On 21st November 2013, the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Timothy Stevens, led a take-note debate in the House of Lords on the July 2013 report by ResPublica, Holistic Missions: Social Action and the Church of England. The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome also spoke in the debate. The Bishop of Leicester spoke of an opportunity for the church to play an increasingly important role in the social fabric of the UK, through formal and informal networks, and offered various ways by which this role could be enhanced. The Bishop of Carlisle, making his maiden speech, particularly speaking of his role as lead Bishop for Healthcare and the important role played by the Church of England in areas of holistic health and social care.
The Lord Bishop of Leicester: My Lords, the Church of England is on the verge of extinction, or so you would believe if you accept this week’s tabloid headlines. The report of the think tank ResPublica, entitled Holistic Missions: Social Action and the Church of England, presents us with a different picture. It presents a picture of a church which is present in every community, town, village and city and embedded in its localities. It is a church which baptises, marries and buries a significant proportion of the population, educates some 1 million children in church schools and serves the poor, the homeless, the lonely, the hungry and the distressed in often unnoticed but crucial ways.
The report’s central argument is that a nation cannot thrive and progress purely as a result of the success or otherwise of the market or the Government. These have both in different ways failed us. The NHS has been implicated in massive scandals of appalling care and resultant cover-ups. Our banking system has been the province of vested and bonus-seeking self-interest. In the United Kingdom, social mobility is stagnating and inequalities are rising and embedding. This debate arises from the conviction that we need to renew, recover and restore the transformative institutions which can make a vital difference. The institution primarily placed to do that is the Church of England.
I am delighted, as I am sure we all are, that this debate has attracted two maiden speeches. The noble Baroness, Lady Lawrence of Clarendon, brings to our debate an unrivalled track record of courage and resilience in challenging and shaping civil society, not least through the work of the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle benefits us with his understanding of the challenges and opportunities of the rural churches and communities in Cumbria, as well as his particular portfolio among the Bishops in relation to the NHS. As one of those from this Bench who has the longest train journey to London, he usually comes exceptionally well-acquainted with the agendas of our meetings.
If we are to grasp the unique role of the church in social action, we must recognise that faith plays a vital part in motivating and energising voluntary action at every level. Some 79% of church members who responded to ResPublica’s survey have been involved in social action in the past 12 months, compared with the national average of 45%. According to the Sunday Telegraph, members of the Church of England give some 22.3 million hours each month in voluntary service.I see that daily in my diocese. The street pastors in Leicester and the county towns have a transforming impact on street crime and vulnerable young people, especially on weekend nights. Our diocesan centre provides a base for the City of Sanctuary projects, reaching the most desperate asylum seekers. Our work with the Prince’s Trust transforms self-confidence and life chances for unemployed young people. Apprenticeships in churches and church schools are beginning to develop high quality training and work experience. Outreach youth work in the diocese now exceeds all the resource from the other agencies put together. This pattern is replicated up and down the country where the social mission of the church is indivisible from its spiritual mission—a reflection of God’s concern for all people, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.Further, much of this work is done in partnership with other Christian denominations and other faiths. Indeed, co-operation with the faith communities around, for example, food banks and other forms of social provision, is becoming a hallmark of the Church of England’s work in many of our major cities. Not only is this work widespread but it depends on an institution which is exceptional in its reach and essentially focused on the local. Churches, especially the Church of England, act both as a bridge across communities but also essentially as a gateway into communities. Quite frankly, it is the established church which is uniquely placed to achieve almost universal access through its networks of staff and buildings, and its particular place in the story of every locality.
Speaking to the General Synod this week, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York emphasised that point. He said:
“Parishes up and down the country are striving hard to tackle the consequences of poverty … Indeed for a parish not to be doing something about it is becoming the exception rather than the rule. Take Middlesbrough … for instance, where churches of all denominations are currently running 276 activities designed to help the vulnerable. It has been calculated that these … amount to 800 hours of love-in-action each week”.
Many of those themes have been taken up recently in a major conference in Liverpool under the title “Together for the Common Good”, building on the social action tradition of Bishop David Sheppard and Archbishop Derek Worlock on Merseyside in the 1980s. This morning DCLG has launched its programme, Together in Service, to support faith-based social action across the country. The Near Neighbours scheme funds community cohesion by directly recognising the presence and effectiveness of the Church of England in every neighbourhood.Across the country, much of the support for this work comes from the Church Urban Fund establishing joint ventures in places as diverse as Birmingham, Cornwall, Lancashire, Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Newcastle and Nottingham. These local hubs bring churches together in common action and outreach. They build capacity and confidence, and act as a source of experience and stories through which policy and leadership can be shaped for the future. All that activity contributes to a much-needed debate about the common good and the kind of society in which we all want to live and in which the fruits of all our labours are available for the flourishing of all parts of our society.There are one or two points that I want to put specifically to the Minister, but first I want to establish a general point. We do not from these Benches advocate the co-option of the Church into the wholesale delivery of welfare programmes on behalf of the state. Experience suggests that there is a danger here of the faith and voluntary sector being systematically undercut by the big corporations, which can drive down costs and perhaps quality of service to below that which the churches could countenance.The report does, however, issue a major challenge that the churches and government need to take profoundly seriously. It is a challenge to rethink and rebalance the relationship between state and community provision through the churches. In particular, the report calls for what it calls “a new settlement”. This suggests a model of social action that focuses on service with the community rather than for the community. This model involves all parties in seeking solutions. As the report puts it:
“If we want to see powerful, resilient and faithful communities with the capacity to address their own problems, then people need the power to act for themselves rather than being dependent on services”.
That requires a devolution of power both from government and the private sector and a readiness to break up monopolistic power that leaves the churches and the voluntary sector sometimes out of the equation. It also requires government to think more holistically in terms of partnering with the churches in health, education, work and training programmes and so forth.
We on these Benches recognise that there is more that the churches themselves can do in this area. Much of this work needs to be done at local level, harnessing the networks and experience already in place. For example, efforts are being made to bring together the different levels of church social action. In 2012, a project was launched by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, under the title Resourcing Christian Community Action,which aims to be a catalyst to bring together current best practice in providing Christian care in local communities with the resources and knowledge needed to multiply this work across the country. The challenge in the report to the mission and public affairs department of the Church of England to set up a social action unit is a powerful one, but it suggests a top-down approach which may not be the most effective way of achieving necessary change in the dioceses and parishes of England.
Yet there is a great deal in the report to support. We support the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Faith and Society’s faith and localism charter to ensure trust and transparency between commissioners and faith-based organisations when preparing to commission services from them with a view to making contracts clearer and more open.
Secondly, we would advocate that more attention needs to be given by government to capacity-building the churches as long-term, sustainable and trusted partners. There is much in the report in that area that would repay study. Will the Minister respond, in particular, to the proposal that Big Society Capital should encourage a social investment platform with good links to church-based social ventures to act as an intermediary on lending to such groups? Here especially is an opportunity to replicate and scale up established and proven initiatives and to move on from the endless construction of new schemes sometimes devoid of a track record in order to exploit contracting opportunities.Thirdly, will the Government’s new commissioning academy include advice for commissioners on how to partner effectively with church groups and how faith-based social action is of huge benefit to public services?
The report rightly reminds us that we stand at a moment of exceptional opportunity. Far from extinction, the church is ready to play its part. Its great strength is in the creation of local networks of neighbourliness and civility which allow informal bonds to develop and reduce the demands for many aspects of state welfare. This is a vital part of the ecology of welfare provision because it embodies Beveridge’s conviction that strong state provision works only if there is a well-resourced informal network of voluntary action to support community resilience. The time has come to value that network more, to understand it better, to resource it more effectively and to enable it to play its vital and proper role in creating the common good that we all wish to see.
The Lord Bishop of Carlisle: My Lords, as I take the place of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool, perhaps I may say how very grateful I am for the warm welcome, kindness and assistance that has been afforded to me by both the staff and your Lordships.
I have the great privilege of living in the beautiful county of Cumbria, which is also the diocese of Carlisle. People naturally associate it with the magnificent scenery of the Lake District, which makes it one of the most popular holiday destinations in England, but it has its share of deprivation, especially on the west coast. In recent years, it has experienced particular difficulties, among them the devastation of foot and mouth disease, severe floods in places such as Cockermouth and Workington and, of course, the terrible shootings, which attracted worldwide publicity.
The people of Cumbria have shown extraordinary resilience throughout all that, prompting one local man to describe them as being as tough as teak but gentle as lambs. Cumbrians are also very warm and appreciative. As one of my 20th century predecessors, Bishop Herbert Williams, observed:
“A true Cumbrian does not express his amazing affection for those who live in his vicinity until he is quite certain that they are safely dead”.
The diocese of Carlisle is not the oldest diocese in the country, dating from only 1133, but it is geographically one of the largest and one of the most colourful in its history. Early Bishops of Carlisle acted as the King’s agents in the north. Together with the Bishops of Durham, they were responsible for keeping the Scots out of the so-called disputed lands surrounding Hadrian’s Wall and, to that end, they employed a small private army, which was housed in their official residence, Rose Castle. According to a local chronicler, at least one bishop was more noted for his prowess in the saddle than in the pulpit and Rose, together with the medieval cathedral in Carlisle was frequently attacked and pillaged by Robert the Bruce, among others, with the direct consequence that both the castle and cathedral are half their original size—rather, it must be said, to the relief of those who have to maintain them. Subsequent bishops have included Thomas Merck, who features in Shakespeare’s play “Richard II”, currently being performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, and Owen Oglethorpe, who crowned Queen Elizabeth I because there was then no Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York claimed that he was too old to make the long journey down to London.
Today, the diocese is generally flourishing, although rather mixed, with Church of England congregations beginning to grow after a long period of decline.
Tourism is one of the county’s main industries, and we are developing church trails and other means of welcoming some of the 16 million visitors to Cumbria each year and introducing them to our rich cultural and religious history. With Sellafield in the diocese, we are involved in continuing discussions about nuclear power, the disposal of nuclear waste and future possibilities for energy generated by wind and water. We continue to make submarines in Barrow, and although only 4% of the inhabitants of Cumbria now work on the land, farming remains a tremendously important part of the county’s life.
As we saw during the shootings, the church remains at the heart of our rural communities, creating local networks of care and enabling a great deal of informal support, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Phillips. This is not just the Church of England. We are beginning to work so closely with other Christian denominations—I think the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, will be glad to hear this—that Cumbria has become the first so-called ecumenical county.One current project that has already generated a great deal of interest is a plan to turn Rose Castle into an international Christian centre for reconciliation. We hope that very soon it will become a global hub for scriptural reasoning between Christians, Muslims and Jews, for training journalists, politicians and others in religious literacy, for conflict resolution at various levels and for environmental sustainability.That brings me to the subject under debate: holistic mission. It seems to me that the imaginative proposal for Rose Castle, the former residence of the Bishops of Carlisle, is a very good example of the way in which the church is already involved in a number of activities contributing significantly to the public good. Reconciliation between people of different faiths, including not just the great world faiths but, of course, humanism and atheism, is an obvious priority in today’s society.
Like my friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, I am grateful to ResPublica for highlighting some of the extensive and excellent church work that is currently taking place. This week, as we heard, the General Synod of the Church of England has been meeting here in London. Several of the topics under discussion related directly to how the church can and does create social capital and add value in our society. For instance, in a debate on church schools, we were reminded not only of their high educational standards and increasingly inclusive approach to admission but of the fact that our clergy give hundreds of thousands of hours each year to the million or so children who attend such schools in their parishes. There was a meeting on credit unions, something with which many individual Christians and whole congregations have become involved in recent years and a very hopeful way forward in these times of mounting personal debt.
As mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, we also heard a presidential address on poverty and talked about the way in which churches have been instrumental in establishing food banks around the country. I have some first-hand experience of them. There are several in Cumbria. At the recent launch of a new report on poverty and deprivation in Furness, the local MP singled out the churches for particular mention in this regard. In many ways, initiatives of this sort are building on the sustained work of the Church Urban Fund which, as we heard from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, has sponsored a huge number of social projects over the past few years.
In my role as lead bishop on healthcare, I am very conscious of the holistic, patient-centred care that is offered by the church to many individuals with mental health problems, recognising that mental health underpins a wide range of social challenges. We are also exploring and trying to develop schemes such as parish nurses, health centre community chaplains and parishioners acting as local carers for the elderly and housebound in their own homes. These all approach the issue of health from a holistic angle and have the potential to save huge amounts of money as well as offering a lifeline to some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester indicated, we do not envisage the church taking over all the provision of health and social care in this country or delivering major welfare programmes on behalf of the state. That is not how it works best, nor would that be appropriate, but we are glad that ResPublica highlights so much valuable work that is already going on and applaud the potential for closer working together and partnership to which this interesting report draws our attention.