ResPublica’s Caroline Julian presses the Church of England for a more transformative agenda
Simply by proximity to Occupy London protests has the Church of England's role in public political life emerged centre stage. After decades, and arguably centuries, of squeezing the Church out of the public square, many - citizens, politicians, commentators, those of other faiths and from the Church itself - are now instead asking, 'what is the church's role in all of this?', 'what is the Church going to do in response?', and perhaps in a more exasperated manner, 'why hasn't the Church yet done anything about it?'
It is not uncommon that the social, civic and political action of the Church goes unnoticed, as is the case for many other small, local groups who wish to make a difference in their communities. The phenomenal response to the summer riots, recorded most successfully by The Contextual Theology Centre, represents just one instance where churches and other faith groups stepped forward to both uphold a sense of civic responsibility and react to the troubles which had come to saturate their neighbourhoods.
On a national and international scale too, the Church has sought to call 'immoral markets' and 'vacuous values' to account. In yesterday’s FT, we absorbed the Archbishop of Canterbury’s assertion that the Church of England has a ‘proper interest in the ethics of the financial world’, advocating a tax on financial transactions as a way in which markets could begin to be re-modelled. And only last week did we see the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s response to the crises of market functionality, pressing for further regulatory action of economies that have got out of hand.
But perhaps where the Church can make the most difference is not found so much in suggesting ways in which we can regulate markets, but ways in which we can transform them. Whilst calling unethical practice to account is indeed central to the Church’s role in wider political life, it has evidently not quite quenched the thirst of those calling for immediate action. Abstract responses to what has already become a rather ‘abstract market’ will not strike at the cause. Markets are based on and emerge from social, human interaction – a fundamental basis which must necessarily first be assumed.
Such transformative action is also not only something that the Church can simply talk about, but crucially something that the Church can do. Becoming partners with community ventures, such as micro-finance initiatives, social enterprises and asset transfers are just a few examples of how this might be achieved. Delivering public services, being a hub for social innovation and a platform for local participation touch upon a few others. Social Enterprise UK have even called the CofE to lead in and take up new opportunities for social investment, following the Charity Commission’s new guidance on ethical investment and social return.
In many ways and across Britain, of course, the Church is already realising this role. But with the Localism Bill to shortly receive Royal Assent, the rapid progression of the Public Services (Social Value) Bill through Parliament and the Cabinet Office’s Open Public Services White Paper, the Church will have a much greater opportunity to extend and even lead on transformative solutions for what have become removed and dysfunctional markets.
Recent events do not therefore present a crisis for the CofE – indeed, we should be greatly concerned if the Church ever ceased to internally and externally debate such issues. They rather offer a greater opportunity for the Church and others to step up and tell the protesters, both locally and worldwide, what they are doing, what they plan to do – not in abstract, but in very concrete terms – and arguably, what they have been doing for centuries.