December 14, 2015
I’ve been meaning to update my list of publications for a while and have finally got around to it! Recent additions to the list include:
- An article in People, Place and Policy (which is free to download) on new entrepreneurial forms of Christian social action.
There you have it!
October 23, 2013
Over the next few months, I’m going to be writing a blog series on creative tension for the Christian charity Livability.
The series will consist of six short articles, each exploring a tension that churches involved in community mission experience. In writing this, I’ll be aiming to:
- Share with Christian community mission practitioners some of the outcomes of my recent research;
- Provoke further thinking and discussion about responding to tension in a way that is both faithful and creative.
The series will be appearing on the Livability Community Mission blog and I’ve already posted a short series intro.
There will be more to follow…
August 8, 2013
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.
July 3, 2013
Over the past few months, I’ve given a few talks / papers that draw out the key implications of my recent research for three very different audiences:
More to follow over the next few months, including papers at:
- The Urban Theology Unit’s Institute for Contextual and Urban Theology (July)
- Ecclesiology and Ethnography Symposium (September)
March 28, 2013
Here is the first of a series of short papers summarising the findings of my Doctoral research on the way that UK charismatic-evangelical churches engage with disadvantaged neighbourhoods. It is written with a view to making the research findings available to a wider audience than the academic one for which my 50,000 word thesis is intended.
This summary has been prepared with Christian urban mission practitioners in mind. Here, I describe six tensions that seem to characterise contemporary charismatic-evangelical urban practice. I then go on to articulate a theological response to these tensions. This I present as a creative response which is both consistent with charismatic-evangelical convictions and open to insights from other traditions.
In future papers, I plan to draw out the implications of the research for various other audiences, both Christian and secular. Although I have now submitted my thesis (awaiting viva), I still see this as a work in progress. Therefore, any feedback and comments will be gratefully received.
Tensions in Charismatic-Evangelical Urban Practice: A Summary for Christian Urban Mission Practitioners
November 20, 2012
The Third Sector Research Centre are hosting an excellent series of dialogues on the future of the Third Sector. They’re asking some really important questions which, I think, amidst the usual bun-fight for resources, rarely get asked or adequately discussed.
The latest dialogue is entitled Is the third sector so special? What is it worth? In response to their discussion paper, I’ve just posted the following comment:
Many thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking discussion paper.
I was particularly struck by the challenge to think about the ‘worth’ of the sector in ways that are not simply monetary. And this has got me onto thinking about what role questions of ethics and morality play in understandings of the third sector.
It seems to me that a preoccupation with measuring economic ‘contribution’ and ‘usefulness’ (whether of individual organisations or the sector as a whole) reflects an essentially utilitarian outlook. It’s all about calculating benefits in order to ensure ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number.’
The language of ‘values’, in contrast, may be seen as a corrective to the limitations of a purely utilitarian approach. Yet while it may be possible to unite around (somewhat vague) statements like “values are the key”, agreeing on the values that characterise an incredibly diverse sector is another matter entirely.
I’m reminded of what the moral philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre writes about living amidst an ‘epistemological crisis’ – a time in which there “seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture” (After Virtue, Chapter 2). This makes me wonder, amidst all rhetoric of ‘third sector values’ that sometimes prevails, how much serious thought has gone into considering the various philosophical, ethical and religious underpinnings of third sector activity?Does anyone know of anything helpful that’s been written (or indeed done practically) around this?
Maybe slightly abstract – but the main point I’m getting at is that discussions of worth and value within any sector can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be dominated by monetary considerations alone. Deeper ethical questions also need to be raised.
November 15, 2012
Following on from my last post, another former work of mine I’ve been revisiting (while thesis writing) is my MSc dissertation on ‘The involvement of new forms of church in the regeneration of deprived communities‘. Its available online (see link above) via the Church Army Research Centre’s online library.
Reading it again with the benefits of hindsight, there’s a few thoughts that strike me:
- Its interesting that the language of ‘new forms of church’, which was quite prevalent in the church circles I was knocking around in ten years ago, seems to have virtually disappeared and (within an Anglican context at least) been replaced or subsumed by a new set of jargon – that of ‘Fresh Expressions’.
- At the time of writing it (for a MSc in Urban Regeneration), I’d done no formal theological training (unless A-Level RE counts) and some of what I wrote now seems theologically quite crude. Yet I think the distinction I highlighted between ‘evangelical’ and ‘liberal’ approaches to Christian urban engagement (p.57) continues to be significant. Indeed it forms part of the foundation for my current research. But that said, I’m also increasingly concious of the limitations and risks associated with the use of words ‘liberal and ‘evangelical’ as theological labels. Jon Kuhrt puts this well when, in a chapter on “Resisting Tribal Theology“, he talks about the use of such terms “not for self-identification but as expressions of contempt in order to write off the perspectives of fellow Christians” (p.18).
- In the years since I wrote my dissertation, there’s been a number of other interesting pieces of research on the involvement of new forms of church, fresh expressions, or what ever you want to call them in disadvantaged urban contexts. Examples that come to mind are ‘Fresh Expressions in an Urban Context’ by Eleanor Williams (2007) and the recent Church Urban Fund Study ‘Poverty and Fresh Expressions – Emerging Forms of Church in Deprived Communities‘ (2012). Both are worth a read.