This article is featured in Public Spirit’s special theme on Faith and the coalition: a new confidence to ‘do God’?
The British people love their welfare state almost as much as they used to love their church. Yet the Coalition government is systematically dismantling it in the name of small government and big society. Like the church, it isn’t till it’s gone that we’ll miss it, and the future of both – and Britain’s full diversity of faith traditions – are intertwined in complex and significant ways.
State welfare was the biggest secularizing force of the twentieth century. Before 1948 welfare was almost entirely the provenance of the churches, and huge amounts of social work, community work and charity were done by parishes and congregations up and down the land. Some of it grew in to large well-known organizations, such as Ellen Ranyard’s Bible nurses, Lord Shaftesbury’s ‘ragged schools’ and Florence Nightingale’s nursing movement. This was a time when there were “2,349 subsidiary associations to dispense the Bible” and the “myriad parish societies…had membership numbers that varied from under ten to hundreds”.
All this took place in the absence of other organized forms of help for those in need, aside from the Poor Law, itself connected since Elizabethan times, for good and for bad, to the parish system of the Church of England. For Toqueville, Christianity was “not an opiate, nor a morality of slaves but a religion of self-discipline and personal service that answered social and political needs” and in his ‘memoir’ on pauperism written in 1835 after a visit to England, he writes that one of the merits of Christianity is that it makes charity a divine virtue.
The cauldron of poverty, unrest and the build up to war in the 1930’s and 40’s were a heady backdrop for the new politics of welfare which were to follow. Archbishop William Temple (1942-44) felt a Christian compunction to organize the meeting of need in more professional, rational ways than the churches had been able to manage. His work with the great reforming politician, William Beveridge, helped lay the foundations of the welfare state and was entirely consensual on the part of the Church of England. What emerged in The Beveridge Report of 1942 was the basis of a wholesale transfer of welfare responsibility from Church to State. In it Beveridge famously noted that “Want is one only of five giants on the road of reconstruction and in some ways the easiest to attack. The others are Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness”.
Crucially, he also argued that “The first principle is that … when the war is abolishing landmarks of every kind, [this] is the opportunity for using experience in a clear field. A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching”. The time was ripe and unique for one of the most radical political acts in history, and for the handover of need from the purview of the churches to the purview of the state. It took the values of church-based welfare with it, even though it also marked the beginning of their articulation in political rather than religious language – a breach which has grown ever since.
On the upside, the transfer of welfare from church to state undid centuries of paternalism, sexism and top-down philanthropy which reeked of the noblesse oblige which the bloodiest wars had done so much to undermine. It also challenged the random nature of welfare provision when left to the well-meaning amateurs. Church-based welfare had been the biggest post-code lottery of all, in which the parish you found yourself in would largely determine the quality and availability of services you could draw on.
On the downside, it loosened the connection between people and parish which had so effectively drawn people out from the individual, through the family, to community. Nobody should romanticize the church-oriented community, nor see it through rose-tinted glasses, but the connections which were lost have been agonized over by policy-makers ever since. There have been waves of anxiety about a crisis of community regularly since 1948, and countless government initiatives have sought to address it, from the Community Development Projects of the 1960s, City Challenge and the Urban Programme in the 1980s, the Single Regeneration Budget in the 1990s, and the New Deal for Communities in the 2000s. All have depended heavily on churches as being ‘good at community’. But they have dictated the goals in political terms, such as increased employment, reduced crime and a better built environment. In the end, as political projects, all have failed.
Nevertheless, the reality of the welfare state has always been more mixed than it looked. Faith groups have maintained a constant and consistent presence, often working in the most disadvantaged areas where all other agencies have withdrawn. Recent research showed that they are among the most ‘active citizens’ – they volunteer more, give to charity more and even vote more.
Various reports by faith groups themselves claim a crucial contribution right across the UK. In the South East, Beyond Belief (March 2004) identifies at least two community action projects for each faith centre in the region. Faith in the East of England (July 2005) finds that there are 180,000 beneficiaries of faith based community development in the region. In London, Neighbourhood Renewal in London: The Role of Faith Communities (May 2002) identified 7000 projects in 2200 faith buildings. In the West Midlands, Believing in the Region (May 2006) reported that 80% of faith groups deliver some kind of service to the wider community. In the North West, Faith in England’s North West (November 2003) shows that faith communities were running more than 5000 social action projects generating income of £69m – £94m per annum. In Yorkshire and the Humber, Count Us In (2000) showed that in Hull 90% of churches were involved in social action and Angels and Advocates (November 2002) reported that there were 6500 social action projects in churches. In the South West, Faith in Action (June 2006) demonstrated that 165,000 people were supported by faith groups in the region by 4762 activities. In the East Midlands, Faith in Derbyshire (May 2006) claims that, on average, churches run nine community activities each. They do the care work others don’t or won’t – with the homeless, addicted, and sex workers. Following cuts in government funding in 2010, faith groups are also once again the biggest provider of youth services and of care for the elderly, such as Jewish Care. Together, faith-based welfare is an essential buttress for state welfare. Without it, the architecture of care would collapse.
But while this is clear to those who look, the welfare state rendered the role of faiths invisible and informal. Though they were hugely active throughout this period, their voice was largely unheard. Secular welfare had quietened sacred care. The shift to a mixed economy of welfare in the 1980’s was to change this. By then, the market was being elevated politically at the cost of the state, and the welfare state was first in the firing line. A competitive internal market in the National Health Service intended to make it market-like in its behaviour and financial management. All sorts of local council services were outsourced to private companies. Much of what remained by then of state provided social care was handed over to private and voluntary providers under the label ‘care in the community’. Alongside this a decade of attempts to reform state benefits had imposed a rhetoric of dependency upon recipients. The vision of universal welfare services, free at the point of delivery, was being displaced with one of scroungers and couch-potatoes dragging down the economy.
The mixed economy of welfare made visible again faith-based work that had already been happening. Other aspects emerged or grew in response to the funding opportunities that accompanied it. Controversies were rife about how these sorts of arrangements might instrumentalise – even compromise – the faith-based providers.
At the same time, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, published Faith in the City in 1985; a highly critical report excoriating the effects of the welfare critique and reforms. The consensus of the 1940’s between Archbishop and politician had come to this clash between church and state. Just as the welfare church had given way to the welfare state, it was now visibly resuming a role as the state sought to step back.
In the decade or so that followed Blair’s election, an elaborate infrastructure of policy and funding was introduced to encourage faith-based provision still more. Faith groups were seen as repositories of resources – buildings, staff, networks, volunteers and even money – which could be turned to the public good. But accompanying this was an understanding that things had changed since the Church of England had last dared to call itself the national church. The religious make-up of the UK has altered dramatically. Religious plurality is embedded in the national psyche after decades of non-confessional RE in schools. Policy emphasized the multi-faith society and envisaged the re-population of the now mixed economy of welfare, not with the well-meaning Anglicans of pre-1948 Britain, but with faith providers from the full plurality of religious traditions, reflecting their service users and communities. It enjoined partnership and encounter between all faiths and none, and the ability to provide services which could be appealing to users across the spectrum of faiths.
The Coalition government has inherited a mixed economy of welfare which reflects the religious diversity of its users. But it wants now to finish the job it began in the 1980s of withdrawing the state from welfare. Funding and policy have largely been withdrawn. Government grants and payments for community-based welfare have been cut or abolished. Providers are expected to replace them with increased volunteering, philanthropic giving, and social enterprise. This sounds very like the philanthropy and randomness which ushered in the welfare state.
But the Coalition also has an anachronistic streak when it comes to religion, seeing in the Church of England the ability to lead the faith contribution to the mixed economy of welfare. It observes in the parish system a presence in every neighbourhood from which to reach out to service users and communities across the whole range of religious traditions. It has introduced £5m of government funding to support community building in four of the most religiously plural areas in the Near Neighbours Programme – administered through the Anglican Church’s Church Urban Fund and accessed via the local Anglican parish priest. This will be difficult to swallow as other traditions find themselves queuing up to get the signature of the Church of England vicar. Any attempt at revalorizing the Church of England poses a danger to the cohesion of religiously diverse Britain. It also over-eggs the capacity of a smaller, poorer church.
The welfare state is sacred – in more ways than one. Its values are the faithful aspirations of love, community, happiness, well-being and neighbourhood. Its concerns are for the fullest flourishing of human beings. Many of its providers are people and places of faith. What remains of it, and how it relates to the full range of faith groups that buttress it, is the pressing political – and religious – question of our time.
Adam Dinham is director of the Faiths and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is Professor of Faith & Public Policy. He is policy advisor to a number of faith-based agencies and policy bodies and has advised central government on issues of public faith. His most recent book is Faith and Social Capital After the Debt Crisis.
 Frank Prochaska, Christianity and Social Service in Modern Britain: The Disinherited Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 17–18.
 Quoted in ibid., 26.
 William Beveridge, Social Insurance and Allied Services (London: HMSO, 1942).
 Home Office, Home Office Citizenship Survey (London: The Stationery Office, 2005).