The Word on the Street. The English Parish and the Future of Politics. Workbook for parishes

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1 The Word on the Street The English Parish and the Future of Politics Workbook for parishes

2 Introduction Section 1: An Agenda for Action Section 2: Seven Practical Challenges Section 3: Practicing Local Politics Introduction This workbook offers a tool for parishes to use in seeking to connect with the concerns of their local communities. It provides an introductory Agenda for Action, together with Seven Practical Challenges to which we might respond today. A final section, Practicing Local Politics, outlines a syllabus of topics for discussion and practical action, which might enable a local church to plot an effective missionary response to the present crisis of political indifference; increasing social need and exclusion; a lack of opportunities for participation; and for contributing realistically to the building of effective community. The workbook would be best employed if it provided a tool for a specially selected group in the parish, sponsored by the PCC, and given a time frame within which to pursue the syllabus outlined. In some cases the witness will be more effective if practical action is pursued in partnership with other parishes. The suggestions do not have to be followed slavishly. They are suggestions that could be modified or refocused according to local requirements and potential. The book The Word on the Street: The English Parish and the Future of Politics provides more detailed resources for the kind of study and reflection that can best inform our action. 2

3 Section 1 An Agenda for Action There are some important and foundational theological principles that might shape the work of the parish church in this area of contributing towards the development of a new, participatory, approach for politics. Further, there are a number of ways of working at this agenda that can allow us to play to our strengths to the call and gifting God has entrusted to us through the parish system. Background Our immediate context includes the following key factors. The predominance of the market as the model for not just economic relationships, but also for social relationships too linked to the commodification of people. The shrinking of the state, and especially of the resources available to local government. The privatisation of religion as a personal resource. Prioritising the measurement of results a quantitative way of understanding the challenge and the task. Governmentseems to be obsessed with how much money is spent in particular areas, and for ever assessing the results in terms of numbers. A reflection of our approach to democracy as one person one vote: a method of accumulation. The ending of the post war welfare state and the search for new models of care and support. Since 1945 the Church of England has found a particular niche as a welfare church, playing a key part in the welfare state often by organising projects funded by others. This world is contracting. 3

4 Theological Factors We must challenge the presumption that religion and politics are separate. All public debate is theological debate. Despite the use of different language and signs, public debate is God s children trying to decide who we are, where we are going and how best to proceed. This is the bigger picture that we are uniquely charged to offer. The inclusivity of the parochial system works through our understanding of presence. Christ s presence in every person, in every community. This theological truth means that in every encounter, and in every issue, we begin our contribution with the presumption of common ground. A desire in human hearts for goodness and grace. The presumption of Christ s presence means that our assessment of any particular political policy or practice will be secondary to our primary connectivity to all those concerned in the debate. People still trust the church to be a place for all, a space for diversity, and the guardian of a gospel of good will towards all people. The popularity of events such as carol services reinforces this kind of reality as does our role in moments of tragedy or emergency. to make a unique contribution in a world fascinated by two key terms: credit and debt. We know that these are not simply economic terms. Economics, as part of how human beings relate to each other, needs to be understood within the greater reality of the fact that God credits us sinners with a goodness that gives us life against the odds. Faith in human hearts, and our ability to hope and to love, is the tangible expression of this truth. We need to be agents of this good news about the forgiveness of debt (as sin) and the possibility of being credited with a goodness and grace that is to be shared with others. God s goodness is so great that it offers space for everybody: Christ died for all. The gospel works not through efficient systems, but through moments of encouragement and blessing. Signs and sacraments. Stories and moments of illumination. We contribute through our faith being expressed in remembering what God has done, and in contributing to acts of witness and service that invite others to taste God s grace and goodness more fully. The foundation of our faith is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: the miracle of atonement. This equips us 4

5 Ways of Working Through the Parochial Church Council we need to give serious time and energy to considering some of the following issues. As an Established Church we are one of the gatekeepers of society along with the local authority, the police, other statutory services. At a time when all gatekeepers are anxious, under threat in terms of identity, role and performance we need to stand with our traditional partners, to ensure that the structures which are so vital to society can be developed appropriately and coherently. How can the parish church facilitate better support for, and working relationships with, those who also work to maintain structure and coherence in society? Paradoxically, as an Established Church, we have always had a legal obligation to make ministry available to everyone in the parish. This has given us a key role in mediating and negotiating between the formal structures and those outside of them How can the parish church continue to listen carefully to those who represent the rich variety of interests and aspirations in the wider community? Our church has always exercised leadership in ensuring proper care for the marginalised and the needy. The role of local churches in the contemporary food banks movement would be a current example. How can the parish church engage creatively with the voices and the needs of those most marginalised and excluded? In recent years, as a Welfare Church, we have been able to choose the areas of engagement that we prioritise in our particular context. We have made a contribution alongside other agencies. As a result parishes have established Parents and Toddler groups, lunch clubs for the elderly, night shelters for the homeless. With the contraction of public resourcing for welfare, the social capital provided by the sacrifice and service of volunteers needs to be much more carefully targeted. God s call comes from the hearts of His needy children, and this must shape our understanding of our own gifting and vocation. How can the parish church, with partners, identify appropriate areas for social service, based upon an analysis of needs and context, rather than upon our particular interest or gifts? 5

6 A new resource in this changing social and welfare ecology is the potential for businesses to exercise social responsibility in a more strategic manner. Again a shift from interests and responding to the requests of the well organised, to an involvement in a more comprehensive assessment of needs and possibilities. For this shift to be effective businesses need partnerships with grass roots operators who can read the terrain of possibilities, assist in the identification of realistic and effective engagement, and enable proper monitoring and development of schemes. How can the parish church facilitate this creative engagement between business and local communities? Those kind of connections and conversations will begin to help people imagine a new sense of our common good, and can provide an important impetus towards the construction of a new public spirit. A spirit not dependent upon grants and measured outcomes, but rather a public spirit vibrant with a sense of connectivity across different areas of contemporary life, alive to the importance of community for human flourishing, and fuelled by generous, self-sacrificial service to a richer vision for our future together. As a church called to represent the whole community, we have especial expertise in crafting moments which can give focus to the owning and blessing of such a public spirit. Harvest festivals, Civic Services, Legal Services, and a host of other precious and formative moments to remind communities of our resources and of our potential together. Such occasions do not have to be simply services in church. There is enormous scope for convening conversations, seminars, conferences, that can have some effect. How can parish churches take a lead in crafting such occasions and enabling them to be moments of encouragement and direction setting? From these kind of activities and occasions, the parish church will be a community uniquely equipped to offer appropriate questions, comments and suggestions, into the wider political discussions. Each of the activities outlined above will generate political debate about views and values. Besides contributing through each set of engagements, the Parish Church can be a model of holding some of this diversity creatively, and in a spirit of charity. Further, from such a laboratory of political engagement, there will be important concerns and priorities to be discerned, and to be shared not just with local partners, but more widely as a means of re-energising our more formal political forums, by mediating this popular participation into their midst. 6

7 How can parish churches create spaces for our own prayerful and theological reflection upon the engagements we undertake as service to our local communities so that we are worthy conversation and delivery partners, but also conduits of people s concerns into larger forums: our representative role in the outworking of the Kingdom? For the sake of the future health of politics as the people s concern. We have a precious opportunity. If we are able to shape the work of our parish churches around this practical agenda, we might be able to honour the gift and the role God has given through the establishment of our church. Such prioritisation would not have any particular implications for the future of Establishment, but it would recognise and honour our journey thus far. Further, this way of working would put practical mission at the heart of our calling. We would be aligning our resources and our energies to play a full part in the wellbeing of society and the offering of God s grace as salt and leaven into the struggles of His children to discern how best to order this earthly life, as a preparation and sign of the Heavenly Kingdom for which we are made. My proposal would be that the agenda of the parish church, its Parochial Church Council, its worship, its witness, should be shaped around these opportunities. 7

8 8 Notes

9 Section 2 Seven Practical Challenges There are seven areas of engagement that are becoming increasingly important in many communities, and to which the parish church is well placed to respond creatively. 1 The Support of the Elderly Services to the elderly are being retrenched and reorganised. The demand is increasing, many families lack the cohesion or the capacity to care for elderly relatives. Big issues will be loneliness and isolation, especially with the move towards personalised care plans and the need for individuals to make informed choices. Churches have enormous expertise in terms of pastoral visiting and offering opportunities for socialisation. 2 Libraries Many local authorities are considering rationalisation and possible reduction. Parishes often have space in our building. As people of the Book we are committed to a literate culture. We could play a key role in creating an important space for the resourcing of learning, access to computers and fellowship within our local communities. 3 Children Pressures upon young families coexist with the need to reconfigure the provision of children s centres and family support. The parish church can take a lead in creating partnerships between statutory and voluntary agencies, to offer a more comprehensive package of support and encouragement for children and parents. We have important resources through our schools, our tradition of working with children, and the development of initiatives such as Messy Church. We need to build upon these good things and play our part in a more comprehensive offer of care and nurture. 9

10 4 Homelessness Homelessness is increasing, as testified by the demand for night shelters and food banks. The parish church can help both the established gatekeepers and others to coordinate responses more effectively. Of equal importance is the need to use this experience to inform a public debate about the causes and the consequences of this phenomenon. 5 Cohesion In uncertain times, and as religion has been pushed into the sphere of a private lifestyle choice, churches have specialised in creating spaces for cohesion for those who choose to gather. This nourishes participants and often equips us for service in the world. But, there is a huge problem of the disintegration of any sense of community in the public sphere. We retreat into comfortable networks. There is an urgent need for energy and commitment in the area of social cohesion. The parish church can provide a local focus, and with other churches can try to contribute to this work across larger areas too. We need to find ways of inviting different groups and interests to come together to share experience and plans, and to scope out areas of common concern and action - not least in terms of the international perspective which the Gospel provides. 6 Volunteer Hubs There is a danger in our market environment of voluntary and faith groups competing for resources and contracts. Regulation and compliance is putting pressure upon smaller charities, as is the decline in some areas of the number of people offering time, energy and money for volunteering. Since the parish church offers space for all the elements in a community, we could play a key role in establishing Volunteer Hubs. There is an urgent need to coordinate commitment, deploy it strategically, and maximise the contributions that can be made. 7 Assets The Church of England is blessed with considerable assets not just in terms of people, but in the form of buildings and property. We expend a great deal of energy maintaining such assets. Rather, we need to deploy them intelligently, in new ways, with new partnerships and uses for the greater purposes of the Gospel. This is a huge task, fraught with legal and practical consequences. However we need to make a start, and if each parish church were to conduct an audit of their assets, against the background of the challenges and opportunities presented by our missionary call to make an effective witness in contemporary society then we might be led to find ways of making new and life-giving contributions. 10

11 Section 3 Practicing Local Politics This section outlines a programme for discussion and action designed to help a local church reflect carefully and prayerfully about its particular context, the challenges and opportunities, the potential for partnership, and the possibility of formulating schemes for effective action. The outline of topics suggests a progression, but much will depend upon local circumstances and awareness. Each topic highlights issues raised in a chapter of the book, The Word on the Street. Many of these discussions and actions will be more effective if undertaken in partnership with neighbouring parishes, or through a local Deanery. Taking Stock Preparation: The Word on the Street, Chapter 1 the Religious Foundation of Politics For discussion: How can a parish provide a space within which citizens of all political persuasions might be invited to explore the ingredients of a common foundation to their aspirations, and the marks of a spiritual bond? For action: Organise an evening or an Away Day for the PCC to identify common concerns in the local community. Identify who represents these concerns, and how the church might best be involved. Sharing the Task Preparation: The Word on the Street, Chapter 2 Devotion before Democracy For discussion: If the citizen s contribution to politics begins rather than ends with an election, how can local churches begin to gather the fragments left over from party campaigning and media comment into a more common conversation, especially about how best to share in local government? For action: Convene an open conversation (a public meeting) about local issues and possible resources. Invite some local councillors and representatives of other key local organisations. Remember the importance of an international perspective. 11

12 Beginning with Ourselves Preparation: The Word on the Street, Chapter 3 Charity and Character For discussion: How can Christians draw together in a way which prioritises the identification and offering of practical, transformative service in the community? Charity and character constructing forces for the common good. For action: Conduct an audit of needs and resources in the parish, and an audit of gifts and skills within the Christian family. Compare the outcomes of the two exercises and identify the potential contribution of Christian character to a missionary response. Making a Start Preparation: The Word on the Street, Chapter 4 Corpus Christi: the Basis of Good Politics For discussion: How can a local church enable not just discussion and identification of issues, but practical engagement which models effective response and shows something of the power and presence of God as salt and leaven? For action: Ask the PCC to identify a project for community service that the church might support in the coming year. Consult the list of Seven Practical Challenges for some possible areas of engagement. 12

13 Working With Others Preparation: The Word on the Street, Chapter 5 A School for Active Citizenship For discussion: A school for active citizenship is an exercise in thinking in communities. Each local church could establish such a school as a place of learning together, including a laboratory for social involvement. Who would need to be present, and why? For action: Invite one or two organisations working in the local community to come and share their story, their concerns and their priorities. Involve representatives of local business or civic life, to help to assess the possibilities you discern for the neighbourhood. Political Participation Preparation: The Word on the Street, Chapter 6 The Making of Justice For discussion: How can we identify and practice ways of sacrificial living? Of the three examples given in the book, pay higher taxes (more resources for the common good); to give of our own resources more generously; to develop practical schemes for social transformation which could we prioritise and how? For action: Invite representatives from two or three of your local political parties to come to an open meeting to discuss the relationship between taxation and promoting the common good. 13

14 Priority to the Poor Preparation: The Word on the Street, Chapter 7 Growing Community For discussion: Exile can be the key to enlightenment and a new solidarity. How can a local church pursue removal into the place of the poor as a way of making practical the devotional exile of prayer? What kind of kitchen table conversations could be organised? How could this experience of exile enlighten a political contribution? For action: Arrange for a group from the parish, or from a group of parishes (Deanery?) to visit a local food bank or project supporting the homeless. Find out the practical ways in which help and support is given. Ask those operating the food bank what, from their experience, should be the challenge to politicians. Or: Invite someone from Christian Aid or another aid agency, to help you discuss the political implications of our commitment to the poorest of the poor in developing countries. Public Spirit Preparation: The Word on the Street, Chapter 8 New Spaces for Salvation For discussion: Many people can relate to the call to the Kingdom of God the highest aspirations for themselves and for society. The need is for spaces within which to explore this instinct and to practice its outworking. What kind of space can the local church provide? What other spaces should we seek to support too? For action: Take a small group from the parish, or from a group of parishes (Deanery?) to a meeting of the Council of your local authority. Note what seems to be working well in terms of enabling communities to flourish. Try to discern what is missing. What extra ingredients could the Christian gospel contribute? Invite local councillors and candidates to come and discuss your findings. How could church and those committed to civic flourishing work together more fruitfully? 14

15 What next? Ensure that the group responsible for this programme reports back to the Parochial Church Council, with proposals about how best to develop partnerships, political discussion and practical action as part of our ongoing witness. Adjust the Mission Action Plan for the parish accordingly. Share your responces and reflections with other parishes on the Deanery. Please send a brief report to the Bishop of Derby and to the Church Growth Officers (The Revd Jason Kennedy for the Derby Archdeaconry and The Revd Lee Townend for the Chesterfield Archdeaconry). 15

16 For more information please contact: The Bishops Office 6 King Street Duffield DE56 4EU JAN1501

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