Social justice, social action, and the UK church

Guest blogger, Heather Buckingham is Director of Research and Policy for the Church Urban Fund. In this article she shares her reflection on the new Barna study produced in partnership with World Vision UK, ‘The UK Church In Action’.

All sorted or a bit mixed up? Social justice, social action, and the UK church.

Putting things into meaningful categories is one of a researcher’s key tasks, whether through crafting options for a survey question, picking out themes during data analysis, or developing models that explain how different things relate to each other.

This ‘sorting’ can be challenging, particularly when it comes to human beings: their creativity, diversity, uniqueness, and unpredictability continually overflow the ‘boxes’ researchers use to classify and interpret their identities, behaviours and beliefs.

Harder still, then, when the task is to understand and articulate the work of a God who is both transcendent and immanent, continually crossing boundaries, confounding expectations, popping up in unexpected places, and acting through and amongst people of all kinds of beliefs, vocations and backgrounds. Jesus’s tendency to explode the categories that the people featured in the gospels thought they understood – like ‘religion’, ‘righteousness’, and ‘goodness’ – calls for caution as we seek to understand how ‘justice’ and ‘salvation’ are being worked out in, through, and around the contemporary church in the UK.

Focussing on people’s perceptions about the church – as Barna do in their recent report The UK Church in Action– seems a wise starting point, and the study gives us a variety of ‘windows’ on contemporary Christianity in this context, through the eyes of church leaders, active Christians and the general adult population.

The report tells us about how people interpret some of the church’s frequently used categories. For example, the church leaders interviewed in the study most commonly defined ‘mission’ as ‘proclaiming the truth of Jesus Christ’ and ‘social justice’ as ‘advocacy or working for the common good of others’. Interestingly, they – like the ‘active Christians’ included in the research – are also most likely to believe that there should be equal emphasis on evangelism and justice within the church’s mission, apparently challenging the definition of mission they themselves preferred elsewhere in the study.

In 2017, Church Urban Fund partnered with the Church of England to survey 1,094 Anglican church leaders across England about the ways their churches engage within their local communities, and how they respond to social issues. Nearly all (97%) of the leaders we surveyed agreed that ‘engaging with the poor and marginalised in the local area is a vital priority for a healthy church’, and the proportion that strongly agreed with this statement in 2017 had increased to 61%, compared to 45% in 2011 when the survey was first conducted.

An intriguing finding from The UK Church in Action Report is church leaders’ assessment of past and future trends when it comes to the relationship between social justice and evangelism, which suggests that a substantial majority (60%) expect the two to be given equal importance in ten years’ time, compared to 39% who believe this is the case today. A somewhat similar question in our own survey asked Anglican church leaders about the priority that their churches were able to give in practiceto different aspects of ministry. This saw a comparable figure emerge with 41% of parishes reporting giving substantial emphasis both to evangelism and discipleship, and to social justice and responding to human need.

The challenge, of course, is that when this kind of integral mission becomes a way of life, it gets rather difficult to put into boxes for the purposes of counting.

The New Testament is full of examples of invitations, healings and generosity extended to people who others might overlook, whether by dint of their health, gender, poverty, ethnicity or reputation. These stories of renewed hope, health and dignity are at the heart of the way in which the message of the early church was shared, as people were drawn towards communities of believers characterised by the way they loved one another and took care of those who would otherwise have been on the margins. They are often also stories in which the people who get invited, helped or included become – and sometimes already are – those who invite, help and include others too. They are not stories that afford us the option of putting ‘encountering Jesus’ in one box, and ‘doing good things’ in another.

The UK Church in Action Report provides some fascinating insights into what people think about the church in the UK. A question it provokes though, is ‘what do people in the UK think the church is?’

The answer to this question makes a big difference when it comes to the story we end up telling about what the church is doing in society.

Sometimes we need to talk about the church as if it were an organisation, or better still, a very complex, heterogenous collection of organisations. But this is only part of the story. The church is also a community, or a movement, whose members are engaged and embedded in the world – if not of the world. Its impact within society encompasses the work of teachers, hospital cleaners, social workers, housing managers, health care assistants, entrepreneurs, doctors, attentive neighbours, politicians, and so on, who make up its congregations andcollaborate actively for the common good, working through the ‘boxes’ that many of us know as the state, the private sector, and civil society.

For all of us who play a part in telling this story, this leaves us with some challenges: to weave in the messy, the diffuse, and the vibrant; to be careful that the boxes we use don’t limit our imaginations, or other people’s; and to invite others – within and beyond the church – to take part in the writing of a boundary-crossing, unpredictable, and transformative narrative.