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.


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.


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.


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.


and ends with a city of Gold

That title comes from a hymn whose first verse goes

God has given us a book full of stories,
Which was made for His people of old,
It begins with the tale of a garden,
And ends with the city of gold.

The verse captures rather succinctly the breadth of the Bible from creation to Revelation. The rest of the hymn focuses on the gospel but I want to look at the beginning and then end and relate them to politics.  What I want to take is narratively we are between the Garden and the City. Politically we have a spectrum which I will characterize as conservative to liberal. What I think is that it is quite useful to see the two as trying to direct our attention to one of the ends.

Let me take the easy one first. The conservative end of the spectrum the aim is to return to the Garden of Eden. It will be only in the case of a few religious nutters that that is taken literally. Rather what the Garden of Eden stands for is an imagined perfect past which they want society to return to. They want to put the genie back in the lamp and the apple back on the tree for then we can live happily for they think then the lion will lie down with the lamb and we will live in a good society. The ideal for that society is built of images of the past and the aim is to return there.

If that is the conservative one, then the liberal one must be looking forward to the City of Gold. We are here talking revelation, judgment day and the new Jerusalem.  In other words, liberals should have a well-developed eschatology. The problem is that on the whole they do not. I do not mean a cohesive single format, I am not really talking about Utopia here but a bricolage of the images, ideals, and principles that create a rich and desirable portrayal of a future reality. These ideas do not need to be compatible. I am not asking Liberals to be any more reasonable about their golden age than I think conservatives are. If you like we need stories of the city of Gold.

Unfortunately, my feeling at the moment is the entire eschatology is a combination of the formalism of human rights, a notion of equality and being nice or framed with if we campaign hard enough we will achieve it. We need to do better our stories need to grow.

My suggestions for getting there by liberal Christians

  1.  Drop the idea that we can bring about the Kingdom of God. This does two things. Firstly it leads to burnout with people carrying doing the same campaigning  long after it has ceased to be effective. Secondly, it has watered down our vision to what may be possible. Though we should work towards the establishment of the Kingdom the ultimate responsibility for heralding its coming lies with God.
  2. We need to rethink our theology. A theology that is anthropocentric tends to work in times of ease but leaves little to  inspire in times of need. We need humility to acknowledge that while God has gifted us greatly, he has not handed the world over to us. It is time to become more theocentric again.
  3. We need to visit the past. In WWII there were theologians who made sense of resistance even in dire circumstances. The Churches resistance to Hitler was not led by Dietrich Bonhoeffer but by Karl Barth. The isolationist USA was given a theology of engagement by Reinhold Niebuhr, not his brother Richard. I say this as a contextual Reformed theologian who believes that the faith needs restating for every age. However, we can only restate if we know our past and find the resources in it to re-imagine the future.
  4. We need to think again of the nature of the Kingdom of God. We have made it too much in the image of Western civilization. with hard boundaries of territory and clear distinction drawn between them and us. God is Other, and those who are other uniquely challenge us to see the image of God in them. We do not have to like them; we do have to see the divine in them. If a real alternative to the current capitalist system is going to come about it is not going to be the work of wealthy white males (Sorry Marx and Lenin).  They have too much opportunity under the present system. Crucially such a group will have a new anthropology (understanding of what it meant to be human) that empowers them.
  5. We need to rethink our place in the World. If our theology is too anthropocentric then so is our views on creation. Indeed they tend to be highly egocentric as we view the world first through our concerns, then through the concerns of those close to us, and so on until the rest of creation comes way down the list. If we are called to be stewards of Creation (a reading of Genesis 1:26) then we are bad stewards (Matthew 24:48-51). I am not really happy with that, this planet is more than somewhere to look after while its true Master is away. We need to start telling the story when we are not the hero.
  6. We need to take sin seriously in all its guises. I do not subscribe to the Garden of Eden story and I believe good is more firmly ingrained in the human psyche than evil. However, I find the narrative of the fall as the pervasive taint of evil in all human activity a good metaphor. That means we need to look for our own failings, we need to be aware of our partial sightedness (we still see but not clearly). The converse is also true, we need a theology that takes God’s judgment seriously. I believe is more interested in our humanity towards each other than in much that the church and society spout. That does not let us have a God where everything goes, it is just different things that are banned.
  7. We need to start small, big prizes are all very well but it is the small scale that is going to make the difference. I do not really care who is in the Whitehouse as long as it is thinkable that someone who has spouted the views Trump has can be. I am not talking legislation or censorship; I am talking cultural change and that happens in hundreds of small incidences that occur every day.  In a sense, I do not want to beat the conservative but to be such a way that they come alongside us. There is space for this, the small scale institution has been significantly undermined in recent decades.

Many will be calling for action and I can see the attraction in that. What I want to suggest is that at the moment we have work to do that needs doing before we can take that action. My concern is if we rush into action we will only gain a pyrrhic victory where the price is paid by the very people liberals are supposed to be seeking advancement for. That unless we are deliberate about imagining and re-imaging  the Kingdom of God then in striving for our aims we will end up losing that which we count as central.

Testing the Waters – Reaching out to “Dones”

This is a think piece because I am reassessing.

About a decade a book came out called “A Churchless Faith” which broadly argued that those who were leaving the Church were Stage IV  in the Fowler Stages of Faith and that this made them less than docile sheep in the flock.

Now I am not convinced. Certainly I understand that there are congregations and traditions that like conformist sheep. I have two cautions. Firstly this is to overlook the role power plays in this situation. The transition between III and IV is often connected with a change in power dynamics. The desire is often to be more actively engaged in the decision-making process. Now it might be genuinely a difference of stage, or it might well  be a situation of the abuse of power. If it is abuse we are being dishonest by referring to it as a stage difference, equally if it is power struggle does the stage actually matter? The second reason is that it typecasts all congregations as a certain type associated particularly strongly with independent Evangelicals and denominations with strong hierarchical control. There are a lot of congregations out there where this is not the norm. Indeed my experience of URC was that the desired church member was someone in stage IV. That is questioning and engagement with theological ideas and such was actively encouraged.

That said I am in the process of reassessing. Firstly I have come increasingly aware of the number of members in United Reformed Church congregations who were “Dones” and are testing the water again. Secondly, I am struck with how hard many “Dones” have worked to maintain a relationship with the institutional church. Quite often people who have given up have tried several congregations before finally leaving.

There are several things that I notice:

  1. Unlike many “Nones”, “Dones” may have a fair grasp of the gospel. The idea that sending them on Alpha or another basic introduction to Christianity is they way to start them off is often a BAD Idea. It is a denial of where they are coming from.
  2. They may indeed have a wrong understanding of the gospel but that is not the same as no understanding and what one congregation considers “wrong” another might accept. Correcting ideas that people have already accepted needs to be done carefully.
  3. The  like many people who have been hurt they are pastorally and politically difficult to handle. They are likely to have sensitivities that you know nothing about. They may be cautious about saying anything at all or go to the other extreme and always have loud views. Both approaches are methods of testing the water.
  4. There is a good chance that they have some sort of involvement burn, whether that is burnout because too much has been expected of them or catching too much of the heat from a hot internal politics.
  5. You need to consider that there has at least been a breakdown in fellowship in their Christian experience. Even if it is the case that the congregation they previously belonged to has had to close and they were happy with it right to the end.

A congregation which has a lot of former “Dones” can thus be very turbulent indeed. Ever so often things will get blown out of all proportion to the intention. It maybe something as simple as singing a hymn two Sundays running.

A congregation who wants to be a place where “Dones” can edge back into membership, and I happen to think many URCs could do this, needs to think seriously about how it deals with the following:

  • Good governance and open decision-making structures –  You want to be trustworthy and seen to be trustworthy. Remember these people have been hurt in their encounters with power in the church previously. Be clear about what you expect from people with responsibility and make sure it applies to all. Work on having checks and balances.
  • A theology of restoration – partly a theology of healing, partly one of forgiveness and with something more as  there is a need to get beyond the grievances and hurts that “Dones” carry.   They have often made the first step but can you offer then something that is worth risking being hurt again for or are they better off in the safety of being done with Church
  • A big emphasis on pastoral care – as the place where restoration is worked through. I do not simply mean the building of the relationship between minister and “Done” or elder and “Done” but the care that the congregation gives each other.  How does pastoral care fit within church arguments? It is worth thinking about because the one thing I can be certain of is these arguments will arise.

Works Cited

Jamieson, Alan. A Churchless Faith: Faith journeys beyond the churches. London: SPCK, 2002. paperback.

Fowler, James W.. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. San Francisco: HarperOne, 1995. Paperback.


A gym encounter and evangelism

I started going to the gym about 20 months ago. This was after a slow realisation that Ph.D. had left me in a relatively poor state. I was obese according to my BMI although nobody commented on me being overweight.  I was also relatively unfit. I came to acknowledge that my lifestyle was largely sedentary and I needed more exercise. One of the things that had scuppered previous exercise routines was that they got disrupted by circumstances. Walking depended quite a bit on the weather and people to go with swimming was cancelled whenever there was a competition in the pool and  yoga was simply too much effort most mornings. Actually, I was intermittently doing yoga but that was really it apart from general walking with life. The ability of Ph.D. to eat time that was available and still be hungry did nothing for my routine. What I needed was something that I could fit around my life and was less likely to be cancelled. That for me meant reluctantly going to the gym. As it turns out gym suits me when it is part of a wider regime.

Now fast forward 16 months and they gym is being refurbished so changing rooms are less comfortable than usual and there is no hiding away in a cubicle. Another girl came in while I was changing for a gym session. I could see my sixteen-month-earlier-self in her and could sense she was nervous. I also suddenly realised I was one of the reasons she was nervous.  You see having been going to the gym regularly for little over a year I looked like a person who went to the gym.  I think I had only just got down to a normal BMI but I was confident in the settings and I as long as I stuck to my routine I knew what I was doing.

Having heard others talk in the gym, I would say that the same is true of most of them. There was a time when they were that new, totally unfit, klutz, trying it out for the first time. Indeed, I suspect many like me still by default think of ourselves that way. It means that the gym goers when they notice a new person (many gym goers are very much working on doing their thing) think not “look at that slob how dare they come here” but “good on you, hope you stick at it”. However, that is not how they are perceived by the new gym goer.

Now this is not an article encouraging people to take up the gym. I could write that but there are plenty out there. Rather it is an article about people who come to church. It is so easy in a church to look at other people and think they have their lives together, that they know what they are doing. This is particularly true of when looking at those who have been at the church for a long time. That is not how many of us see ourselves in the church. We see ourselves as messed up individuals who are struggling to make it up as we go along. We are often focused on our needs and getting those dealt with, just as gym goers are. We are not the super religious that others look up to. This is our perspective.

When people less familiar with the setting come in they do not know this. What they see is, like a new gym attendee, that everyone else is more proficient and able to cope than they are and that includes us. I wonder how much the accusations of “hypocrite”, so often thrown at people who attend church, is not the equivalent of “gym rat” used of those who go regularly to a gym. It comes from a person’s feeling of inadequate and is addressed to those who they as making them feel that and judging them. Whether of not they are in fact being judged is irrelevant, the perception is all.

I cannot say that I got it right, but that time I broke the changing room taboo and spoke with the girl telling her my story. I hope it encouraged her. The questions is how do we let people in the idea that we were all once the newbie with our congregations and we are not always as sure of how things work as they appear.

Groupings – A historic memory of why

There is a lot of hitting out at groupings suggesting that they are causingdecline at present. I have a memory that goes back to the early days of grouping within the URC, and I think it is time to tell the story of why they originated. I am talking of things that happened in my teenage years.

Let’s be clear Congregationalism had a loose form of groupings probably going further back than the 1950s. My father’s first pastorate was “Oundle and Wheeldon” i.e. two separate congregations who had combined resources in order to be able to employ a minister. Equally in my childhood from 1972 my father was the minister for a group of churches. The key characteristic of these groups is that a number of congregations came together to employ a single minister.

In 1976 my Dad stopped being in parish ministry, and we worshipped in an experimental group of churches. That is it had a team of ministers and also a large number of churches. It was a deliberate attempt to go against the then policy which was often to merge small churches together. The statement I remember went along the lines that merge two churches with fifty members and in then years you have a congregations with fifty members. In other words, it was a serious attempt to reduce the decline closure and merger was creating. The argument was that people were motivated to keep their congregation going but were often not motivated to keep the merged congregation going.

They worked at least short term. The group I was part of lasted from the seventies through to the nineties and maybe even into the zeros. Some of those congregations found through various initiatives a lease of life during those years and actually the level of lay leadership increased through those projects. The congregation I was closest associated closed shortly after its social outreach was taken from it. I suspect that if it had remained there may have been another decade of life in the congregation. In other words it worked, it slowed the rate of decline. There is one church (maybe two) in an area of Manchester where under merge and close there would be none.

Now the study was not academic, the ministers who were trying different things to see if they could halt decline were of course the innovative and go ahead ministers. You cannot sort out the quality of the minister from the experiment. It also gives a hint of what might be wrong with the current debate. If a successful minister is one who has a single pastoral charge may it not be that there is a tendency for ministers not to seek group positions if they can get a single pastorate?

Of course, the big problem is not that groups cause decline. The sort of grouping being talked about is what the Methodist have done for centuries and forgive me although Methodism is currently in decline, I would be very reluctant to describe it as that in the middle on 19th Century! So what to make of it.

The problem is that grouping that is often talked of is done without concern for the Ecclesiology of the tradition. The relationship between the minister and the congregation is not the a top-down relationship within the Reformed tradition. Ministers are NOT appointed by Bishops (like the Roman Catholics), General Assembly (like the Methodists)  nor by other ministers. They are appointed by the local Church. The local Church has normally been associated with the local congregation. There is however no reason why it should be a single congregation. Could not a local Church consist of a number of worshipping communities serving different  constituencies within a wider community? These constituencies could be defined by place, age, theology, worship style preference or missional service. The one thing they would need to agree on is an Ecclesial structure (or how they interact formally with each other)

A grouping of local congregations under a central-governing body is not something new within the Reformed tradition.  This is what seems to have happened with the Geneva Consistory. It needs to be noted the consistory did not belong to one congregation but to the whole of Geneva and had responsibility for discipline of ministers among other concerns.  It was however primarily made up of lay people with the chair being the senior minister and as far as I can tell no other ministerial representation. Ministers were given responsibility for specific congregations or missional work by the Consistory.

I do not think this will be popular with anyone, but I do think that it highlights what is theoretically missing in the current discussion. That is a coherent thinking on the relationship between congregation and minister. At present I see the talk of grouping and the resistance to it being a discussion about power. If the local congregation can retain the power to appoint a minister then the members understand their connection to the minister. If, however, groups are created with minister or synod appointing other ministers then we become a denomination ruled by ministers.  Unfortunately that model, I can see members deciding that the denomination has lost interest in them so there is no reason to belong.