Putting the good back into the community

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
21 Aug 2013

If there had been a poll at the conversation on 'A Good Society' in Edinburgh last night, there is no doubt that notions such as equality, justice, hospitality, empathy, sharing and neighbourliness would have been at the heart of people's answers.

But how are such values developed, given content, sustained in practice and related to the needs and interests of ordinary people, of civil society, of political and economic institutions, and of faith communities?

There was, as someone put it, no 'silver bullet' answer on show. Instead, people were keen to talk about doing good locally, investing in alternatives, challenging unhealthy practices, products and institutional arrangements... building something different from the grassroots.

“What do we mean by a good society? What can and do churches or faith groups contribute to the development of such a society?” Those were the questions that began an ecumenical investigation into perceptions of common good, commissioned by CTBI, from which this conversation took its cue.

"A good society is much more interesting than 'the big society', which was in vogue a few years ago," noted Bishop John Armes in his introduction. "We all think we know what we mean by 'good', but maybe it isn't so clear when you dig a little deeper."

The main speakers, the Rev Padraig Gallagher (Church in Wales) and June Fearns (Hamilton, west of Scotland), were practitioners. That is where the discussion needs to start, Bishop Armes of Edinburgh, the chair, declared.

People with addictions, released women prisoners and family groups living on the edge are among those who have been positively benefitting from the project June had become involved in, based at the local church but engaging a much wider group – including her boss, who is an atheist.

Reoffending had been cut dramatically, she said. There is also an estranged parents group, who use a flat as a homely setting to meet children in association with legal services and the court system. Alcoholics Anonymous now use the church three times a week, and 150 people are involved on a regular basis.

"How did I get involved in Wales? I was appointed by the bishop in the parish in Swansea north east. I became part of a 'community first' area", laughed Padraig Gallagher.

The programme itself, he explained, was sparked by an initiative of the Welsh Assembly government tackling deprivation and poverty, and looking at sustainable regeneration – skilling people, empowering them over time.

Many of those Padraig works with have been out of work for a long time, and basic education and skills are lacking. This is a huge gap, contributing to a cycle of deprivation. The work began with a development trust, which Padraig chairs.

"Our church sits nicely there in the midst of things, so I thought... wouldn't it be good if more people went out into the community... God is out there, and if you go out you might meet God, rather than expecting God just to be in here, in church," he explained. Work with schools is part of what is involved in this, a meeting point for young and old.

"What I'd like to see is a much more equal world where people have opportunity - and the opportunity to take that opportunity... an open door society." That was June's response to Bishop Armes' question, "what would a good society look like... given that much what we have been talking about so far is a broken society."

She went on to offer some definitions she had looked up herself. "Those with whom one has companionship... a system of human organisation - usually offering protection, security and identity. A good society is where everyone has self-esteem."

"People I live with", said Padraig, "don't like God... they live chaotic lives. A good society has to start by being non-judgemental, recognising that every person matters, and that we have to work together to make a difference. Despite people's external differences, there is good there, care and compassion. But it does not always manifest itself in ways we commonly expect."

Those on benefits are accused of being scroungers, "but what about the companies that do not pay a living wage?" asked Padraig.

We need a change of attitudes, and within the churches a renewal of faith in the possibility of good, it was said.

The exchange then went on to look at mistreatment of asylum seekers and migrants, the environment and a host of other practical concerns that civic and church organisations have become involved in, through projects, advocacy and a host of other ways.

In some secular circles, faith is seen as peripheral, said a participant who spoke of the benefit of cross-community organising and advocacy, as has been developed in London and other places.

And what of the scope for redemption and empathy? There is a faith language about this, but also an opportunity to engage those of good faith but not particular religious convictions.

"I think a key feature of a good society is openness to one another - not to welcome people into a society that belongs to me, but to question my (our) own perspective," a member of St John's Church, the venue for the conversation, said.

"What I've taken out of tonight is not to be quiet," June concluded. For Padraig it was, "I don't have all the answers... but this has got me thinking. We can easily get set in our own local situations. We need to look at the bigger picture and put things into perspective."

"One of the things that makes society less than good is disconnection, through class, race and socio-economic factors. Also part of this is a lack of empathy," concluded Bishop Armes. "A good society involves recovering a sense of connectedness by going out and doing something."

* A longer 'live blog' is available here: http://justfestivalnews.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/all-in-this-together.html

* The Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (http://www.ctbi.org.uk) report on 'A Good Society' will be published in the Autumn of 2013.

* I have commented on the theological and philosophical issues underpinning notions of 'good', 'the good' and a 'good society' here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18845

* For more information on Just Festival, visit http://www.justjust.org and http://justfestivalnews.blogspot.com

* Ekklesia is a sponsor of Just Festival. Our news, reporting and comment is aggregated at: www.ekklesia.co.uk/justfestival

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

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