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Where does it fit with the idea of the Big Society?

The themes of this study resonate strongly with various debates both inside and outside the church at present. A concept that has emerged since the 2010 General Election is that of ‘The Big Society’. At heart, it is nothing new, though the jargon is constantly evolving. There has been a greater emphasis on social responsibility and civil society for the past two decades.

The aim is to move power away from central government and give it to local communities and individuals and to achieve a more participative society. In principle, the main strands of the idea should encourage people not only in churches, but in the voluntary and community sector as a whole:

· fostering a culture of voluntarism and philanthropy and promoting social action;
· community empowerment by giving people a greater say in decisions affecting their area and the services;
· developing new forms of public service delivery including the use of charities and social enterprises.

A paper given to the Church of England General Synod suggested that “The strength of the Big Society idea for the church lies in the extent to which it reflects a Christian understanding of being human. A Christian anthropology locates each person within a rich network of relationships and recognises the perpetual tension between our dependency of others and our autonomy. This reflects the nature of God’s relationship with human beings who remain dependent on His grace for all good things whilst retaining the freedom to reject His love. As in so many of Jesus’ parables, God makes Himself known to us in the person of the other – and it is when we ourselves recognise our dependence on others that we understand a little of God’s love for us.” [1]

To date, although some associated measures have been introduced (the Localism Bill, the Big Society Bank, plans for community organisers throughout the UK), there remains considerable fuzziness about the Big Society and questions about how far it has been wholeheartedly embraced across government. Some commentators fear the Big Society is a smokescreen to hide public spending cuts. Whether or not they are being overly sceptical, it is certainly the case that the implementation or expression of Big Society is bound to be affected by the wider social and economic context.

One instant reaction within churches and the voluntary and community sector as a whole has been to say ‘we’ve been doing this for years’. A major test for them is whether the Big Society facilitates or obstructs what they are trying to do. The findings of the research indicate how the concept is working out in practice.

[1] Malcolm Brown, ‘”The Big Society” and the Church of England’, para 48, GS1804