St Bride's: Sermons

The Big Society

The language of 'rights' and 'entitlement' has become deeply engrained in our society and culture.

European human rights legislation combined with 60 years of the welfare state has created a mentality which instantly assumes 'rights' rather than responsibilities, and the rise of an ambulance chasing legal industry has created a parallel blame culture which actually diminishes human responsibility and the ability to bear hardship and share one another's burdens.

No longer 'terrible things do happen but what can I do to help make the world a better place?' but 'who's to blame and how much money can I make out of it?'

Big Society
It is against this background that the present government, especially David Cameron, is trying to launch his idea of the Big Society, and of course in the teeth of a harsh recession and cutbacks in government expenditure. It's not surprising therefore that it is meeting both cynicism and resistance.

The Times had a page of vox populi quotes recently, and two in particular were depressing: -

This from a 66 year old care assistant:- 'we have done a lot of volunteering in my job, helping people out. But making it compulsory? I just don't think they are interested.'

And this from a 26 year old:- 'Unfortunately the whole community thing is dead. It would be nice if it wasn't, but I don't think many people have the time or even want to do it, to be honest.'

If those views are typical, then that is very depressing and the idea of the Big Society will struggle to become reality. As I understand it the Big Society is about devolving power and responsibility from central government to the local level, encouraging people to take responsibility for what goes on in their neighbourhoods, getting people at grass roots level involved, looking out for each other, not expecting that 'they', the state, central government - should be doing everything, looking after us.

In those ways I think the idea of the Big Society is a good thing because we do need, in David Cameron's words' a social recovery to mend a broken society'.

When I was looking after three country villages in Berkshire I could witness all this in action: a significant number of people did care enough, or felt it their duty to be actively involved in the community -

  • a team of people produced the village magazine

  • a team of volunteers ran the old people's group

  • significant numbers of adults were involved in supporting scouts, guides, cubs and brownies, not just parents

People were willing to serve as school governors of the local primary school

And there were a large number of interest groups:-

  • the Horticultural Society

  • the AmDram group

  • people served on the parish council

  • others volunteered for the Hospital Car Scheme

At the heart of all this activity was the Church, itself a community hub but also providing a very large percentage of the army of volunteers. You see, the Church has been doing the Big Society for generations - it's not something new; and the Church is still a vital community hub today; even here in the City of London with a very small resident population, the City Churches are the only viable community hubs in the Square Mile, hosting a very wide diversity of groups and events from concerts, to Keep Fit, to Alcoholics Anonymous, Counselling spaces etc.

So at the voluntary and charity end of the Big Society idea, I believe the Church is a crucial player and has a lot to offer, not least because of something vital that the Christian Gospel stands for - that personal duty and responsibility is as important as an emphasis on human rights; that we are called to care for one another, not just for ourselves, just as God cares for us.

It has been said that the Christian Church is the one organisation that exists for the benefit of those who don't yet belong to it, and there is a lot of truth in that. We are called to be people who demonstrate to the world what its true nature is, that it was made in love, by a God who loves us and accept us, whatever we are like, and who wants us to love Him. We are here to point to Jesus, the human face of God, who voluntarily gave up his rights, his dignities, life itself, to bring us home to God.

We are here to proclaim, through the Church, that community does matter, and that our greatest fulfilment is to be found in respecting, caring for and nurturing one another.

That is not just the job of the state but it's a job in which everyone has a part to play.

And we are here to proclaim that responsibilities are more important than rights, that we are loved by God through Grace, not because of anything we have done, and therefore the language of entitlement has no place in a Christian's vocabulary.

If God so loves us then we are to love and care for one another and share one another's burdens. If that is one of the core ideas behind the public and political rhetoric of the Big Society - then it's Gospel stuff and we should support it.

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