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Social liturgy and social innovation

Social liturgy and social innovation

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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 annivrsary 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, Paul Bickley writes on: 

Social liturgy and social innovation

Theos’ latest report, Doing Good, reflects the trajectory of the debate around faith and public life in the last decade. Ten years ago, the predominant question was ‘is this true’, and is it right? Now the main question is ‘is this useful’?

Sensible people tend to answer with a ‘yes’. Religious charities clearly do good – increasingly so. Given the pressure on public spending don’t we need everyone to muck in where they can? There’s demand and supply. But the ‘yes’ is not an unqualified or consistent one. With semi-regularity, I hear of funding leads that go cold when the potential donor learns that a charity has a religious foundation.

So it’s left to religious charities to make their way either by flying under the radar – staying small and being funded by churches – or sticking by sector norms and minimising distinctive inspiration or approach. In the words of one charity leader, many religious agencies end up having a heart transplant.

Against the prospect of heart transplants, Nick Spencer’s idea of ‘social liturgy’ conveys the idea that religious public action is at its most authentic when it remains a form of worship. Neighbour-love is not merely a happy by-product of purer religious activities like prayer and singing, but an essential component of faithful lives and communities.

The idea that social action is liturgical is important because it reminds us what’s going on when Christians and others serve their wider communities. Phrases like social action slide too easily towards the notion that solidarity with the poor and vulnerable is neither an optional extra or secondary and secular. This detachment is the very thing that leads to the idea that it’s a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. It seems as if every generation has the task of reminding itself that neighbour love is an essential component of Christian discipleship.

That said, social liturgy could be heard to imply a particular kind of scale and kind of activity – action that starts and remains local, organic, and rooted in a worshipping community. It also implies repetitive, doing the same thing time and time again.

But just as there can be changes in styles of worship depending on social context, there is space for considerable variety in forms of religious social action, particularly when there is rapid change in the social, economic and political landscape.

As Nick Spencer notes, in a plural society the place of any religious institution can’t be assumed but earned – and we must now earn a place in a context where the boundaries, relationships and roles of the state, market, voluntary and religious sectors are more fluid than they were. Specifically, the state is retrenching and seeking to become more strategic in its action, which carries risks and opportunities for those in need and for those that aspire to realise social change.

So there’s a need for social innovation – innovative responses to social challenges or needs which see common action as the best way to realise the common good. In other words, innovation that is social in ends and means.

There’s no doubt that churches and other religious institutions are inherently and incontrovertibly social in their practice and in their goals. In fact, in spite of alleged decline they’re among the only institutions that continue to flourish in the space between state and market. Historically, religious traditions have also been the source of transformative social innovations (though they weren’t called that at the time).

The question – which is the focus of upcoming Theos research – is, are they adapting or responding to the changing environment in convincing ways? Innovation is rooted in a disruption of the status quo (Joseph Schumpeter – one of the originators of innovation thinking – famously spoke of creative destruction). This doesn’t fit easily with the culture of religious intuitions, which value tradition and ‘think long’. Here, a strength overused can become a weakness. The rootedness and resilience of religious traditions mean they’re durable, but equally they can experience what Weber called 'routinisation of charisma' – and end up doing the same thing over and over again.

Rootedness and resilience are a foundation on which to build buildings, not the buildings themselves. Social innovation is a way of asking the question, ‘given the materials available, what is the best possible thing we could build on the foundations we have?’ Practically then, how can social liturgy and social innovation meet? What does it look like?

• Religious institutions need to expand their repertoire of public action. At the moment there is a strong emphasis on relatively small scale social action – rooted in local congregations – and a strong instinct for public campaigning, holding feet to the fire in terms of legislative change and public provision. This betrays an implicit public theology which sees the state as the primary engine of public good.  A social innovation approach sees churches and other religious groups not just doing but doing differently – not least by working alongside others. Their social purpose needn’t be confined to the charitable model but could also look to social business. This doesn’t mean faddishly launching social enterprises right left and centre, but a recognition that commerce can be a hard-headed form of neighbour love.

• Innovation thinking is both more modest and more bold in ambition. Its boldness is that it is prepared to ask, ‘is there anything we can do that would solve rather than simply serve this problem?’ Of course, there is a kind of arrogance in this question – the world is not simply subject to whim, no matter how creative or well organised we are. Problems are problems because they are complex, intractable, and interrelated. As the policy wonks say, they’re often ‘wicked’. So social innovation is more modest an innovation will be clear about an achievable goal – often starting with the rethinking and redefinition of the problem – and clear when it’s not moving toward achieving it. Data and knowledge and insight are at the heart of innovation.

• Innovation thinking thinks about releasing under-used resources – whether that’s people, buildings or money. They identify and connect those resources to needs in new ways. You can see that innovation is therefore optimistic; it assumes that the means are available to respond creative and usefully to a problem. 

Exploring these innovations in ‘social liturgy’ is simply a way of peering ahead and asking, what are the challenges that we face in the earthly city? What gifts, resources and assets do churches and other religious institutions bring? How can they cooperate with others to achieve the common good in changing and uncertain times? In what ways does our social action – social liturgy – need to evolve?

There’s no one answer to that. In some areas, religious groups’ ability, willingness, and capacity to simply be there and do the same thing over and over is exactly what’s needed. But their social liturgy – their remembering of the poor, as Paul put it in his letter to the Galatians – is a matter not just of diligence and duty, but also of imagination and creativity. 

Paul Bickley is Director of Political Programme at Theos | @mrbickley

The final blog in our mini-series: Nick Spencer offers some final reflections on Christian Social Liturgy. Read it here

Image via MaxPixel under Creative Commons 0 Public Domain


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