What the Archbishop really said

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A miniature media storm has been whipped up this morning about comments made about the Coalition in a leader article in the New Statesman by Archbishop Rowan Williams.  Having read the blog posts, tweets and commentary so far, you have to wonder how many people have actually read the article.

Unfortunately that may be because only just came onlineA much edited and somewhat unbalanced retelling of it was available instead.  So when the storm began brewing I popped out of the office to the local newsagent and read the article itself.  Perhaps to the modern-day tweeters and bloggers the idea of reading a paper magazine just doesn’t come to mind.

I have no intention of launching a full defence of the Archbishop’s comments.  Nor am I inclined to engage in the wider question of whether he should be commenting at all.  This will not be the last time, and is definitely not the first, that those in power and those close to them grind their teeth at a troublesome priest.  Personally, if vocal and ardent atheists are going to comment on public affairs by virtue of their identity as atheists then I see no reason why Christians (or any other confession for that matter) are different.  Indeed, Cranmer has explained why – even though he disagrees with Rowan Williams – he gives the Archbishop three cheers and Alastair Campbell has ridden to his defence.  But that is another issue for another day.

It would simply improve the quality of comment far more if people read the article for what it actually says.  Some left-wing commentators are celebrating the Archbishop as the new champion of opposition.  Meanwhile, ConservativeHome has gone into an overdrive defensive operation ranging from childish kneejerking to righteous indignation.

Alarmism over Islamism?

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Over on Conservative Home, Luke de Pulford has offered an interesting contribution to the debate about revelations in the Jewish Chronicle concerning a London Citizen’s deputy chair making supportive remarks about Hamas.

Luke writes:

The Citizens UK solution is about gathering people together around a common cause, building relationships between distant communities, giving a sense of common ownership. In a word: dialogue. The alternative (if you can call it that – and I’m doing my best to steer clear of hyperbole here) would be to leave alienated and isolated communities to their own devices whilst occasionally  bringing to justice some hate-filled, rabble-rousing ringleader, guilty of inciting violence or threatening the status quo.

You can read the full article here.

Jellicoe & CTC prayer diary

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Each month, we post prayer requests for the work of our Jellicoe Interns, and the wider life of the Contextual Theology Centre

Please pray for…
– the 20 students from Oxford, Cambridge, London and Sheffield who will be coming on Jellicoe Internships this summer, and the congregations in East London which they will work;
– Ian Bhullar and Liliana Worth, who have worked so hard and to such effect for the Centre in this last year, and are going on to new roles in the year ahead (Ian in China and Liliana in Oxford) – and Thomas Daggett who will help manage this summer’s internship programme;
– Joshua Harris, our Research Co-ordinator, as he helps us plan an exciting event with The Children’s Society in September.  We will be bringing together Christian thinkers and practitioners to discuss how best to challenge he yawning inequalities of wealth in our society;
– Angus Ritchie, Susanne Mitchell and Michael Ipgrave as we develop the East London  Near Neighbours programme – building and deepening relationships across faiths and cultures.  Pray for the sister programmes in Bradford, Birmingham and Leicester – and for the process of recruiting staff in each place;
– the Jellicoe Community in Oxford – especially remembering those who heard Pastor Peter Nembhard preach so powerfully last week, that his words may have an ongoing impact on their lives;
– all who have attended the wide range of teaching events we have been involved in this spring.  In particular, please remember the 100 Christians who have completed our Building a People of Power course on faith and community organising; the 150 Christians, Jews and Muslims involved in our Scriptural Reasoning event on money and justice, and around 200 church leaders in the East Midlands who gathered to reflect on The Church and the Big Society.  Pray for the congregations in which participants worship and minister, that the relationships built and ideas shared at these events may bear fruit in their local contexts

Pastor Peter preaches at Merton

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Peter Nembhard, Pastor of one of our Pentecostal congregations, preached a powerful sermon on Moses, anger and justice – at a special Jellicoe event in Merton College, Oxford.  Song of Moses brought together a group of Christians from very different traditions and contexts – College Chapels and St Aldate’s and St Mary Magdalen Churches in Oxford and Pastor Peter’s ARC in East London – to pray and reflect together on the call to social justice.

Jellicoe intern Daniel Stone gave testimony on the impact of being on placement at ARC.  Daniel has since been elected Vice-President (Charity & Communities) of Oxford University Students Union.

The service was one of a series of events in which the Jellicoe Community has been connecting faith and life in Oxford, including
…an extended Mass at St Mary Magdalen, interspersed with teaching on why things are done as they are in the liturgy – and its implications for Christian life
…a series of workshops on Community Organising (arranged by Sarah Santhosham, who will be a Jellicoe intern in Shadwell this summer)
…sermons at Balliol, Corpus Christi and Magdalen by clergy from our partner churches

Coming up – on the evening of Wednesday 22nd June – is an event with two of the leading thinkers on faith and organising, Baron Glasman and Prof John Milbank.  Full details of this final Jellicoe event of term will follow soon!

Questioning Attacks on the Big Society

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Dave Hodges has posed the question on the Labour Uncut blog whether it is time to stop bashing the Big Society?  He points to an important distinction which many critics of the Big Society fail to recognise: the Coalition’s deficit reduction plan, and the resulting cuts to public services, is not part and parcel of the Big Society vision.  Criticising one does not necessitate rubbishing the other.  As he says,

Aiming fire at the big society is not the answer. It is a positive, idealistic message that we sour with harsh home truths. We are the grumpy person in the corner who perks up adversely to criticise every time the opportunity arises.

At a recent Compass event in Westminster, Jesse Norman MP and Anna Coote from nef clashed over precisely this point.  Jesse Norman, a strong supporter of the Big Society as a vision for a society emphasising mutuality and reciprocal relations, argued that this vision should be separated from the current Coalition plan for tackling the deficit.  Anna Coote instead believed that they were one and the same, and that therefore the Big Society could and should be judged by what is happening now.  The debate will no doubt continue.  But resolving it, and deciding on what grounds the Big Society should be attacked when it resonates so clearly with many aspects of the emerging Blue Labour narrative, would help opponents of the Coalition’s deficit reduction plan have a clearer objective in their sights.

So Farewell Then, Lord Wei

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Nat Wei has stepped down from his role as an unpaid adviser to the Government on the Big Society at the Cabinet Office.  A remarkably gifted social entrepreneur, it is likely that Wei’s talents will perhaps be better used in his new role at the Community Foundation Network.

There was always a significant question mark over whether the Cabinet Office could ever be the beating heart of a civil society renaissance.  As a Department it is a curious animal.  Often silent and stealthy, its officials are some of the brightest and sharpest minds dedicated to making the art of governing a refined, and efficient, science.  It’s bread and butter is strategy, and long term planning.  Occasionally the Cabinet Office breaks the surface – hosting the 2010 Coalition negotiations, for example, thrust it into the limelight – and its present Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, has much more name recognition than his predecessors.  Yet there are obvious limits to what central government can achieve through strategy papers (however clever) and bold ideas.  The power to really change things which will impact the Big Society lies in the hands of spending Ministers at other departments.  For example, Eric Pickles and the DCLG team are driving the localism agenda, not the Cabinet Office.  It is little wonder on one level then that Nat Wei might be of more direct use, and have more obvious impact, working at a grass roots level where change is more immediate, impact more measureable, and action favoured over strategy.

His departure prompts an observation however.  David Cameron shows no sign of disowning the Big Society brand despite growing calls for him to do so even by those that support its aims.  And it is important to note that Nat Wei is not going to be replaced.  It may be simply the case that no-one else willing or able to do the job for free could be found.  But it is not insigificant that the role is being taken out of the Cabinet Office and given to the No 10 Policy Unit.

Far from distancing himself from the Big Society, Cameron is taking it closer under his wing.  It remains to be seen, though, whether this results in greater attention to it.  A more likely option, given recent developments, is it becomes lost in the sea of more pressing problems the No 10 team are preoccupied with, such as NHS reform.  Cameron’s promise to cut the costs of government have led to serious problems in not having enough special advisers (SpAds) to provide sufficient political support for his objectives, and those of his ministers.  Their time and energy is already spread too thin.  Using civil servants instead has been the favoured option, though this may help explain some of the political mistakes of the past year which more seasoned partisan operators might have avoided.  Civil servants have not shown themselves natural supporters of the Big Society vision.  Let’s hope that they are not given responsibility for it in No 10.

Lord Wei will no doubt continue to add to the richness of civil society. His track record as a social entrepreneur speaks for itself.  But the impact of his time in the Cabinet Office is not yet clear.  And what will happen next, now that his role has been taken into No 10, remains to be seen.

By Josh Harris

Big Society Commission

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ACEVO has launched its Commission report into the Big Society this week.  The Commission members, drawn from across the political spectrum, broadly welcome the Big Society and regard it as an idea which should “transcend” party politics.  Concerned by polling figures which show just 13% of people think the government has a clear plan in place to achieve the Big Society, the Commission urges the Prime Minister personally to take control and drive forward the agenda.

Powerful People, Responsible Society is an intelligent and considered report.  Its balanced criticism is particularly valid on the lack of consistent guidance from the centre over what the Big Society – as a policy programme – is trying to achieve.  Refreshingly, the report makes concrete recommendations.  For example, building in through No 10 and the Cabinet Office specific ways of measuring the success or failure of the Big Society.

Of course, as a way of describing society and the relationship between people and the state (as Jesse Norman MP does well in his recent book), it is hard to measure its success.  As anyone interested in cultural change will know, pointing to measureable outcomes is fiendishly difficult. 

But there is a danger that this leads to a lack of accountability.  Not so much for whether the Big Society is achieved or not, but whether the money and civil servive time invested in it was worthwhile.  At a time of public spending restrictions it is vital that the Big Society is not ‘toxified’ further by those claiming it is a cover for cuts.  Being able to show positive outcomes for the government’s investment in it is vital for avoiding that accusation.  ACEVO’s suggestions for how this might be done is a welcome contribution to the debate.

Josh Harris – Research Coordinator, Contextual Theology Centre

A Postsecular Politics?

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Luke Bretherton, Senior Lecturer at Kings College London and a Fellow of the Contextual Theology Centre, has published an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion entitled A Postsecular Politics? Interfaith Relations as a Civic Practice.

In it, Bretherton critiques the way in which interfaith dialogue is often abstracted from the reality of the social, economic and political contexts in which it takes place.  Instead, he restates interfaith dialogue as being explicitly political and civic.  It is rooted in the desire to forge a common life among disparate communities; something which, Bretherton believes, requires an acute sense of place and context.  What is needed are “civic practices of listening, a commitment to place, and the building and maintenance of institutions as central to the formation of a politics of the common good”.

The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox

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A new e-book has today been published representing some of the recent debate about the future of Labour.  It reproduces papers and responses to them from four seminars held in Oxford in 2010-11.  Contributors include CTC Fellow Maurice Glasman and former Jellicoe Intern Stefan Baskerville.  The e-book is entitled The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox and is edited by Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears and Stuart White.

One response to the publication has come already from Mary Riddell at The Telegraph.  A mixed but intriguing review of the Blue Labour phenomenom, she identifies the opportunity and the hurdles to overcome in advocating a (small c) conservative turn for Labour’s renewal.

Yet although Mary Riddell refers to this new book as Blue Labour’s ‘Bible’, a more accurate picture is painted by David Lammy MP who describes Blue Labour not as an invitation for factionalism “but as an opening salvo in a conversation that involves people who hail from different traditions across the party”.  The party is increasingly being given material to sink its teeth into as it searches for its misplaced sense of mission.  The debate, regardless of who wins, will be stronger for it.


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