What will David Cameron’s “Big Society” look like? No one really knows. His aim is “to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a big society that will ‘take power away from politicians and give it to people’.” Cameron knows what the state is for and what it can’t afford to do. What he hasn’t said is what “the people” should do with their newly delegated power. Cameron has created a vacuum.
We need a vision, something to work towards. I’d like to make a proposal for that vision. What society should look like, under God, is shown in the Venn diagram below. A balanced society has three mutually exclusive, though interdependent, institutions: the state, the church and the family. Each one has its unique role, each is accountable to the other. We each need to know our role and in this post I hope to show what happens when one institution is absent in the minds of the other two.
First to define the unique roles.
The Church is the agent of God’s blessing as she teaches, nurtures, heals and holds the keys of heaven and hell. She teaches the revealed will of God in the bible, upholds the law of God, points to Christ as loving Saviour from judgement and law breaking. She nurtures family, cares for widows, orphans and the elderly. She also nurtures community through education and heals the sick through medicine and prayer. At the communion table, she exercises discipline as she calls sinners to penitence and saving faith and excludes the impenitent.
The State is the agent of God’s justice as it enacts laws in accordance with the revealed will of God. The state protects life and property by the rule of law and as such sustains a police force, judiciary and penal system. The penal system is run by Christians who seek restorative as well as retributive justice. The government must also employ an army, navy and air force to protect life. It might also oversee the planning and maintenance of national infrastructure. The state should be run by believing, communicant Christians but its structures must be separate from those of the church. Bishops should not sit in government and MPs must not be church leaders.
The family is the focus of love, protection and neighbourliness. The state and the church exist for the good of families. Families are served by both ministers of state and religion. Families can remove government by democratic means and they hold church elders to account, insisting that elders teach and nurture according to God’s word.
So what happens when two of the three forget the other one?
State and family forget the church
I’ll start here because this is the situation we have experienced in the UK for two generations or more. With the absence of the church the state must assume the role of teacher, carer and healer. Rather than the enforcement of the rule of law the state feels the responsiblity to look after or nanny people. There is a focus on education and health care as the state confuses its role with the church. Law enforcement is carried out gently as care is balanced with justice. As a result, the British state is now powerless, unable to maintain the rule of law because national morality has evaporated and, as the police admit, there are not enough prison places to incarcerate every drunk and disorderly person or sexually active teenager.
As health care and eduction are removed from the church, the caring professions cease to care as the sense of vocation under God in the church is replaced by state sponsored professionalism.
Without the teaching, nurture and care of God, families disintegrate. And as families fail, the state must assume increased responsibility for nurture and care. Schools struggle to cope with kids from backgrounds where there has been no influence of God’s wisdom for generations. “Surestart” programmes, family courts and legal aid consume government time and resources as the state steps in to pick up the pieces.
So the big society is the state’s way of saying, “we’re not going to nanny you.” But what will fill the void? Without the church, we risk sliding one of two ways. There’s the chance of anarchy as the nannying effects are lost and fledgling “Lord of the flies” gangs become the norm. Or, just as frighteningly, the state could get heavy-handed as it imposes the rule of law and we end up with a North Korean style totalitarian regime. As the British state relinquishes nurture and care we need a revival of Christian belief and with it a revival of the church.
The church might grow in influence. What if it grows too far? What happens to the state?
Church and families forget the state.
As the state shrinks we could find ourselves forming local congregations and communities to run drop in child care, marriage and parenting courses, family budgeting, care homes for the elderly, local hospitals, schools and all the things needed for teaching, care and nurture as we teach the will of God in scripture. We will need the state to maintain law and order. To protect us from invasion. To run national infrastructure. Without the state we are left vulnerable. The government today is cancelling defence contracts, scrapping aircraft carriers and the harrier jump jet. But those are the things we need for protection.
Church and state forget the family
When heads of state and heads of the church forget what they are for, which is the good of families under God, civil wars and power struggles are bound to follow. The church and state do not exist as an end in themselves. As church and state work out their respective roles and develop accountability the family must never be lost from sight. Government and church are there to serve people.
This trinitarian model of society is where we must go. With the state, church and family in a relationship of mutual accountability, then the big society will be balanced and blessed.