funding is vanishing. The work is a huge challenge for a sector under siege, already diminished by an exit of government funding, independence eroded by the impact of new funding regimes and increased competition. And any place around the government table has gone.

Community organisation locally and nationally are overstretched and under resourced. The temptation to secure funding at any price is overwhelming – even if it means staying silent when the community you work in is being decimated by cuts, closures, welfare reform and low pay. ‘Take the money and deliver a service!’ Yet a few of these organisations buck the trend, continuing to secure funding, find new ways to operate effectively while amplifying the voices of those most marginalised.

The closure of CDF throws down the gauntlet to Locality, Community Matters and others to promote effective community development, working for social justice on the margins, and to work harder with policy makers and the state – not letting government off the hook!

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.