Last month, the influential thinktank ResPublica brought out a new report called Holistic Mission: Social action and the Church of England. The report draws on the findings of a survey of English Anglican congregations and a series of case studies but it doesn’t read like a research findings report. It reads more like a manifesto. This, I think, is both its greatest strength and most significant limitation. It is persuasively written and makes some very compelling arguments. As such, it is much more interesting to read than a dry academic report. The downside of this, however, is that (as with most manifestos) at times it presents an over-simplistic, one-sided picture of reality.
The main arguments of the report (as summarised on p.4-5) are that:
- The state and the market have failed us. Britain needs new and renewed institutions to deliver public services that are holistic, personal and local.
- The Church (and particularly the Church of England) is uniquely positioned to help meet this need and fill this gap. The Church has the people, the experience, the intention and the will.
- In order for this to happen, the Church has to make itself fit for purpose. And the government has to create the opening and incentive to encourage the Church to partner with it.
I agree with all three statements up to a point. However, I think that each of these arguments is either over-stated or presented in an unhelpfully one-sided way. For example, with relation to point 2 (around which the report’s other arguments revolve):
- It is unclear how the conclusion that “among all available organisations the Church is uniquely positioned to create a radical new offer (p.3) is arrived at. The report is informed by a well-designed quantitative survey and some interesting case studies. But I struggle to see how its bold and confident claims about the capacity of the Church can be justified on the basis of the data gathered. Additionally, and although there is subtlety and nuance in some sections of the report, I don’t think that the overall picture of Christian social action that is painted adequately reflects its complexity and diversity on the ground.
- The report is naively optimistic about the capacity of Anglican parish churches to fill a gap in public services that is being created by the contraction of the state. While there is much about the description of the “unique role of the Church in English society” (p.12) past and present that still rings true today, the report does not adequately reflect on a changing social and religious context (from Christendom to post-Christendom). It suggests that “the flourishing social action of the Church is the hidden counterpart to congregational decline” (p.9). This may be true but it would have been helpful if the report had also acknowledged the implications of congregational decline for the Church’s ability to continue to engage in social action.
- The report presents a very limited understanding of ‘holistic mission’ – one that does not do justice to the breadth of approaches to mission within contemporary Anglicanism. Part of the problem, I think, is that ‘holistic’ is an incredibly elastic term that means different things to different people. Mirroring the way the phrase is used in political debate, the report argues that public services need to be holistic in the sense that “[a]ll of one’s problems, be they mental, physical, emotional or relational, need to be met, recognised and treated in a bespoke fashion” (p.7). What it does not acknowledge is the way that within Christian discussions about the nature of mission, the phrase ‘holistic’ is often used with relation to the integration of evangelism and social action. From this perspective, the report’s description of Church social action (which makes no real reference to evangelistic concerns) may be seen to run counter to the whole concept of ‘holistic mission’.
As a corrective to the at-times one-sided picture presented in this report, I suggest that future reports and initiatives of this kind need to be informed by a greater appreciation of some of the tensions that many churches involved in social action experience. For example, my recent qualitative research with (Anglican and independent) charismatic-evangelical congregations identified various tensions, including:
- Spiritual-evangelistic versus Socio-economic – Like many previous reports on faith-based social action, the ResPublica report seems to want to alleviate fears of ‘aggressive proselytising’ by people of faith. It tries to do this by emphasising churches’ willingness to help people who have different values or religious beliefs (p.4, 17-18). In doing this, I think it risks downplaying the role of evangelistic (alongside wider socio-economic) intentions within many Christians’ motivation for engaging in social action. Interestingly, 48% of respondents to the ResPublica survey either strongly (20%) or slightly (28%) agreed with the statement ‘I get involved to help actively promote my faith and convert others’ (p.18). However, the report seems to pass over this point very quickly.
- Service providers versus Intentional communities – Nearly exclusively, the ResPublica report emphasises the role of the Church as a service provider. It articulates a vision of the Church as an institution that is uniquely positioned to develop and deliver renewed public services. Fair enough, but the service provider model is just one of a variety of different models of church social action. The report does little to acknowledge this, making no reference, for example, to the experience of intentional communities and missional communities in which Christians serve as neighbour rather than as volunteer or worker (Thomas, 2012, p.243). Each of these contrasting models (service provider and intentional community) has inherent strengths and limitations. Future strategies on church-based social action need to be more sensitive to this.
- Collaborative versus Counter-cultural – The ResPublica report appeals for increasing partnership and collaboration between Church and Government. Again, this is valid up to a point but the report only emphasises one side of a double-sided coin. On the one hand, there are good reasons (practical and theological) why the Church needs to collaborate with government and others in pursuing the common good. On the other hand, though, the Church’s approach to partnership also needs to be critical and discerning. There are times when it needs to be counter-cultural.
In summary then, I welcome the ResPublica report because it is written with passion and conviction by people who seem deeply committed to bringing the resources of the Church in service of the common good. As I’ve highlighted above, it is not the most balanced of reports and it certainly doesn’t provide a particularly representative picture of the variety of approaches to social action within contemporary Anglicanism (let alone the wider Church). But because of this, I found it helpfully provocative. I therefore hope that it helps provoke further reflection, discussion and transforming practice both within the Church and beyond.
Thomas, S. (2012). Convictional communities. In J. Beaumont, & P. Cloke (Eds.), Faith-based organisations and exclusion in European cities (pp. 243-264). Bristol, United Kingdom: Policy Press.