Church can save Big Society

The Church of England and its millions of members can still make the Government's flagging Big Society vision a reality, says a major report out this week.

'Holistic Mission: Social action and the Church of England' has been compiled by Phillip Blond and Dr James Noyes for Westminster think tank ResPublica.

They describe the Church as an "utterly unique institution with enormous reservoirs of good will, education and capacity".

This assertion is backed up by the results of a survey included in the report revealing that Anglicans are more likely to volunteer than the general population.

The survey found that eight in 10 (79 per cent) of Anglican churchgoers regularly volunteer compared to less than half (49 per cent) of the general population.

Ninety per cent said they volunteer 'informally' and nearly two-thirds (61 per cent) strongly agreed that they were motivated by their faith. Nearly nine in 10 (88 per cent) said they were happy to help those with different beliefs or values.

The report, to be launched by the Archbishop of Canterbury, makes a number of recommendations aimed at removing barriers to the growth of thousands of social action projects already being run by churches the length and breadth of the country.

Key recommendations include the introduction of a new government taskforce to explore how the Government can work better with the Church in social ventures.

The Church of England should establish a national Social Commission to set out its vision for the future of social action as well as a Social Action Unit to offer guidance in coordinating the Church's role in public services.

Each Church of England diocese should also set up designated social action teams and help local churches become "social incubators" for start-up enterprises and social ventures.

In addition, the report recommends that the Church of England set aside part of the returns on its investments to invest in church-based social ventures.

"The Government's plans for decentralisation, localism and community empowerment will never be complete or be that effective without the support of the Church," said Mr Blond.

He said the Prime Minister had lost his way by failing to explain why the Big Society matters and allowing himself to be diverted from the policy.

"We cannot afford to lose the vision of a better Britain," Mr Blond continued.

"We desperately need restored institutions to save the poor from their lot, both the state and the market have failed to deliver the transformative institutions that can make a difference to those we have otherwise abandoned.

"The Church is one such institution it can reach father and further than the state and cares about more than money and profit. We want the Church to step up to the plate and become the type of universal institution that can transform and aid all of our lives.

"Our new research show that it has the capacity, experience and wish to do the job, we want the government and Church leaders to help create a space for the Church to become the enabling institution we need."

Mr Blond said the Prime Minister must do more to rebuild bridges between his Government and the Church, saying relations had been badly damaged in recent months as a result of rows over welfare reform, the charitable status of Christian groups, and gay marriage.

"The state of Cold War between some church leaders and ministers must end," he said.

"The Church of England can be the engine of this transformative approach to delivering services and support to vulnerable people, as our research shows, but this is being held back at the moment by frosty relations and a lack of political support for the Big Society," he said.

The report goes on to say that the Church of England can do more to build the Big Society and that it should put social action at the "heart of its mission" at the same time as improving support to local groups.

"Society has become so self-confidently secular because people see no specific need for the Church," the report warns.

"They do not see the good work that is being done. Religion, if it is to command mass support, has to be relevant to the ordinary, and the ordinary has never been in so much need of what the Church has to offer."

The report concludes by saying, "The role of the established Church is neither to sanctify the state nor to supplant the government but rather to transform public institutions in the direction of both individual virtue and public honour. In this manner, both Church and state can work together for the dignity of the person, human flourishing and the public common good."

Tom Jackson, Chief Executive of Resurgo Social Ventures,who sponsored the report said said, "Churches provide a vital platform for deep social transformation at a local level and could generate greater impact with bolder vision, resourcing and leadership. Local churches are distinctive in their geographic spread across the country, their commitment to social service and their ability to catalyse a local network of volunteers."