Monthly Archives: May 2011

Jellicoe & CTC prayer diary

Each month, we post prayer requests for the work of our Jellicoe Interns, and the wider life of the Contextual Theology Centre

Please pray for…
– the 20 students from Oxford, Cambridge, London and Sheffield who will be coming on Jellicoe Internships this summer, and the congregations in East London which they will work;
– Ian Bhullar and Liliana Worth, who have worked so hard and to such effect for the Centre in this last year, and are going on to new roles in the year ahead (Ian in China and Liliana in Oxford) – and Thomas Daggett who will help manage this summer’s internship programme;
– Joshua Harris, our Research Co-ordinator, as he helps us plan an exciting event with The Children’s Society in September.  We will be bringing together Christian thinkers and practitioners to discuss how best to challenge he yawning inequalities of wealth in our society;
– Angus Ritchie, Susanne Mitchell and Michael Ipgrave as we develop the East London  Near Neighbours programme – building and deepening relationships across faiths and cultures.  Pray for the sister programmes in Bradford, Birmingham and Leicester – and for the process of recruiting staff in each place;
– the Jellicoe Community in Oxford – especially remembering those who heard Pastor Peter Nembhard preach so powerfully last week, that his words may have an ongoing impact on their lives;
– all who have attended the wide range of teaching events we have been involved in this spring.  In particular, please remember the 100 Christians who have completed our Building a People of Power course on faith and community organising; the 150 Christians, Jews and Muslims involved in our Scriptural Reasoning event on money and justice, and around 200 church leaders in the East Midlands who gathered to reflect on The Church and the Big Society.  Pray for the congregations in which participants worship and minister, that the relationships built and ideas shared at these events may bear fruit in their local contexts

Pastor Peter preaches at Merton

Peter Nembhard, Pastor of one of our Pentecostal congregations, preached a powerful sermon on Moses, anger and justice – at a special Jellicoe event in Merton College, Oxford.  Song of Moses brought together a group of Christians from very different traditions and contexts – College Chapels and St Aldate’s and St Mary Magdalen Churches in Oxford and Pastor Peter’s ARC in East London – to pray and reflect together on the call to social justice.

Jellicoe intern Daniel Stone gave testimony on the impact of being on placement at ARC.  Daniel has since been elected Vice-President (Charity & Communities) of Oxford University Students Union.

The service was one of a series of events in which the Jellicoe Community has been connecting faith and life in Oxford, including
…an extended Mass at St Mary Magdalen, interspersed with teaching on why things are done as they are in the liturgy – and its implications for Christian life
…a series of workshops on Community Organising (arranged by Sarah Santhosham, who will be a Jellicoe intern in Shadwell this summer)
…sermons at Balliol, Corpus Christi and Magdalen by clergy from our partner churches

Coming up – on the evening of Wednesday 22nd June – is an event with two of the leading thinkers on faith and organising, Baron Glasman and Prof John Milbank.  Full details of this final Jellicoe event of term will follow soon!

Questioning Attacks on the Big Society

Dave Hodges has posed the question on the Labour Uncut blog whether it is time to stop bashing the Big Society?  He points to an important distinction which many critics of the Big Society fail to recognise: the Coalition’s deficit reduction plan, and the resulting cuts to public services, is not part and parcel of the Big Society vision.  Criticising one does not necessitate rubbishing the other.  As he says,

Aiming fire at the big society is not the answer. It is a positive, idealistic message that we sour with harsh home truths. We are the grumpy person in the corner who perks up adversely to criticise every time the opportunity arises.

At a recent Compass event in Westminster, Jesse Norman MP and Anna Coote from nef clashed over precisely this point.  Jesse Norman, a strong supporter of the Big Society as a vision for a society emphasising mutuality and reciprocal relations, argued that this vision should be separated from the current Coalition plan for tackling the deficit.  Anna Coote instead believed that they were one and the same, and that therefore the Big Society could and should be judged by what is happening now.  The debate will no doubt continue.  But resolving it, and deciding on what grounds the Big Society should be attacked when it resonates so clearly with many aspects of the emerging Blue Labour narrative, would help opponents of the Coalition’s deficit reduction plan have a clearer objective in their sights.

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So Farewell Then, Lord Wei

Nat Wei has stepped down from his role as an unpaid adviser to the Government on the Big Society at the Cabinet Office.  A remarkably gifted social entrepreneur, it is likely that Wei’s talents will perhaps be better used in his new role at the Community Foundation Network.

There was always a significant question mark over whether the Cabinet Office could ever be the beating heart of a civil society renaissance.  As a Department it is a curious animal.  Often silent and stealthy, its officials are some of the brightest and sharpest minds dedicated to making the art of governing a refined, and efficient, science.  It’s bread and butter is strategy, and long term planning.  Occasionally the Cabinet Office breaks the surface – hosting the 2010 Coalition negotiations, for example, thrust it into the limelight – and its present Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, has much more name recognition than his predecessors.  Yet there are obvious limits to what central government can achieve through strategy papers (however clever) and bold ideas.  The power to really change things which will impact the Big Society lies in the hands of spending Ministers at other departments.  For example, Eric Pickles and the DCLG team are driving the localism agenda, not the Cabinet Office.  It is little wonder on one level then that Nat Wei might be of more direct use, and have more obvious impact, working at a grass roots level where change is more immediate, impact more measureable, and action favoured over strategy.

His departure prompts an observation however.  David Cameron shows no sign of disowning the Big Society brand despite growing calls for him to do so even by those that support its aims.  And it is important to note that Nat Wei is not going to be replaced.  It may be simply the case that no-one else willing or able to do the job for free could be found.  But it is not insigificant that the role is being taken out of the Cabinet Office and given to the No 10 Policy Unit.

Far from distancing himself from the Big Society, Cameron is taking it closer under his wing.  It remains to be seen, though, whether this results in greater attention to it.  A more likely option, given recent developments, is it becomes lost in the sea of more pressing problems the No 10 team are preoccupied with, such as NHS reform.  Cameron’s promise to cut the costs of government have led to serious problems in not having enough special advisers (SpAds) to provide sufficient political support for his objectives, and those of his ministers.  Their time and energy is already spread too thin.  Using civil servants instead has been the favoured option, though this may help explain some of the political mistakes of the past year which more seasoned partisan operators might have avoided.  Civil servants have not shown themselves natural supporters of the Big Society vision.  Let’s hope that they are not given responsibility for it in No 10.

Lord Wei will no doubt continue to add to the richness of civil society. His track record as a social entrepreneur speaks for itself.  But the impact of his time in the Cabinet Office is not yet clear.  And what will happen next, now that his role has been taken into No 10, remains to be seen.

By Josh Harris

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Big Society Commission

ACEVO has launched its Commission report into the Big Society this week.  The Commission members, drawn from across the political spectrum, broadly welcome the Big Society and regard it as an idea which should “transcend” party politics.  Concerned by polling figures which show just 13% of people think the government has a clear plan in place to achieve the Big Society, the Commission urges the Prime Minister personally to take control and drive forward the agenda.

Powerful People, Responsible Society is an intelligent and considered report.  Its balanced criticism is particularly valid on the lack of consistent guidance from the centre over what the Big Society – as a policy programme – is trying to achieve.  Refreshingly, the report makes concrete recommendations.  For example, building in through No 10 and the Cabinet Office specific ways of measuring the success or failure of the Big Society.

Of course, as a way of describing society and the relationship between people and the state (as Jesse Norman MP does well in his recent book), it is hard to measure its success.  As anyone interested in cultural change will know, pointing to measureable outcomes is fiendishly difficult. 

But there is a danger that this leads to a lack of accountability.  Not so much for whether the Big Society is achieved or not, but whether the money and civil servive time invested in it was worthwhile.  At a time of public spending restrictions it is vital that the Big Society is not ‘toxified’ further by those claiming it is a cover for cuts.  Being able to show positive outcomes for the government’s investment in it is vital for avoiding that accusation.  ACEVO’s suggestions for how this might be done is a welcome contribution to the debate.

Josh Harris – Research Coordinator, Contextual Theology Centre

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A Postsecular Politics?

Luke Bretherton, Senior Lecturer at Kings College London and a Fellow of the Contextual Theology Centre, has published an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion entitled A Postsecular Politics? Interfaith Relations as a Civic Practice.

In it, Bretherton critiques the way in which interfaith dialogue is often abstracted from the reality of the social, economic and political contexts in which it takes place.  Instead, he restates interfaith dialogue as being explicitly political and civic.  It is rooted in the desire to forge a common life among disparate communities; something which, Bretherton believes, requires an acute sense of place and context.  What is needed are “civic practices of listening, a commitment to place, and the building and maintenance of institutions as central to the formation of a politics of the common good”.

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The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox

A new e-book has today been published representing some of the recent debate about the future of Labour.  It reproduces papers and responses to them from four seminars held in Oxford in 2010-11.  Contributors include CTC Fellow Maurice Glasman and former Jellicoe Intern Stefan Baskerville.  The e-book is entitled The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox and is edited by Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears and Stuart White.

One response to the publication has come already from Mary Riddell at The Telegraph.  A mixed but intriguing review of the Blue Labour phenomenom, she identifies the opportunity and the hurdles to overcome in advocating a (small c) conservative turn for Labour’s renewal.

Yet although Mary Riddell refers to this new book as Blue Labour’s ‘Bible’, a more accurate picture is painted by David Lammy MP who describes Blue Labour not as an invitation for factionalism “but as an opening salvo in a conversation that involves people who hail from different traditions across the party”.  The party is increasingly being given material to sink its teeth into as it searches for its misplaced sense of mission.  The debate, regardless of who wins, will be stronger for it.

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When Blue Labour Met the Fabians

As this blog has mentioned before, the Blue Labour movement is attracting more attention and, inevitably, closer examination.  Tim Horton, Research Director at the Fabian Society, met with Maurice Glasman to debate the currently competing strands of thought in the party and to defend the Fabian record against Glasman’s localist critique.

From a Fabian perspective, I’d agree with Blue Labour and others that rethinking the role of the state should be an important part of Labour’s policy review process. A self-critical party must develop an account of where the state over-reached itself as well as where Labour neglected important non-state vehicles for social justice. And of course there are big future challenges to the role of the state that social democrats must take their heads out of the sand and start to confront.

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AV and the Big Society: The Dangers of Introspection

The entrails of the opposing campaigns for the AV referendum last week will be pored over for weeks to come.  The result was a crushing defeat of AV by a margin of almost 2:1.  The cause of electoral reform has been kicked into the long grass, although some surprising dissenting voices to that thesis are worth hearing.

Already criticism is turning to the failure of the YES campaign to engage the electorate.  The failure which stands out for particular consideration is a question of realism.  Liberal Vision is particularly insightful:

The YES campaign was eminently winnable. But it ended up being run by readers of the Guardian for readers of the Guardian … From the outset, the YES campaign was all about the tiny coterie of people who feel strongly about electoral reform.

The point made in the article is that those leading the campaign addressed it to people like themselves.  The often self-congratulatory tone of the campaign material seemed directed more at cheering on existing supporters than seeking new ones.  Prominent people backing the campaign – including a disproportionate number of actors and celebrities who don’t necessarily bring credibility to a campaign – appealed to voters who were already inclined to vote YES.  There was little serious effort to appeal beyond an existing constituency.  As the result proved, that constituency (despite claims ad nauseum that there is a latent ‘progressive majority’ in Britain) was no way near big enough to win the referendum.

Continue reading

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The Bible and Politics

Nick Spencer from public theology think-tank Theos has written a new book to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible entitled Freedom and Order: History Politics and the English Bible.  It discusses the relationship over history between politics and English politics.

Over on the Theos website, Nick Spencer has sparked some thoughts on tolerance connected with the book which are worth a read.

And on the Biblefresh website can be found an article exploring the Bible’s contribution to politics in Britain.

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