Can we create a 'good society'?

By Simon Barrow
August 20, 2013

Today, there is a discussion about what constitutes a 'good society' taking place at St John's Church Edinburgh (Tuesday 20th August, 6-7.30pm, £5) as part of Just Festival.

Its context is that, two years ago this summer, a Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) commissioned researcher and photojournalist working across the four nations set out with two questions.

These were: “What do we mean by good society? What can and do churches or faith groups contribute to the development of such a society?”

This is an opportunity to find out what people said, and to share and develop our own responses.

The speakers guiding us in these issues are the Rev Padraig Gallagher (Church in Wales) and June Fearns (Hamilton). The chair is the Rt Rev Dr John Armes (pictured, Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh, and former rector of St John's Church, Edinburgh, where Just Festival has its base).

I have a number of interests in this. Over ten years ago I was assistant General Secretary of CTBI, and I headed up its largest component part, being secretary of the Churches' Commission on Mission (as it was then). So it's good to see CTBI - which has since reduced in size and budget dramatically as institutional ecumenical work continues to wane - still helping to set the debate for the future of these islands and beyond

The issue of what constitutes 'the good', in persons, in relationships and in society is an interesting one. It is far less straightforward than many assume.

Our ideas of what is 'good' are not simple, universal and consensual. In human terms, 'the good' is constructed. In theological terms it is given... not as a divine fiat, but as an unfolding understanding about God's purposes in an evolving world understood as created and as redeemed: in other words, intended for shalom and for concomitant delivery from all that would mar and destroy the vision of a world constituted by right relations.

In short, from a Christian viewpoint, the universe is finally, and in spite of its tendency to fall and fail, 'God's good creation'. Believing this can, literally, make "all the difference in the world".

I have written more about this under the heading, 'What on earth do we mean by 'good", here:

Whether any of this gets a look in tomorrow night, I have no idea. In certain respects it moves in a different direction to the usual liberal mores. But there will, I'm sure, be plenty of goodwill around. The question is, how can that be preserved and developed in a world of mass violence, environmental devastation, anomie and consumer-based self destruction?

Ethics tough enough to survive require something greater than liberalism and something less fearful than conservatism. That is the point at which I find myself unable not to 'get theological'.

* Details of the 'good society' conversation:

* What on earth do do we mean by 'good'?

* For more information on Just Festival, visit and

* Ekklesia is a sponsor of Just Festival. Our news, reporting and comment is aggregated at:


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia and a media adviser for Just Festival. He is a theologian, writer and consultant.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.