To big up – to exaggerate, to ‘puff’, to praise or recommend something highly. Society is terribly popular; but what makes it big? My suspicion is that one of the reasons David Cameron welcomed the coalition so fulsomely was that it brought into government a group of people – the LibDems – who were far more interested in ‘the big society’ than the majority of his own party. There certainly seems to plenty in the Conservative Party who are only interested in Big Society if it provides useful cover for the Thatcherite (or more precisely ‘neo-liberal’) holy grail of small government.

But I don’t think that’s what it’s about. I’ve just finished reading Phillip Blond’s Red Tory, which includes one of the best denunciations of neo-liberalism I’ve come across. His prescriptions for a new (conservative) order involve a new valuing of local society and its strengths, against either the statism of the left or the marketism of the right.

I think I’m right there with that critique, if not necessarily with Phillip Blond’s remedies. Someone asked me a while ago if I would describe myself as a socialist, and i realised it was a difficult question to answer. I’m certainly not pro-capitalist, and definitely aspire to a society in which people are rewarded less for their place in society or ability to grasp the levers of power, and more for their intrinsic worth as human beings. But I’ve never been that impressed by the socialist tendency to believe that this vision could be realised through state action. Institutions by their nature are not the natural instruments to deliver a just society. I feel much more at home with Blond’s idea of co-operative ventures, small scale mutual enterprises and so on.

The Big Society Network says:

People have interpreted the ideas and vision in different ways, but we see the core of the big society as three principles:

  • Empowering individuals and communities: Decentralising and redistributing power not just from Whitehall to local government, but also directly to communities, neighbourhoods and individuals
  • Encouraging social responsibility: Encouraging organisations and individuals to get involved in social action, whether small neighbourly activities like hosting a Big Lunch to large collective actions like saving the local post office
  • Creating an enabling and accountable state: Transforming government action from top-down micromanagement and one-size-fits-all solutions to a flexible approach defined by transparency, payment by results, and support for social enterprise and cooperatives

What’s not to like? Well, apart from the suspicion that it might be used as a smokescreen for neo-liberalism, the question in my mind, is what about those who aren’t just waiting for the opportunity to be free of governmental interference? What about the genuinely weak? How does the Big Society enable a community into which the poorest have been pushed, out of sight and out of mind? Where there’s no community organiser waiting to get people together?

The questions are not rhetorical. Jon Cruddas MP spoke warmly of the ‘big society’ language at a gathering last week for churches to consider how they might respond. If a distinctly left wing member of the Labour Party is interested, then I am too, and I want to find out the answers to those questions. I know I share Phillip Blond’s dislike of bureaucratic solutions which rarely fit any given individual case; but I also want to know there’s something better on the horizon before I support the dissolution of the bureaucracy.

Just begun to read Discovering the Spirit in the City. Even though I’ve only read the first chapter, it’s already started me thinking. Philip Sheldrake writes on ‘Rebuilding the Human City’ – looking at some of the dehumanising forces in modern cities and how we can counteract them. I’m sure he’s right that the city needs humanising, but I think at the same time we’re also divinising it: not making it divine, but recognising again the presence of god and the city’s potential as a place for revealing God to us.

Sheldrake mentions the work of Michel de Certeau, and especially his essay ‘Walking in the City’. Though I’d already read it, I’d done so in purely political terms – I’d never really connected it before with the spirituality of the city. But starting to think in that way, it made me realise what strange and potentially transformative spaces churches are in the life of a city. As environments become more and more controlled: either private, locked, alarmed, or if public, patrolled and photographed – what do you make of an anomalous space that refuses to be either?

A church, for instance, which is open to all comers. No CCTV, no guards, a space open for anyone to come into on their own terms. Somewhere you can wander into and commit small arson in the form of lighting a candle; somewhere you could steal the hymn books if you wanted. Somewhere you can pray in whichever way you feel comfortable, or just go to sleep.

After a long period of consideration, that’s what we did here in Stoke Newington. We know that sometime someone’s going to damage things, but eighteen months in it hasn’t happened yet. What has happened is a constant trickle of people coming and finding to their surprise that they are trusted with our church. One lady has started cleaning the votive candle stand every week – she has no other connection with the congregation.

I hesitate to say it, but I think opening the church is as powerful a witness to the counter-cultural nature of Christian faith as is anything else we do here; and we do it just by failing to lock a couple of doors.

Another day, another book (I like Bank Holidays). I came across this book through the London event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Faith in the City. What’s really encouraging about it is the way it brings together writers from a variety of different church backgrounds, all eager to get beyond ecclesiastical in-fighting in order to serve people in urban areas. To pick out two, Jon Kuhrt’s two contributions and Mandy Ford’s reflection on ‘bring and share’ and the Eucharist both resonate with my own experience in Hackney. People working in areas of pressing social need are – in my personal experience here in London – more ready than most to look beyond the tribal boundaries and the theological shibboleths.

But that won’t be enough to resource urban mission. The unarticulated challenge of this book is to the rest of the Church. Taking up again the Archbishop’s comments on economic life that I alluded to in my previous post, the resources for urban mission and transformation can only come from the resource-rich areas of the Church. They only will come, though, if people across the whole Church become less suspicious of those who are different from themselves. Theological discrimination is rife within the Church of England, but if it is to be true (as the Bishop of London says among others) that ‘the poor are our teachers’, maybe this is what the rest of the Church has to learn from the churches in inner urban areas.

it would be encouraging if this book were to serve to reduce the mutual back-biting of different factions in the Church, as one of the forces behind its production was a response from evangelical members of General Synod to the 2006 report Faithful Cities. The report was criticised for its perceived failure to address issues of mission and proclamation in inner urban ministry. Crossover City certainly meets that criticism, in my view, but will there now be a more whole-hearted support across the whole church for ministry in areas of deprivation?