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Social liturgy and the Christian charity sector
17th January 2017
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This blog is part of a mini-series of blogs that looks at the idea of Christian Social Liturgy as outlined in Theos’ ten-year anniversary report Doing Good: A future for Christianity in the 21st century, and explores what it means and what it might look like in practice. Today, it’s Ben Ryan on:
Social liturgy and the Christian charity sector
There is reason to believe that the Christian charity sector is, perhaps paradoxically, in the light of the declining number of people who identify as Christians in the UK, growing. As the Faith Matters report by NPC demonstrates, the faith charity sector, and within it Christian charities, is growing faster than the non-faith sector.
Interesting as this potential paradox might be, it opens up a number of questions, not least of which is what being a Christian charity actually means in practice (an issue that the Theos report Christian Funders and Grant-Making: An Analysis has looked at in relation specifically to funders). To take up the challenge of Nick Spencer’s first blog in this series, how many of these “Christian” charities are “in danger of ignoring the Christian element, failing to capture this dual-directed service, or elevating love of neighbour over and above love of God”?
In 2016, the Theos report Catholic Social Thought and Catholic Charities in Britain Today: Need and Opportunity looked at those questions (among others) with regard to the Catholic charity sector. The report highlighted the difficulty in clarifying the Catholic status of charities but it also pointed to some other more interesting aspects of living out “social liturgy” in practice.
The research looked at six different principles of Catholic Social Thought and the extent to which they were embodied in different Catholic charitable contexts. Not all of the evidence was simply positive: there were examples of charities not really engaging or understanding the ideas from the Church’s tradition. However, the broader picture was of a genuine dynamic relationship between Church teaching and charitable practice.
Charities were not simply the passive objects of Church teaching, taking theological ideas and putting them into practice. They were active agents in understanding the theology in particular contexts, expanding upon it and, at least potentially, developing the tradition.
An example: few ideas from Catholic Social Thought have received as much public attention as the “option for the poor”. This is a natural starting point for many charities. What the research showed, however, was that the way in which charities were expanding what “option for the poor” meant beyond material poverty into wider understandings of poverty as being short of meaningful relationships, or being marginalized within wider community.
This did not have to result in grand or expensive gestures. In a parish centre in Clayton, a community project associated with the Father Hudson’s Care charity had set up a phone that was used to contact elderly residents in the area and stay in touch with them. It’s a small project, which costs little, but makes a big difference to those people who are contacted, helping combat the isolation that blights so many lives.
The same could be said of a number of other CST principles. CST has always placed a great emphasis on the dignity of work and on the Common Good. In the case of the St Vincent de Paul Society (SVP), one innovative solution that combined these two principles was the opening of furniture shops. There are now 40 or so of these stores which provide local employment to around 100 people while providing people in deprived areas with the ability to buy furniture at a cut price, but – importantly – furniture of their own choice (previous efforts to give furniture away had deprived people of any choice and proved unpopular).
This development was evident in a number of other principles – notably in the more contentious area of evangelization. In our work on Catholic charities, it was not so much the conversion of non-Christians to Christianity that emerged as a theme, so much as the way in which working or volunteering with a Catholic charity served to strengthen or deepen the existing faith of Christians. Working in these contexts often led to a growth or change in the faith of volunteers and staff, who now understood the nature of Christianity in a new light thanks to a new sort of encounter.
Such examples reveal something of the essential dynamism of an authentic social liturgy as seen in the Catholic charity sector. The fact that the faith charity sector seems to be growing is interesting, but less important than the finding that this sector is not simply passive when it comes to Christian self-understanding and theology. On the contrary, many Catholic charities are taking the Christian message and theology, articulating it and developing it in inspiring, practical work. If the conclusion of Doing Good is that the Church in the UK of the coming years is going to be smaller, but more activist and engaged, then the role of charities as crucibles of that engagement will be essential.
Ben Ryan is a researcher at Theos | @BenedictWRyan
Next in our mini-series: Hannah Malcolm on Christian Social Liturgy in a Christian community and the "unnecessary good". Read it here
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