Monday, July 21, 2008

Engaging religion with civil society

Among the visitors to our 9.30am Eucharist today was a woman with whom I've recently been in conversation on behalf of the Magistrates Association. She's a parishioner in Lisvane, and is keen to arrange a Christmas Carol service for the Association. There hasn't been one, apparently for some years. She was surprised to learn that up until 40 years ago there had been regular Quarter Session services held in St John's for members of the judiciary, since the time when the City's court system had been set up (even I don't know what that was). The custom was abolished as part of some new reform. When she related this to other magistrates she was surprised at how few were aware of the custom and the historic links with the City Parish Church. It's indicative of how soon history fades from public recall, as generation pass. It brought to mind the scriptural story of the rediscovery of the scrolls of the Law in the Temple in the time of Josiah. Those most sacred objects - enshrined in the Holy of Holies - people had forgotten what they were and why they were kept there.

In the same way people raised in my life time, often with an impoverished cultural education, and weakened family life, tend to forget that traditional morality and values are rooted in the practice of Christian faith. This, as much as changing social and economic conditions that make for greater rootlessness, undermines social cohesion and integration, and exposes conditions in which violence insinuates itself into all areas of life, like a disease. Successive governments have declared themselves bothered by this, and sought to shape policy in ways that encourage community building and promote inclusive values, as a remedy against social fragmentation.

I was pleased to receive the following report from Roy Thomas, who so successfully managed our Spiritual Capital project, and doesn't look much like he's going to rest on his laurels!

Communities Secretary Hazel Blears MP has announced in Parliament that
she is preparing a charter for "faith-based" community groups.In her new
White Paper, Communities in Control - real people, real power Ms Blears
lays out the Government's plans to empower local communities by handing
more control to them over local facilities and services. In relation to "faith
groups" she writes:

"Among the voluntary organisations we want to help in different ways to
build stronger communities, there is a particular role for faith based
groups. Britain has a strong tradition of faith-based organisations working
to improve local communities. This reflects the importance placed on
charitable acts, social action and civic duty in all religions practised in
the UK. There are over 23,000 religious charities in the UK and many more
faith-based organisations, involving tens of thousands of people motivated
by their faith, working at a local and national level to provide support and
services to communities. At times there has been reluctance on the part of
local authorities and agencies to commission services from faith-based
groups, in part because of some confusion about the propriety of doing so.
Building on the Faithworks Charter, we intend to work with faith communities
to clarify the issues and to remove the barriers to commissioning services
from faith-based groups."

It says that the contribution voluntary faith based organisations make are being taken seriously, but we're reminded that high standards are set. In some areas of religious life this will indeed be perceived as daunting and discouraging. Question is, can we rise to the challenge? Are we strong enough, or have we been so weakened by decades of decline and inability to keep up with the pace of change, that we no longer have the capacity to move beyond the maintenance of dwindling resources?

Gwil, our valued Spiritual Capital conference organiser reflects that some of the newer, emergent church communities - the post-denominational missionary church plants, our report mentioned honourably - are better equipped and possibly more favoured by government to meet their challenge. They have evolved around the mission of building new community and resourcing themselves appropriately for this task, without having any historical legacy to maintain, and that's good and necessary. But we still have the legacy stuff, not only to cope with, but optimise as a resource that all can benefit from. Where to start? Well, at St John's right now that means getting our heads around what's involved in installing geothermal heating. With a £4000 gas bill last quarter, bankruptcy will not be far away if we don't act quickly. Nobody is going to bale us out on this one.

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