The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Repositioning the Church of England as a strategic partner in public service reform

18th February 2015

The Church of England has been firmly in the public spotlight over the past few weeks. The celebrations in York at the consecration of its first female bishop provided a brief moment of euphoria after a 20-year journey towards modernisation. But there was little time to reflect as the Church was plunged into the headlines again for of its opposition to the creation of babies from three parents. The launch of its manifesto on reducing inequality, meanwhile, did not receive the attention it could and should have had. And later this month the members of the ruling General Synod face some tough decisions to turn around the Church’s financial health as it grapples with decreasing attendance and a growing maintenance bill for its portfolio of historic buildings.

The media’s portrayal of the Church of England as a divided ‘pressure group’ detracts from the critical role this institution plays in civic society and its contribution to the biggest policy challenges of our day. Whether it is a local befriending scheme improving older people’s mental health, a local foodbank providing relief to poor families, signposting to leisure and exercise classes, or providing a space for community activities, the Church is uniquely placed to connect people with services to improve outcomes, at low cost.

The Church of England contributes an enormous 98 million hours of volunteering each year and at least £2.5 billion towards social initiatives, even without including voluntary work by Christians in the community. This represents an increase of 19% since 2010[1]. Politicians may no longer reel off the rhetoric of the ‘Big Society’, but on the ground in communities and parishes across the country, it is alive and well.

The case for repositioning the Church of England as a strategic partner of public service reform is made powerfully in ResPublica’s report, Holistic Mission, published in July 2013. The authors make the case for the Church of England to become the “foundational enabling and mediating institution” for public service delivery between government and civil society. As the report says: “There is perhaps, only one non-state and non-market association which is universal in the sense of being literally almost everywhere, but local in that its focus is always that of the specific locality, its people and all their needs. That association is the Church of England.”

The Diocese of Guildford’s ‘Community Connectors’ project is a great example of this ‘enabling and mediating’ role in practice. Community Connectors act as a facilitator between the voluntary sector and statutory agencies in order to make the best use of the social capital available. A team of Connectors will signpost older people to services and act as an information exchange, building relationships and using their local knowledge to identify and meet gaps in services.

Projects like Community Connectors are run up and down the country across church parishes. They are made possible by the loose, informal, ‘hyper-local’ networks of the volunteers. The service principles behind the project should be at the heart of government’s reform of public services. These include: making services personal; entrusting a key worker to help people access and navigate services; multi-agency working; information sharing; and strong local leadership.

The repositioning of the Church as the government’s strategic partner in service delivery will not happen overnight, but as a starting point there are two key actions which should be taken to drive change. The first should see the government embracing the Church as a strategic partner on a par with local authorities and schools which are similar in their geographical diversity and variety in performance. As Holistic Mission shows, churches are crying out for more support and guidance on service delivery. An equivalent of Ofsted for social action could fit the bill here, enabling the Government to guide, steer, and hold the Church to account for its activities.

[1] National Church and Social Action Survey (2012)

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