Big Society – what can we do?

10 05 2011

Let me tell you about Dave – Dave sells the Big Issue and has had a really rough ride. It would be unfair to give all the details here but needless to say that you don’t sell the Big Issue unless you have had a few duff cards dealt your way and 2011 has been particularly tough for him earlier this year he said to me ‘I can’t sell any today – I just don’t seem to be able find my smile’. However, over the last couple of months he has been accepted on an Access Course at Stockport College and wants to apply to MMU for a social work degree after that. He is really pleased and filled with hope – brilliant!!

Recently at Methodist Council (see papers MC 1148 and MC 1149 here)and in Synod I have been hearing about The Big Society and what, if anything, faith communities can do to contribute. The whole ‘Big Society’ issue raises many questions for political commentators and faith communities alike:

  • What is ‘The Big Society’? and if it is definable is it achievable? Or desirable?
  • Is ‘The Big Society’ simply about charities doing the work that government should be doing?
  • Is the Big Society achievable under massive government cuts? (however necessary they might be)
  • Should faith communities be actively involved in this ideology or leave well alone?


There isn’t space to deal with any of those questions in real depth, but the last one does intrigue me. Should The Methodist Church ride the Big Society wave or should we watch from the sideline? Humanist movements are very suspicious, and rightly so! If the church is to use the Big Society as a vehicle to manipulate (and maybe abuse) vulnerable people by offering help conditional on their faith declaration – then shame on us!

But what if the faith communities have access to both volunteers and capital that would enable the most vulnerable in our communities to maximise their potential and sense of self worth irrespective of any or no faith? Could we be a valuable agency to local communities? In my conversations with Dave – he thinks so (He may well be on his own).

I remember reading during the last General Election that the biggest challenge facing the UK is reducing the gap between the richest and poorest in our country. Now, it may well be that this is a socialist agenda, but, let us say for now that the sentiment is not unreasonable or unsatisfactory – we can argue the point of political origin later.

So if the church has a pot of money and group of volunteers at its disposal – where do we begin? Do we give money directly to those that need it? Do we set up credit unions and food co-operatives? Do we actively encourage better training and education? Provide social housing? Offer a whole new social context like Titus Salt, Cadbury and Lever Brothers?

This question is vitally important now. I am working in the context of deprivation in a Labour held Council city that is seeing massive cuts to public spending. I think I have access to pots of money and can call on others to join the cause. So what do I do to help reduce the gap between the rich and the poor in Stoke-On-Trent? Where do I begin?


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