Friday was the feast of St Peter and St Paul. I would have thought they were uneasy feast day sharers, Paul’s strident certainty must grate on Peter’s impetuosity of faith and visa versa. It is too simplistic to see Peter as all emotion and Paul as all intellect. A careful reading of Paul will show plenty of emotion hidden behind rational words. Equally, Peter is quite capable of intellectual religious insight. However, that is not the coupling I want to draw attention to. What I want to draw attention to is the way St Matthew has coupled together two episodes the first of which is often read on this Saints’ day. Continue reading “Twin star Biblical Interpretation”
First, let me clear the ground. I do not like the right wing attitudes that are suddenly (or suddenly to me) acceptable to spout in polite society. I do not wonder that people hold them, but I do wonder that these opinions are lauded and not seen as embarrassing. The policies that this climate is allowing to get through are detrimental to society and to the well being of the world in my opinion. Yes, a struggle is on and we need to succeed in at least damage limitation. Every battle needs more people than there seems to be available.
However, I want to get across something that is being lost in the midst of the battle. We need to keep the big struggle in view. The big struggle is not for better rights for women enshrined in law, not for the better treatment of migrant and not for better welfare. I want all those but I worry that we are too often if focussing on them gaining pyrrhic victories. We are at the same time as technically gaining a legal or democratic victory losing those who would be our allies in other battles.
The big struggle is for the hearts and minds of the people. When we have that then we have the others will come. However, if we succeed in alienating most people then we will lose all we have struggled to gain eventually. That means we need to watch the method and tone of our argument. So much of today that passes for debate is actually two sides becoming more and more entrenched. We think about the fight as if it is a duel between two already formed teams
The fact is that it is a lot more fluid than that. Individuals are always making decisions on whether to participate, which side to participate on and how much energy to give. There is thus the immediate opponent or opponents but also the onlookers. Now some of the onlookers are moved by the strength in battle but others are moved by other things. These include
- how much space you give those who join in to hold their own views
- if you care about the issues that face them as well as your central cause, however worthy your cause.
- are they able to influence the strategy or are they just battle fodder
- is the underlying morality a matter of deep faith or just surface politics
- how you deal with the ambiguity that occurs in most people’s lives
- can they actually talk about something that is not directly relevant or is their only the campaign
- is it ok to take time out to care for family or will that be seen as not caring
- is there a greater narrative here or is this seen as a one off issue
Those may sound as general questions but I think we need to be very careful that we never, ever think that the effort for any particular cause is worth sacrificing other people. Ourselves we can sacrifice and to be among the highly committed can produce great comradeship. However, if comes to something else when we think we have the right to ignore the humanity of those who are working with us. We can and will only grow if we can engage with the humanity of other people.
Sometimes something makes me reflect on the impact of past events. One such is that Facebook brought to my notice that Journeying is thirty years old next year. That struck a note with me because the first holiday I went on with what was then Pilgrim Adventure was on their tend anniversary. That means that next year is twenty years since I first holidayed with them. Not that I have holidayed with them ever since.I haven’t but we are not getting ahead with the story let me go back to the beginning.
I booked the first holiday less than a week before leaving. This is not my normal style, I do slow planning. However, that year I desperately needed a holiday and had not got one organised. I suppose I should say something of why but forgive me my brevity there are long stories and confidences involved. About three years earlier my boyfriend had turned out not to exist. If that does not make sense to you, that is fine; it does not really make sense to me after living with it for over twenty years. I also was supporting a friend who was being stalked and there was a break down in relationships around us. I was also working full time and doing church-related study. The church-related study might sound silly but it was also the main way I got support from outside of the tight-knit group around my friend.
At my friend’s suggestion, I got hold of the Retreats Association publication that listed many retreats. I am a Reformed Christian. The Reformed tradition does not really get ‘retreats’ as a whole. It does, however, get walking particularly walking within the natural environment as there is a strong environmental streak within the Reformed psyche. On the back page, I saw a small advert for Pilgrim Adventure and it clicked with me. So I think I must have emailed them and then received an email back saying there was a space on a holiday less than a week later. The next week was frantic with negotiations going on as to where exactly to meet up with them and trying to locate the necessary accommodation. My boss made an emergency trip home to pick up a sleeping mat for me the day before I left. But a week late I was staying in the tent below in the Lake District
In those days camping was fairly normal, indeed they owned the tent. The holiday worked for me in a number of ways. I found I enjoyed camping though I was cold, my sleeping bag really was not up to camping in a typical English Summer i.e. cool and damp and the sleeping mat was minimal although if I recall correctly one camper did not even have that. The camping enjoyment was two-fold; I found being forced to be away from tech good, my day job means I am always using tech, and I had my own space in the tent. I enjoyed the walks although my fitness level was relatively poor. The group was unusual; fortunately, nobody who wanted any more than light friendliness with me. I was not ready for close friendship, there were Pilgrim Adventure stalwarts and a number of maturer Anglican women who seemed new to the organisation. The reasons that I remember it is twenty years is that I can remember the conversations about this being ten years. For a variety of reasons, we must have been an odd group but a lot of the time I was floating and not being drawn into subgroups. I was sorry to go home at the end. I can remember sitting on a style and just not wanting it to finish but knowing it would. I am not going to pretend it was perfect but if it had been perfect it would not have suited me as well.
Not surprising the next year I was back. Firstly there was a camp at the end of June and then I think a holiday in Ireland or was it the other way around?
The following a trip walking St Cuthbert’s Way. I can only date that because it was the year Mary Low published her guide with Wild Goose. There was something really special about walking that route. I am struggling to explain the holiday. It is probably the most influential of the holidays I took with Pilgrim Adventure. The crossing over to Lindisfarne by the Pilgrim Path is something special, in part captured by the piece I wrote last year after walking St Cuthbert’s Way by myself. Yet at the same time, it was a difficult time for me and cracks started to show. I had not yet learnt that I need to regulate myself similar to Lindisfarne. There are times when I enjoy being with people but there are also times when I need to be by myself. Maybe just maybe, there was something more complex yet going on. Whatever it was I ended up ill and needing some time out.
I think the year that followed, for the only time in Pilgrim’s Adventure/Journeying history there was a Northern Group, that complemented the core group around Bristol and did weekend walks and such. The North is a big place and getting together for a day walk can be difficult. The next summer ended up travelling to Shetland. The time was fantastic for wildlife including being called over by one of the leaders to stand inches from a sleeping otter. One thing these holidays taught me is that if you want to see wildlife you need to be out for long periods of time. The year after I went to Ireland again but things did not work well. I ended up struggling with lactose intolerance (I think the Irish put milk into a lot of their bread) and being peopled out. Pilgrim Adventure was now usually staying in hostels or B&B and that meant sharing a room. It was not that I needed my own room, it is that I need alone time and travelling with people, sharing meals with people and sleeping without the freedom to head out in free time just exhausts me.
Did I go on one last camping trip or was that the end. My memory serves both stories. Whatever it was life, was moving along. I was now doing a masters degree in Sociology at the OU and then start my PhD (finished two years ago). I would go through burn out with my involvement in my local congregation and then spend a summer volunteering on Iona (shared accommodation, shared meals but in time off I could disappear whether to St Columba’s bay or just to my bed to sleep). Finally, my Goddaughters, who I would have been guardian too if anything happened to their parents, moved to Scotland and I need to use my holiday to keep in contact with them.
Time moves on again, the PhD is finished and my Goddaughters are growing into young women and no longer need me as a guardian. This could be just an exercise in nostalgia only it isn’t. The last three years I have been getting myself fit enough to solitary walk and last year I walked the Northumberland Coastal Path and St Cuthbert’s Way. This year I walked the Cleveland Way from Helmsley to Whitby. The experience of walking a route with my pack is something I relish. There is something very deep about the moving a walking pace from one place to another with all you need in your pack and meeting fellow travellers on the way. There is something special about receiving what the path brings you as gift. As you have to be out regardless, I carry full waterproofs, you are out in the most spectacular of weathers. Yes, I am already beginning to plan me walk for next year, the next challenge. I am not yet up to carrying camping gear as well. I know there is something in me that really want to. I ask questions about how I would cope as just over fifty is different to just over thirty. So I book myself beds for the nights but I am happy as long as it is somewhere to sleep. So even if I am not going on one of Journeying’s holidays next year, the holidays I am doing are still shaped by them
This is a late addition to a series of posts I made and it is in response to Bishop Philip North’s Hope for the Poor which he gave at New Wine in August. It is a good piece of writing and thought-provoking. I am for urban ministry and if you got this far in this series you will not be in any doubt about that. I am for those articles that encourages us to look at what people bring to the Church in more than monetary ways. The problem I want to address is one that is brought by a hidden change of topics in the article. He starts by arguing for an acknowledgement of what the poor bring to the church and ends up with arguing for the greater development of churches ministry to the poor. Without a doubt, the poor need help if their ministry to the church is to be received. It is not easy to draw the poor into the institutions of power and the Church is often too similar to other institutions. It would do the Church no harm to focus. However, I actually want to address here what the poor bring to the Church that is distinctive and why the Church should welcome it.
Let me be clear the Church has a long tradition of holding the poor in high esteem. In the letter from James (James 2:1-6), the Christians are chastised for not welcoming a poor man as they welcome rich. In verse 5 we read “has God not chosen the poor to be rich in faith”. Charity towards them is important enough for it to be a sign of unity to for the Church (Galatians 2:10). The opening of Jesus’ ministry includes ‘proclaiming good news to the poor’ (Luke 4:18). Jesus asks us that when we have a feast we should invite the poor (Luke 14:13) and in the Lukan version of the Beatitudes it is simply “Blessed are you poor” (Luke 6:20-21). Matthew 25:40 has the rebuke for not doing it for the “least of these”. Indeed we are told if we are to be perfect we must “sell all we have and give to the poor” Matthew 19:21.
Now not many of us take that seriously but there has been a long tradition in the Church of doing so. Most notably with the Franciscans. St Francis is revered even today for the extent which he sought to be poor and one of the early classics of Franciscan spirituality is an allegorical exchange between St Francis and Lady Poverty. What is more, most monastic orders keep the vow of poverty or the practice of not having personal possessions.
More modern communities where the radical adoption of poverty has featured include Sojourners and Bob Holman. There are others particularly among evangelicals but you almost have to specifically know who they are to be able to identify them. The radical choice of evangelical poverty is not just a call to minimalism and an absence of stuff but to something deeper. A joining with the poor so as to be one alongside them. The Church is not called to help the poor but to join with the poor. It is different. There is much written about the advantages of poverty as a spiritual discipline but there is a world of difference between poverty chosen and embraced and poverty thrust upon you. The poor in the Biblical sense are those who have it thrust upon them.
So far I have argued that Christian relationship with the poor is not just about serving the poor. and also that voluntary poverty is different from being poor and, while a valid and useful religious discipline, is not the same as being actually poor. Equally, we are not called to idealise the poor as if they are automatically saints by virtue of not having enough to eat. We need to take off rose glinted glasses.
There is one thing that all people who are poor experience; that is that they are subject to institutions, forces and beings that they cannot control. Those forces may be represented by the debt collector, the people who give them substandard shelter at inflated prices, government agencies, charitable agencies, the local drug dealer. Basically, they experience daily lack of agency in their lives and have no illusion that they are masters of their fate. They know they are dependent on events and people they cannot subjugate to their will. They will still try and manipulate those events and people to their advantage but this feels more like playing Russian Roulette than solving the Cryptic Crossword. Get it wrong and you will end up in real trouble with only a limited knowledge of the outcome.
This is very different to anyone even slightly higher up the social scale. We are very much Cryptic Crossword solvers. We tend to believe that if we try hard enough, work long enough, or ask enough people we will eventually find the solution to life’s many riddles and be able to run our lives successfully on our own. We may acknowledge the Divine God who judges all but we tend to imagine him rewarding those who play well and punishing those who cheat at solving life’s riddles. We think what is more that the more money we have the less we are subject to vagaries that life brings.
The poor bear witness to the fact that we ultimately are not in control.
Faith actually begins when we realise this and put our trust in another. While we are trying
to micromanage our ways out of possible disaster or trying to put money aside for every eventuality we are in fact also creating an illusion for ourselves that we are in control. If this is the case then it is not surprising Jesus says that it is harder for rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (Mark 10:25). Usually the illusions stay until something pretty traumatic happens and then we work hard to regain the illussion. They are our safety net from an anxiety attack that would leave us unable to operate or so we believe. The poor know how to operate while permanently without the safety illusion and they know they often have to risk putting their trust in something they cannot control.
That is the poor know what it is to have faith. They rely on faith, perhaps not in God, though many do believe in God in some form but faith in institutions, the social worker or their mate to see them right. If they did not they would end up overwhelmed with anxiety. The rest of us therefore have some catching up to do when it comes to the technology of faith. While we may be experts at doctrine, have a thorough understanding of the Bible and regular in devotional practice we have little experience of trusting anyone with our existence.
It is the middle class and the rich who need to take the risk for faith, whether that is to embrace voluntary poverty or step out of comfort zone in some other way. Without it we are too shielded from our ephemerality, believing that what we purpose will happen and become self-orientated. Until we open ourselves to risk for faith we cannot know what faith is.
I see the enthusiasm of young people for hot topics: Climate Change, Politics, Immigration etc. I admire it, wish I was not so tired myself but…
Over twenty years ago, pre-new Labour, I sat in the Chapter House in Iona late September. The week was the first ever JPIC week. If you are wondering what the letters stand for that is: Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation. It was the first time that the Iona Community added Integrity of Creation to their Justice and Peace commitment.
I remember it as a wet day, the room was cold and like all Justice and Peace events the people there were two groups. There were the seasoned battle weary campaigners, there were the new enthusiastic recruits and there was me. Age wise I should have been in the new recruit group, but I was somewhere between struggling out of quite a severe bout of depression and I started young, really young. I was battle injured from the bouts when I had come to Iona ten years earlier. We were asked to list the story of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation in the last fifty years. The process was dismal, as defeat after defeat was listed. So much so that I, of all people in that room, started to demand that we somehow hold a candle of light. I was close of suicidal but I knew we had to keep a light or there was no hope.
A decade later I watched many of the new recruits burn out. I was also in the long, still ongoing road, to trying to find a balance. I have never been a vocal campaigner but have spent much of my time engaged in the backroom. Trying to make things happen and improve the lot. I am still here, trying to light those candles. Sometimes I am more active than others but I never totally give up. Often it has involved trying to help people as they approach burn out. I have no illusion on the cost of engagement.
Maybe it is returning to Iona that set this off. Maybe it is that I am making contact with new recruits. If I was in that room I would say to the new recruits today:
- we have been here before this is cyclic,
- there will be times when we make progress (and yes forward is the direction overall
- long term engagement with any of these issues is costly
- short of the parousia there is not going to be a quick fix, you need to be in for the long haul
- choose your battles, you can’t do everything and trying to just hastens burnout
- weary campaigners often have wisdom, often hard won, so listen
- but be ready to do things differently – you will at least fail for different reasons.
Amartya Sen, somewhere in Development as Freedom, describes a ladder of inclusion in institutions. At the lowest levels are the excluded who are outcasts from the institution and cannot access it. The first level of inclusion is when you have access but nothing more. The second when you are informed about changes although you have no real participation in the decision process. The third is when you are consulted in the decision-making process although the consultation is non-binding. The fourth is when you representation within the decision-making process either by voting for a representative or by actually having a vote but no formulation power. The fifth is to have the ability to actually formulate and actively participate in running an institution. The sixth is an odd in that now instead of you being dispensable to the institution it is turned around and the institution is dispensable to you. The seventh is the invert of the first where you no longer participate in the institution as you have moved on elsewhere. It does not quite work for civic culture as this is not a single institution but it does point out that the problems are engaging the people at the very top and very bottom. I think civic culture spends a lot of effort into trying to keep people in the 6th rather than 7th stage and what I want to look at is how to get people into the 1st rather than 0th stage. I am broadly suggesting three stages, specialist civic groups, developmental streams and integration policies.
Specialist groups come in two overlapping forms and are normally charitable. One sort seeks to alleviate the reasons for the exclusion such as poverty, disability or lack of English. The second groups aim to provide spaces where people who are excluded can participate in civic culture in a sheltered environment. This might be by having local shared meals, writing groups for people who are excluded for a specific reason or maybe gardening schemes that help them to grow food. What this does is deliberately lower the bar to access to civic culture but it often does this at the price of limiting the access. Primarily these are charitable groups.
Developmental streams are ways that individuals get the skills that enable them to participate more fully in Civic Culture. The most obvious group of this sort is the Scottish Poverty Truth Commission, who train people to advocate for themselves to people who are unaware. My memory tells me we have had Poverty Truth Hearings in Sheffield in the past but I can find no evidence of this. The nearest group is currently in Leeds. However, that is aimed at the political economy but there are so many ways this could happen. The raising of creative writing in an ES0L class. The ability to find support from community entrepreneurs when a group wants to set up a group for themselves. This is an activism stream aimed at changing individuals so they can participate.
Integration policies really are the flip side of developmental streams. That is if people are to be helped to be able to join in civic culture, it is also true that civic culture needs to make arrangements so that it can be open to people. The WEA which runs a number of writing classes has clear statements on this and does reduce fees for people who cannot afford full ones, plus make allowances for those with disabilities. I am not suggesting that all should go this way but all institutions in this area might like to consider how they can encourage the participation of the widest range of people in Civic Culture.
I am going to be honest now. I think these three as a minimum are essential if we are to widen participation by those who are currently excluded. It will not be easy, and with every success those that are left will be harder to reach. The option not to deliberately seek their inclusion with society is that this group will grow and eventually we will have a society divided between the stage 7 and the stage 0.
Well, one candle does not give off much light and the further away it is from other candles the less the area around it is illuminated. To actually be able to do things, even things like tying shoe laces, you need to have several candles fairly close together.
The thing is the specialised group functioning on its own may well be doing its utmost to tackle the darkness where it is but without other groups around shining on similar topics it is really not much use. I know the wisdom of doing one thing and only one thing well but it does not work like that. To be effective in civic culture the group needs to do a number of things including:
have a basic functioning organisation that means it can meet its legal requirements e.g. handle money, safeguarding, insurance
- be able to recruit people to be involved with its aims. This may be for a short or long term. Groups may well need more people involved at specific times e.g. when hosting a specific event or while conducting critical campaigning. They, however, also need people for the long haul otherwise the next time the issue comes up everyone starts again from scratch.
- effective communication channels within the group so that those involve know what is going on at a level where they are happy.
What is more, as these are shared by all groups they lead to duplication.
Now we have some meta-institutions but they are sector based. Voluntary Action Sheffield (VAS) probably has the widest brief. It states it role as:
VAS supports voluntary and community organisations in Sheffield at all stages of development
This can cover things such a churches, tenants groups as well as charities. It aims to link volunteers to such groups. They “provide particular support with legal matters, accountancy, payroll, HR advice, IT consultancy, CRM software, fundraising, development and enterprise.”
However, let’s say you wanted to join a writers group. It is no good going to VAS. Indeed there is not at the moment any organisation that has a list of groups. My suggestions would be to look for a writing class with the WEA and select the most appropriate of those or wait for Off the Shelf where a number of groups showcase their work. Then you could look out for readings such as Writers in the Bath or the Gauntlet. The only snag with that is that you need to be part of the writing scene to find out what is happening and the best way to be part of the scene is to be in a writing group. Now, this is particularly bad at present as there used to be a group called Writing Yorkshire that had an overarching brief. It closed a year ago.
So what we have at the moment is a third sector where we have volunteer groups who do charitable work set up in their corner, interest groups setting up their corners and professional bodies such as Med-Chi or Statistics Activity Network each in their own corner. I could add campaign groups, political parties and trades unions. There are synergies between groups. The problem is to create something similar to Sheffield Chamber of Commerce but focussed on the Civic Sector rather than the commercial and with an added brief to foster relationships across sub-sectors of the brief.
This is necessary because at present the cohesion relies on a small number of people who belong or support a wide range of groups. These individuals are capable when they want to, of pulling together a number of different groups. Far more importantly they are able to put people in contact with each other. The more such people there are the healthier and more coherent a civic culture is. If I were to play with the idea I would base it around a monthly meeting but with a four-month rotation: one month would have a purely social event, another a talk on an area of interest, a training and the finally may be a sub-sector introduction with a speed dating element even maybe crossing over with the chamber of commerce.
There are two levels to this. The big level is the institutional one and the small level which is the individual. We need a model that sees these not as in opposition but as complimentary,
Firstly let me deal with the fact that we have a limited understanding of institution largely formed by work of Foucault and Goffman who worked with big or total institutions. In fairness to Foucault, his institutions were the creation of society and not the actual organisations that society had created. As a result, we tend to think as institutions as complex organisations that have legal structure and seek to control the behaviour of those who come under their care. The archetype is the Total Institution where it is possible for an individual to exist in an artificial environment that takes complete care of their needs and seeks to make them behave according to its aims. The classic example is the asylum, but you can think of Radical Reformation Churches as striving to do this.
What I want to introduce are two different concepts that together reshape the whole way we look at institutions. The first I am going to call the partial institution. It does not desire to be everything to everyone but has limited and well-defined aims. The second is the meta-institution which is an institution that seeks to do things for other institutions. This might be to provide venues for them to meet, provide legal advice, provide training or build alliances between different partial institutions. Total and total-like institutions do not need these meta-institutions; they have the resources internally to meet these needs. However, partial institutions by their limited nature do require these sort of institutions.
Now I can get down to specific. Most of a good civic culture would not be made up of big or total institutions and civic culture itself is not a total institution. Rather it is an ecology of partial institutions with meta-institutions existing symbiotically with the other partial institutions. The partial-institutions would be numerous and diverse. The roles that they fulfil within the ecology would differ as their aims differ and there is no sense that one shape fits all. The legal framework in which they exist would seek to be commensurate with the purposes that they exist for and not force a conformity of organisational structure. It would be totally normal for these partial institutions to be formed and to close. A healthy ecology is marked by the creation rate being equal to or exceeding the closure rate and the mean survival time being a reasonable but not excessive time. There would be enough interconnections between partial institutions that the ecology is connected.
Let me expand that last sentence to deal with meta-institutions. There are two types of connections that partial institutions can have with each other. The first one is the connection by an individual. When an individual is active within two partial institutions they produce a connection between them. This may or may not be actualised. Some people are very good at keeping parts of their life separate, others naturally connect people to other people. The second is through meta-institutions. Where partial institutions use the same meta-institutions then there are links between them. What is important is that there are good meta-institution within the ecology. If the links are solely by individuals then the ecology is very open to rupture and breakdown. For this reason, I would argue that there needs to be redundancy and overlap between meta-institutions as if there isn’t then the failure of a meta-institution will lead to problems in the ecology.
It is possible for individuals to keep in contact with civil ecology just through friendship but it is difficult. Indeed when a friendship group goes beyond the purely spontaneous it becomes one of the smaller partial institutions. For a healthy civic culture, the aim should be that everyone is involved in at least one partial institution. I am not at present defining what involvement is and that ideally people should engage on average with two to three partial institutions. I acknowledge that many people will find they use largely the same set of partial institutions as their friends. This is not a problem. The problem with engagement with a single partial institution is that sends that institution towards becoming a total institution. What would be very good is if these partial institutions were diverse not three reading group but perhaps a church, a film club and a protest group.
Another thing is that if this is done well we should be able to link anyone within a civic culture to anyone else participating within 4 degrees of separation rather than the usual six. It might be silly but when we start to get this level of separation then it is as if the person on the edge are just friends of a friend of a friend. That changes our perspective on who other people are.
Some care needs to be taken that people are engaged at the two extremes of society. At the bottom level, this is because people often have such difficulty surviving that they do not have the resources to engage with any institution if it is not going to help them survive is. If we can connect in the friendship groups that they have already into the wider meshes so much the better. To do this the institutions that help them survive need to change their perspective and see the individuals who are engaging with them, not as clients but part of the structure. The second group are those among the very rich who wish to abrogate their belonging to society. To counteract this firstly the institution ecology must not be seen as just that which cares for the disadvantaged. It also needs to have a focus on providing resources that can not simply be paid for. That means a move away from an economy where everything can simply be paid for.
The Social Meshes
The result of these partial institutions and individual belonging is that we create meshes that connect people. If you want to think them as a net (or nets) where the people are strands and the partial institutions are the knots. The more separate meshes there is the more movement there is in society and the more change there is and the easier it is for someone to become dislodged from the edge of a mesh. On the other hand, a highly connected society becomes almost static. It is impossible for new partial institutions to become and the old ones tend to become moribund. Indeed in the end, if the meshes become total then any change threatens the whole and revolution becomes inevitable. So we need a balance between the need to adapt and the need to keep people in the mesh.
The job immediately at hand is to create healthy meshes
- Build mechanism for getting people more engaged with partial institutions and wider civic society
- The to build meta-institutions that support a healthy ecology in which partial institutions can be born, grow, fail, and die.
- To create mechanisms that support people who are likely to become disconnected from the social meshes.
I have been holding back from writing this and will probably take a while to publish. People are hurt upset and angry and nobody likes someone telling them some home truths in that situation but there are some that need to be said.
We need to become builders and, unfortunately, our house is in such a state that we are going to have to start at the foundations.
Let me tell the uncomfortable story.
The people who lived through World War II seem to have a very specific focus afterwards. They wanted to make the world a better place for all in society than it was before the war. A place where the need to go through experiences like those suffered by many during the fighting did not reoccur. They sought to build the institutions that would make sure that this happened and those institutions would be so strong that the children would not need to build them again.
Little did they see that their children far from appreciating those institutions would see them as expensive, unnecessary baggage and set about dismantling them. Anyone Baby Boomer or member of Generation X feeling smug about this and thinking I am talking of Millenials, better do a quick rethink. It is us, the Baby Boomer and Generation X who are those children. Baby Boomers were born to those who fought in the war, Generation X are the children of those who grew up during the war. We have had the luxury where of living in a world where no major international powers fought each other. They have held proxy wars, been involved wars in attempts to control other parts of the world and there have been wars between weaker countries
We claimed this as the removal of these institutions would empower people and increase equality. The discourse became ‘institution bad’. The irony was this undiscriminating approach to institutions is that it attacked the most vulnerable institutions first. These were not the big ones that reflected the interests of the powerful but the small ones that voiced the interests of the everyday citizen. The result is today that to control the power within the institutions you either need to have money or friends. What have disappeared or are under attack are those institutions that gave people influence because they existed.
Now I do not want to go back to flawed institutions. We need to learn from the failing of institutions in the past. They built institutions that saw the state providing the mesh that held society together. The Victorians before them built institutions that saw philanthropic paternalism of large total institutions as the solution to societies problems. I do not want to recreate the past but I do want to find a way forward to create a society that has institutions that connect us into a common whole and where people are not allowed to fall through the cracks.
I did not think when I posted the previous the blog on a need for liberals to look forward that it was the start of a series. It was a one-off blog but I have since been fleshing things out a lot more. Let me start with the question “When did social progress occur?” There seems to me to be two key times when that happened in relatively modern history. Quite a lot of social progress happened during mid to late Victorian times and then also post-World War II. First I need to make clear one critique here is not sustainable. These were not times when the “City of Gold” became a reality, they are times when moves were made that reflect what I see as the social reform was achieved towards something inspired by the imagery of it.
In Revelation 21:1-4 (ESV) we read:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”
It is a place without pain and suffering and where God dwells with humanity so things happen according to his will. At its core “imagining the city” must take seriously the reduction of pain and suffering and living in harmony with God. For me, harmony with God is not marked by religious fervour but by the way we treat other people as icons of Christ particularly the weak and the marginalised.
Before I tell you what in my opinion they have in common, let me tell you one significant difference. They are not both times of wealth in the UK. Yes, the British Empire was at its zenith during the Victorian times and we manufactured goods that the World wanted. However, the 1950s were post-World War II and for much of that time, the UK was experiencing austerity. What is more, the British Empire was largely being dismantled and in the words of 1066 and All That, “America was thus clearly top nation”, So this progress was made despite financial constraint rather than by extra.
What they have in common is both stand out as high tide marks of institutional strength. The Victorian model was that largely of philanthropy and campaigning, while the 1950s was state formalised institutionalism. If you like Victorian was bottom-up while 1950s was top-down. Both were followed by anti-institutional movements. Now institutionalism is not in itself what I think of as good, I think that for people to be busy creating institutions, there needs to be a good cohesive civil society. A society where the owner of the biggest conglomerate feels that they are connected to the sick child in a damp B&B.
Many of the old-fashioned civic institutions are failing. I do not mean state institutions like NHS; I mean things like Working Men’s Clubs, Trade Unions, Literary and Philosophy Societies, Local Professional Associations. These are groups that make up a lot of the third space. By this I mean a space between the Big Institutions – e.g. State, Finacial Markets and Business and the closed small space of family and friends. In this, I am picking quite strongly on what Ray Oldenburg calls “Third Space“. The difference is that whereas he talks of individual Third Spaces, I tend to talk of the whole as “Third Space”. His US argument and from what I know of the last fifty years in the UK would suggest a steady decline in the institutions in this space. The occasions where we function outside the two sphere’s of family and work has decreased because of this.
With the failure of these broad -based civic institutions, many activities formally done bythem have been taken over by professional bodies. I freely acknowledge that the number of charities in the United Kingdom has increased as Hilton et al state. What has to be understood is the nature of the charity has also changed. It is no longer a group of like-minded individuals who get together to accomplish a task and may raise money with respect to it. There is a separation between those who do the work and are financially paid to do so and those who raise the money. To belong to many of these charities involves no more than putting your hand in your pocket. You never need to meet another silly faced human. If you decide to raise money that normally involves some interaction with others but often largely those individuals are colleagues and family. The others on the increase are small caring and support groups such as described by Robert Wuthnow. Although in Britain they are less likely to be Bible study and more likely to be hobby focused. Their problem is they often only attract a very specific demographic. Campaign groups which are also on the rise seem to adopt one or other of these two models. The medium sized group that attracted people from a variety of settings to engage with its aims and more generally socialise is in steep decline. This is in line with Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, which is often wrongly represented as portraying an overall fall.
This means that the following is largely true:
- many people exist in a social bubble largely made up of family and colleagues with few friendships that go outside this
- equally the charities, support groups and campaign groups also function in a bit of bubble and do not necessarily connect to those outside their sphere. What relationships there are tend to be with like. Writers groups will connect to other writers groups, feminist groups to other feminist groups, health charity to health charity etc.
- the small support/hobby groups do not have the skill to grow much beyond their current base yet are probably the groups that engage most fully many people. People do not get experience in other groups to bring back to the group and given current legislative practice, there are major disincentives to doing so.
- Many people are not engaged outside of work and family (close friends) networks. When these break down they can very easily lead to those individuals being isolated.
- cohesion between this third space relies on a few individuals who are active in multiple organisations. These individuals are increasingly either becoming professionals or are facing burn-out.
- that means that Milgram’s Six Degrees of Separation is only maintained by a small thread because it is these cross civic institution ties that are essential for the process to work. What we are getting is smaller more highly connected groups and then fewer links to wider groups.
I think I will leave to the next post why this is of concern. Let it just be stated is what I am describing is a thin gruel for sustaining a common life. However it is not good enough to know this is thin gruel, we need to imagine what it would be like to have a properly sustaining common life.