Winter in the Park

It was cold when I set out
the sort of cold
where the air feels dry
as the moisture freezes

The park fenced around by shadowed
black railings kept no one in
the remains of a forgotten hedge
did not stir to the fluster of small birds
nor children call to their parents
from the play equipment
even the students, who I’ve seen
on other nights drink wine
together on the communal swing
had not ventured out
no drunks shared cider on the empty bench
and beyond though still floodlit
the playground was deserted by
cricketer and basketball player alike.

As I passed the orange  haze of
the street light
a few flakes of snow
drifted down through the light
and I heard the rhythm
of South America drums echo
through the surrounding houses
the smell of Chinese or Italian takeaways
drifted out of hot shop doorways
mingling with the yeasty
smell of the overcrowded local
a ring of Hindi jittered from a passing taxi
the far side of the playground’s dark mesh.

This poem I published in  “Everything Looks Green From Here” a collection of prose and poetry from Broomspring Writers in 2010

First thoughts on Inclusion in the Civic Culture

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.

Easter Triduum – Iona Style 2017

I spent Easter as a guest at Iona Abbey.  The communal side of the Abbey is run by the Iona Community, while the Tourist side is run by Historic Scotland. Most importantly the worship that regularly happens in the Abbey is largely under the auspices of the Iona Community. Therefore if you go to the communion service on Easter Day at Iona Abbey you are attending a communion service that is run in line with the principles of the Iona Community. The Iona Community has two areas of concern that play significant roles in what goes on during Easter week. These are:

  • the building of the common life between the guests, volunteers (vollies) and resident staff.
  • the renewal of worship as the activity of the people

Therefore guests had part in the preparation of worship as well as sharing household tasks and serving at meals.

I have separated that into three the people who live and work around the Abbey under the auspices of the Iona Community. Those are the boundaries as used by the community but the boundaries are not as clearly drawn as such. The guests do work, that includes serving and washing up after meals, household tasks including cleaning toilets and participating in the preparation of worship.  The tasks are less arduous than those undertaken by the vollies and Residents but still necessary for the well functioning of the Abbey. They are not purely symbolic. Technically most resident staff are also volunteers but long term with contracts (between nine months and three years). There is a subtle and complex interplay between these three groups.

The worship team, i.e. the resident staff who have a contractual responsibility at present for worship are Rosie (Director), Deborah (Sacristan), Richard (Musician) and Callum (Musician).

I was a guest. There were around 37 guests present this week and in three chore teams. Most of the rooms were shared with twin or bunk beds. The rooms are cosy space wise and this is good because it also helps with their cosiness in other ways as the building has limited heating.

From our perspective, the preparations for the Triduum started on Monday when people start preparing for the stations of the cross on Good Friday.  The Iona Community takes overall organising responsibility with Bishops House Retreat Centre for the one at the Heritage Centre and the Parish Church doing the one at the Parish Church. The Iona Community then asks the guests for the week to prepare the other five.

The second part of preparation that was handed over to us was the sermon slot for the communion on Easter day. This, however, only started on Wednesday. Actually, you could say we divided ourselves into seven teams. The five for stations of the cross, one storying team and a movement team who eventually ended up being involved in the Easter Sunday  Evening Service.

The third part, and it is only third because I keep forgetting it was done, was the Big Sing and the not so Wee Sing. These are times when guests are taught the music for upcoming services. This is not a choir rehearsal but a chance to familiarise us with the music and teach parts. If you have ever been to Iona Abbey services and participated in the congregation singing happily in three parts, then this is how they do it. Basically, a significant proportion of the congregation has already been primed. I was spoilt as the number of musicians among the guests was large and therefore we did four part rather than the usual three part harmonies.

The first service was the foot washing which happened on the Tuesday in the Chapter House.  That might seem odd being outside the Triduum but Tuesday is the day the Iona Community runs pilgrimages around the Island.  There are two an on-road and an off-road. Therefore there are lots of tired sweaty feet in the afternoon.  In other words, the timing was chosen so it was at the point when feet needed washing. Oddly we were a fast group and three of us had already gone through the process of cleaning our boots! It was low key. Rosie explained what was going on. The song “Brother, sister Let me serve you” with resident staff and vollies making sure that water and towels were available. The process of washing feet was mutual. Anyone could sit in a chair for their feet to be washed; equally, anyone could take the place of the foot washer on the floor.

However, like all modern Protestant liturgical Triduums it really kicked off properly on Thursday Evening with a Gathering in the upper room. This is probably Protestants nearest equivalent to Corpus Christi. This was held in the refectory

A meal in the refectory

This focussed both on the foot washing from John’s Gospel but also the institution of the Lord’s Supper. There has been a large use of John this Lent, not quite sure whether that is because Matthew is difficult or just people wanting John for a change. The room was packed with the tables put up against the walls, the benches and upright chairs in front of them. The poem “Directions for using a towel” was read, the hymn “Great God your love has called us here“. That hymn is one of my favourites simply because it catches the complexity of the human condition in ways that speak to the sociologist in me. There were four stations at which communion was served: one for Judas, one for Peter, one for Thomas and one for another disciple with us being asked to go to the one that reflects where we are at.

Stripped high altar at Iona Abbey

The service closed with us leaving singing Jesu Tawa Pano  and processing to the Abbey. The Abbey was then stripped. That is any ornament that could be taken out of the Abbey was removed including the  Celtic Cross that is normally on the high altar. Anything that could not be removed was draped in black and all the candles were put out. The photo shown was taken I think the following afternoon but it gives an idea of the starkness of the stripped church. This was all done in total silence and the residents and volunteers doing the stripping were all dressed in black. We left our way lit by battery lanterns and we all went out by the main door rather than to the cloister.

Friday was the busiest day worship-wise. It started with the normal morning office in the stripped Abbey. Then it was on with tasks but pretty soon had to set out for the stations of the cross. As far as I can recall the progress was as follows:

  1. Martyrs Bay – Jesus Condemned
  2. War Memorial – Jesus is mocked
  3. Nunnery – Women Comfort Jesus
  4. Heritage Centre – Jesus Falls
  5. Parish Church – Jesus is Crucified
  6. St Martin’s Cross – Jesus Dies
  7. St Columba’s Shrine – Jesus is buried

Now I am going to have to give an impression. The day was dreich and full waterproofs were a good idea. On the other hand, it certainly attracted people and by the time we got to jetty there was a crowd following the cross including Iona Community members who were not part of the staff at the Abbey. In between each station, we moved singing a short chant quite often from Taize. I am afraid it did not really get going for me until the women at the Nunnery where we heard the interaction between Mary, Jesus’ mother and modern women’s stories. The Bishop’s house connected Jesus’s fall with all the whys we have. The cross was dropped and instead of a man picking it up a woman did. The Parish church was a meditation by Barabbus asking us whether if we could get out of suffering we would not let someone else take it for us. The crucifixion was two monologues by two soldiers taking different aspects. One took the Dorothy L Sayers idea that one might have been the centurion whose servant had been healed by Jesus. The final one involved taking the body of Jesus and laying it in St Columba’s Shrine. Then the door of the shrine was slammed shut.

From 2:00 to 3:30 pm there was a vigil kept in the church. I along with many others by this time was flagging. I dropped off a couple of times during the vigil but stayed. However, quite a few others left early precisely because they were falling asleep. The result was the Abbey which was about half full at the start of the vigil was only a scattered few mainly in the choir seats and we drifted out after the end.

That evening it was a dispersed service. This was services in small spaces around the abbey. For instance, there was one gathering in St Columba’s Shrine, one in the Abbey Library and the one I attended in the Burrows. I went to the Burrows for two reasons. Firstly it was warm and worshipping in the warmth appealed to me. Secondly, it is a utility space used for washing and drying clothing and sheets and as a short cut to the kitchen. It really was the core space for me while I was a vollie on the Abbey Housekeeping team over a decade ago. The service was short and focused on a reading of Lamentations 3. In the Burrows, there were 6-10 people present and we were full.

Easter Eve started once again with the morning office in the stripped Abbey. This was very routine. The differences from normal were slight in that there was no music playing when we came in and we sang unaccompanied. On the evening was a service of waiting. This gave time to reflect on the actual importance of paying attention to waiting. Again a very stripped down service and quite meditative. This was kept as a partial fast day as I think was Friday and no puddings were served but only fruit. Oddly enough outside of worship, an excitement was beginning to boil as the last preparations were being done for the Easter day service.

Easter day started with a 6:15 at St Oran’s Chapel. This is the chapel in the burial ground beside the Abbey. The day had a damp start and once again I could have done with waterproofs trousers as well as coat and walking boots. The acclamation was joyful and we were handed a flower (not necessarily a daffodil). There were candles representing Easter fire but in the damp, they were rather poor. A good volume of Halle, Halle, Halle as we walked from St Oran’s to the Abbey where we left our flowers at the font before progressing through the cloisters for the Wee Breakfast still singing. The Wee Breakfast consisted of Simnel Cake and Hot Chocolate (alright I was a party pooper and chose hot cross buns and tea but that was just me).

Sometime between the waiting service and 9:00 am on Easter Sunday the Abbey had been re-decorated with daffodils everywhere. The cross with the daffodils on it was actually carried down at the start of the service and the high altar had a white communion cloth on it.

The candles were lit unlike in the photos which were taken on Sunday afternoon.  I had a reserved seat for the service because I had been part of the storying group and needed to be able to get to the microphone at the main desk.

The attendance was such that people were standing outside the Abbey and therefore the doors could not be shut. Handbells were used twice during the service and we also had a group of guests doing shape-note singing. The hymns tends to be modern versions of Easter classics so we had “God given Glory” instead of “Thine be the Glory” and a new version of “Jesus Christ is risen today” both by Jan Sutch Pickard. Equally the form was actually very strongly based on the form given in the Iona Abbey Worship Book with seasonal words used. The text for the service was John 20:1-18, this got represented three times. Firstly it was read, secondly the modern form of “Jesus Christ is risen today” tells it again and finally, the storying group had interwoven this story with the stories of others told during the week and finished with an invitation to create a new story.

You would think with all that, that Easter was over but this was the final day on Iona for us guests and we would be leaving on 8:50 ferry next morning. Thus, as is customary the night before guests leave, there was a service of commitment. It was a quiet abbey in the evening where a good number of people gathered for the service. I know because I was sat in the choir stalls when we were asked to come forward for the act of commitment and for a considerable time after I returned to my seat people filed in. The movement which was based on actions symbolising community was done in silence in the space before the act of commitment. It felt the most personal service. This was odd. Commitment services usually have high guest inputs but because we had been so busy during the week we did very little apart from the movement and yet it still drew us in.

 

Meta- Institutions: Building Connection, Building Capacity

Jesus bids us shine with a clear, pure light,
Like a little candle burning in the night;
In this world of darkness, we must shine,
You in your small corner, and I in mine

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.

 

Encouraging Engagement – Citizen’s UK


I am holding up Citizens UK as an example, not because it is exactly what is needed here but because it is an organisation that is dedicated to this task that I am exploring. It was launched in 1989 and it says its aim is to

is to locate a much stronger and better organised civil society at the heart of UK governance and public life

It has a staff of 70 of which 45 are professional community organisers.  They organise in Chapters and Projects. Amongst their projects are:

According to Wikipedia it is also behind

The one I have known about for a long time is the Living Wage Foundation. That started rising over about the time that the government brought in Living Wage legislation in 1998. The campaign basically challenges employers to pay the amount that means employees can live off it rather than the minimum permitted. It has been embarrassing how many church organisations not only do not pay a living wage but seek to circumvent the minimum wage legislation.  I accept volunteers may be paid ‘pocket money’ if they are looked after in other ways but this should not exceed a year and it certainly should not include them paying their own way. So I knew of their campaigns but not really about them.

On the whole, left of centre concerns but are aimed at developing people’s involvement with it rather than running political campaigns. As such this fits largely where I stand on left of centre radical politically.

It is interesting that they were founded in 1989. 1989 was not a great year for me but I survived. However, the years following were some of the most depressing I have experienced. I can remember after the 1990 election when John Major got in a flatmate was so dischuffed that he, despite being a bright PhD student was threatening to leave the country. I also can remember very strong concerns being raised about social exclusion and those who were not included in civic society. This is the background against which Citizens UK was formed.

My one caution is the way the campaigns seem to be run as distinct entities and the central organisation is not a central focus. This was to such an extent that when I was asked to look at them I could not recall hearing about them before. I have suspicions that the information on the central website is out of date.  I am by PhD training a social anthropologist and though I can do some mild internet stalking what I wanted to do was participant observation. So I signed up to see what would happen.  If it got similar to petition holding sites where I get bombarded by other worthy petition after signing one I was going to pull back pretty quickly.  Indeed my caution stopped me from signing up fully. I got stuck on the volunteering options:

  • I’d like to help provide homes for refugees
  • I’d like to help secure a living wage for UK workers
  • I’d like to be involved in the Citysafe Campaign
  • I’d like to assist the Social Care Campaign
  • I’d like to volunteer with the Just Money campaign
  • I’d like to help with the Good Jobs Campaign
  • I’d like to be involved with Citizens Commission on Islam, Participation & Public Life

I am not sure what I am volunteering for. If providing homes for refugees is low-level campaigning then fine. However, if it is opening my home then I am much more cautious. Now I am not sure if I have time or energy to be involved in any of those so I get stuck at the signing in stage at this point and cannot progress to becoming a member.

Then fate took a hand.  I have a friend who is involved with the Churches Refugee Network and indeed has written a book of the Bible and Refugees. I also have some back-story in that, I was born in South Africa. My mother’s family goes back four or more generations and my Dad was sent by CWM to work in   Adams College at the Federal Seminary. As such, my background is liberal white but in a situation that was politically charged under Apartheid. When my father’s five-year contract was up it was clear that the powers did not like the idea of his contract being renewed. My Dad was British, my Mum had taken British citizenship and so I had it as well. We, therefore, returned to the UK with no employment for my parents. In other circumstances, seeking asylum is not that far from my story. Friends of my parents did seek asylum here. The result is that Refugee and Asylum are topics which I am likely to engage with. That is why I participated in the University of Sheffield’s Big Walk last year. Thus, when the repeal of the Dubs Amendment happened it was something I was looking to engage with. That Citizens UK were organising a petition was a coincidence. The question is “how well did they succeed in engaging me with the campaign?”

First thing, that was notable was that they followed up on signing the petition with an immediate request for you to donate to a charity involved in Refugee and Asylum campaigning Safe Passage. It is not Citizens for Sanctuary mentioned above and is clearly linked still with Citizens UK.  This was a noted change. The communication I have had with them since has focussed on this issue. They have asked and helped me write to my MP through using Nationbuilder Platform. It is a platform used by Brexit and the Trump campaign; I am ambivalent over this. On the one hand, I am not pro Brexit or Trump’s policies; on the other hand, both these campaigns were very successful at getting ground level support out. If this is a truly politically neutral software then the left and the radical need to be using it or building as good or better tools.

The difference between them and other petition organisations is that they have consistently sought to engage me further with that that I had shown an interest in rather than sending me random other petitions. This has continued with the invite to an online meeting with Alf Dubs to discuss the way forward. So far I am on board. I will see where this leads.

What they also do it have local chapters. There are at present ones are: North London Citizens, South London Citizens, TELCO (The East London Citizens Organisation), West London Citizens, Citizens:mk (in Milton Keynes), Nottingham Citizens, Citizens UK BirminghamCardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan CitizensLeeds Citizens, Tyne & Wear Citizens and Greater Manchester Citizens. There is not one in Sheffield, that means really that Associate membership is the way forward.

My conclusion so far is that this is a good organisation for drawing people into civic engagement provided that their interests are in line with the campaigns it is running. The campaigns, on the whole, are admirable. I would like to know more about how local chapters work, especially those outside of London. For instance, whether they seek to set up local groups to support the national campaigns, whether they seek to help local civic groups grow that are already established or whether they seek to run local campaigns on issues where there are not other campaigns going.

Now I have cautions.  Firstly if you are to develop civic engagement then you really need to be building on what is there. The more groups interact the stronger the civic culture is. At present, it seems as if Citizens UK works by drawing people into the civic debate but rather than then connecting them with what already exists they set up a new organisation. However, this results in the setting up of more and more highly focussed institutions and encourages a specialisation in the interaction. Questions I would like them to ask before setting up a new campaign group are:

  • Is there a campaign organisation who are already trying to target this issue?
  • Is there ways we can work with this organisation, not just to recruit people but to make them a more effective institution?

The other big question comes from my vision of civic society as more than campaign groups with their socio-political agenda into the more broadly focused community groups. Can a group like this encourage membership of groups that are not specific campaign groups whether they are service, support, interest or broad friendship group?

Imaging a Vibrant Civic Culture

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,

Institutional Ecology

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.

Individual Engagement

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.

 

 

There is work to do!

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.

Current Symptoms of Poor Civic Culture

What I want to do this time is try and explain what the effect of having a poor civic culture is in wider terms and what it is producing in society today. So I am going to do it as several stages.  First is to argue that have a strong civic culture thickens our network of relationships,  secondly look at some symptoms or outcomes of having a weakened civic structure.

How does a good Civic Structure Work?

In my thesis, I argue congregations seek to sustain their identity through the creation of strong links between congregational members. These links are complex. In part, they want to reflect back at them their own culture and in part, they seek to conform. They also seek to define those outside the congregation as distinct from them. The negotiating and renegotiation of these bonds and divisions, because it is never settled, forms the core way that the congregation seeks to maintain its identity.

I am going to suggest that civic society is subject to similar processes to this. In this I a picking up the work Zygmunt Baumann’s work on Liquid Modernity but whereas  Baumann is trying to say modern culture is fluid like, I am wanting to explore the metaphor further and ask what makes culture more fluid or less fluid. When I explored fluid dynamics I found that the difference between a solid, liquid and a gas was the connections between molecules. These connections include Van der Waal forces but also have weaker ones due to the physical packing of molecules together. The more these forces interplay the more viscose a liquid becomes and the harder it is to deform. In the gas state, these bonds are all broken and molecules separate out from each other.

The difference in society is not I would argue between solid states and liquid states but between societies that are strongly viscose and those that are weakly viscose. There are some reasons for this change of metaphor. There is no clear boundary between solids and liquids, nor between liquids and gases. The level of viscosity is determined by how strongly molecules are connected to each other and how many connections there are. What is more important is those we have connections with we tend to move in the same direction as. Those we do not have connections with we tend to slip past.

Now a financial arrangement is a weak connection and highly temporary.  Once the financial transaction is over you have no further ties. The family is only a  relatively small group of social atoms.  A society which is dominated by these sort of connections is a society that is not cohesive. What we need as a society is a structure that creates bonds that are wider than the family but are stronger than financial. This is the gap what I mean by civic society.

To that extent, I include in it all groups in society that are wider that purely friendship/social groups. I include hobby groups, drama groups, campaign groups, charities, local societies, adult education classes etc. What these do is connect families and friendship groups to other family and friendship groups. Let me give you an example, the majority in Writers Group will support Sheffield Trees Action Group not just because it is a good cause but because actually one of the protestors, Jenny, used to attend our group. Jenny stopped coming to the group only when the campaign started taking over. This then spins out to other people we are talking to and so the network expands. However what if Jenny had not come to the group. No doubt some of us would be angry by what is happening but the extra pull of knowing someone so deeply involved brings an added dimension to that commitment.

Symptoms of Poor Civic Structures

I want to pick out four specific symptoms that occur when these wider structures are weak. That is differentiationism, loneliness, marginalisation and echo chambers.

Differentiationism

Alright, I have just created that word. It might be individualisationism in other settings but that is a process that concentrates on the actualization of the individual, how they are established as different from the rest of the community.  This is rather a process that seeks to separate society into communities of similar individuals which have little or no contact with individuals who differ from them.  At its extreme, we are all communities of size one. As this is largely done through specialisation  I have used differentiation as an analogy from cell differentiation.  What is happening is bonds are being formed within more and more limited groupings. For instance, cross-generational friendships are becoming rarer. Some of this is deliberate such as the development of gated communities but other bits of it are not. The illusion is created that these differentiated communities are independent of other communities within society.  That the differentiation is partly due to specialisation makes this an illusion. However, if the people you are meeting commonly are similar to you and those who are not then your contact is limited so that the illusion is kept, then it is very easy to imagine that society is run by people like you. This is aided by our own natural egocentrism; the belief that society primarily functions for people like us. Unfortunately “like-us” is getting more and more specialised and acknowledged links between parts of society are fewer and fewer. Society is fragmenting.

Loneliness

The problem is that when you have few relationships between you and other people then you tend to put more into those relationships. When they break for whatever reason it is then harder to start and find new relationships. Equally, if the basis of those relationships is financial then it can be easily fractured. If something happens that breaks a relationship that people have they have fewer relationships to fall back on. Things such as losing your job or suffering a disability are likely to have not just financial implication but also social ones with the number of relationships decreasing. What is more, the very fluidity of modern culture is adding to loneliness. If you look at how University of Sheffield academics calculated loneliness you will note they include the number of people who had lived at their present address less than one year and the number of people in private rented accommodation. Moving and not seeking to put down roots are feeding our loneliness.  It is hardly surprising that Britain is a seen as a loneliness capital of Europe and it is not just the elderly, young people are more likely to experience loneliness.

Marginalisation

If loneliness happens because we are having fewer connections and connections depend more and more on having then finance to maintain them, then marginalisation is what happens when the connections break and you do not have the finance to support or create new ones. What is more for the marginalised it becomes harder to perform those acts that build alternative because it becomes harder to get the things for everyday life. For instance, if for some reason you do not have a car, e.g. you lose your license. Then shopping becomes a lot harder. You can take one of three options:

  • shop locally though this limits your ability to shop for the cheapest
  • walk further and carry it home which takes time and energy
  • use public transport, taxis or shop on the internet all of which have clear overheads both in time and money.

This happens for every single day to day task, which makes building up social capital through volunteering or participating in low-cost activities much more difficult.

Echo Chambers

If marginalisation is what is happening to those who end up disconnected from society, then echo chambers is what is happening to those with more money. The thing is that we are putting more energy into a smaller range of activities within the civic sphere.  That means that our friends are drawn from a smaller pool of possible friends. We today seek out people more closely like us. The algorithms on Facebook, Twitter and Google probably don’t help but they are just exacerbating a process that was already going on. Other things are contributing as well. Take the fact that amongst the middle classes children rarely live in the same town as their parents as they follow work opportunities. We have cars so it is easier to travel those distances to meet up with other family members. However, it is not as simple as popping to the next street so three things happen and you are unlikely to bump into your family by chance. Firstly, those meetings are fewer simply due to the effort. Secondly, you are away from your local setting more often so less connected there. Thirdly, social sphere outside the family are different for parents and adult children and so crossover relationships become rarer. Indeed one of the pleasant things about social media is that these crossover relationships can start to occur again. The result is that people are becoming encased in a holy huddle (not necessarily religious) of people who are similar enough to them and are often enabled to ignore people who are different.

Why we need to imagine the New Jerusalem

File:Konrad von Grünenberg - Beschreibung der Reise von Konstanz nach Jerusalem - Blatt 35v-36r.jpgI 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. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 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.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.

 

Sacred Compass: The Spiritual Way of Discernment by J Brent Bill

Book Cover

This book is written by an American Evangelical Quaker. So there are a number of things that need tackling before getting into the book. I have learnt that while Quakers are often seen in this country as liminal to Christian orthodoxy in the US they come in two varieties. There are those who are theologically in a similar position to UK Quakers and there are the Evangelical Quakers who clearly are orthodox though pretty liberal with respect to the Christian tradition but hold to elements of the Quaker tradition as well. J Brent Bill comes from this Evangelical stream. As such his theology would be a pretty close fit with that of many URC  congregations particularly those that draw on elements of Separatism. Secondly, through Ship-of-Fools I have become aware that Quakerism has a wholly separate tradition of spiritual discernment and given the way even in this country we overlap I wanted to include some exploration of it within what I looked at.

Firstly this is not a book that places the spiritual accompaniment in a wider context. The metaphor used is deliberately that of a compass and not a road map or a SatNav. He also has the Puritan idea that what is right for one is not necessarily right for another. To illustrate this he uses the Draft in the US and the decisions made by him and two friends. One friend coming from a more Radical Quaker tradition openly resisted, the other friend  a Lutheran who could have been excused sought to go and he himself having no clear guidance sought to delay. Though the responses were very different yet each decision was brought out of who that person was and their journey with God.

Secondly, core to discernment processes are  leadings with certain characteristics that he lists in his chapter on paying attention he suggests testing out leadings against:

  • the Fruits of the Spirit
  • caring
  • a sense of harmony with God
  • generosity
  • persistence
  • rightness
  • surrender of our wills to God’s.

He also suggests that they should come from within and not imposed from outside.

He deals with being lost times and I found myself quoting him while on the Spiritual Direction session simply because he says that in the New Testament

lost is simply lost, not damned or condemned.

I added that I suspect if you sense yourself as lost it is the first step towards being found.

He outlines a process which passes through sensing, waiting and acting. In the discernment process, we are moving continually back and forwards between the stages or completing the circle. He describes spiritual friendship as a

friendship between people committed to each other and to the deepening of their faith lives

He talks of what Quakers call “Weighty Friends” who are people that others instinctively turn to for spiritual guidance. In some ways ironic because having to explain the times my faith intuition seems able to grasp something ahead I used the metaphor of “thin” as in the Celtic Spiritual  term “thin place“. I think because I am so often surprised by it myself. He describes such people as having a “call:
to create a safe place for spiritual investigation
to embrace hope
to hear the Spirit
to encourage faithful obedience”

I think so far this has been the most useful of the books I have read. In that it has cored me back to what I already sensed and yet has given some form to the process without being prescriptive.