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'Community Well-being' - Archbishop visits Rose Street Methodist Centre, Wokingham

Friday 30th July 2004

An address from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, during a visit to the Rose Street Methodist Centre. Dr Williams learned about the voluntary and charity work taking place in Wokingham, and in particular a 10-week Community Wellbeing course.

Well, thank you very much indeed, Lady Elizabeth for that most generous introduction. And thank you for the invitation to be here this morning. The main reason I'm here, of course, is to find out, to listen to people like Marion and Jenny and Olwyn, and to discover what is actually being done locally, on the ground, about those questions which should preoccupy everybody in this country.

Questions which fundamentally have to do with how our vision of what human beings really are cashes out in local and practical terms. And I emphasise that phrase – the vision of what human beings really are. Voluntary work can sometimes feel like endless firefighting, reaction to problem after problem. And very often it seems to take place in pockets which don't connect very easily with one another. I've been impressed with the way in which people this morning have spoken about making connections, because that is what encourages me most deeply about the work that's being done here, in two ways.

The first is simply practical. As I've said, voluntary work can feel like firefighting; it can feel like endless bits of reaction to problems as they arise without an overview. And one of the healthiest and most constructive things that any community can ever do is to put in place some structures by which connections can be made. So that instead of a map of little voluntary enterprises, all of them seeking to respond to this or that particular problem, there is a vivid sense of common calling and common vision. You don't, in that setting, have voluntary groups in any sense competing with each other. You attempt to see what the needs of the whole community are, and thus to respond in a coherent way. I say this with some feeling, because one of the problems which faced me quite frequently when I was a bishop in South Wales was precisely that pattern of fragmented community action – the lack of structures and networks which enabled people to respond to the needs of the community overall. And the result could be, in the South Welsh situation, competitive bidding for slender resources and competitive struggles for volunteers, a rather small band of volunteers – we've heard already about the difficulty that is faced in recruiting volunteers. So simply practically, any group, any network that seeks to make those connections and enable a coherent response is practically more than welcome. And I think that has been recognised by the involvement here of public and statutory authorities in this particular vision.

But the second area is, in a sense, even more important. And what impresses me greatly about the Community Wellbeing programme is that it draws together simple information about what's being done for community welfare with a vision of what human development itself is like. Now this is a rather unusual connection to make, if I'm honest. Because again, there are times when people attempt to solve particular and practical problems without going to their roots. And I would say that it's really not much use mounting campaigns about education, care and welfare without some underlying sense of what is really owed to human beings as such, and as I said at the very beginning, what human beings are really like. The connections that have to be made, in other words, are not just connections between practical organisations – they're connections that have to do with an integral, integrated picture of human beings as they grow at every level.

That may seem fairly obvious to say, but in fact it's not. A good deal of our conversation in this society about welfare and needs seems to be dealing with symptoms rather than root causes and only when we are able to work together at some really vivid and robust sense of what human beings are like, will we have the full resources to deal with the problems before us.

One of the focuses of work here is quite clearly the needs of children and young people, and rightly so. But I certainly don't believe that it's possible to work effectively with the needs of children and young people unless we have precisely what this Community Wellbeing course offers which is a picture of how human beings ought to be developing.

"Ought to be developing" sounds a bit prescriptive, doesn't it? But the point is that there are certain needs, certain priorities, which the very process of human growth imposes upon us. And one of the things which we have so frequently forgotten, but which has been mentioned already this morning, is the need for stability. One of the paradoxes of being human is that we only grow and explore and adventure successfully when we have a stable and reliable background. It' people whose roots are deep who are most free to take risks – constructive
and creative risks. Now that's the paradox, but it's one which I think in different ways we all recognise. People who feel fundamentally secure in themselves can take those risks, move outside their comfort zones to deal with the needs of others, and to innovate in society and the world because they are not consumed by that constant anxiety about self-respect and self-worth, which, as we've heard, is one of the major problems with young people.

So underlying a lot of our particular issues is that nagging, aching, question about stability.

A few weeks ago in a seminar discussion at Lambeth Palace we got around to issues to do with parenting – we had a very diverse group in talking about this, and somebody said that of course the main thing you needed for good parenting was unconditional love. And my reaction was, "yes that's true, but there's something more. Or rather, there is a way in which unconditional love ought to express itself. And that is in the forming of a dependable, stable and secure environment."

Love, without the provision of security, doesn't really take root, let the roots go down in people's lives. And that is one of the biggest challenges we face in a society that is in any case deeply mobile, but one also where short term, disposable relationships seem to be the order of the day at many levels of society – and let's not just suppose this is an issue for so-called deprived parts of our society. It is a universal issue at present and we should be honest about that.

So to have an overview of human growth, human welfare, what is good for human beings, becomes more and more important. In that context these issues about security and stability in families can be addressed.

Now when I was a Bishop in Wales my clergy got very used to hearing me quoting from St Augustine, and audible groans would go up when the inevitable quotation from St Augustine came along. Well, here is this morning's quotation from St Augustine – a man who's had rather a bad press in some ways but who said some extremely sensible things. One of them being that in the ideal society, the values and priorities of the family should be connected with and grounded in the values and priorities of the whole society. That's to say, what you expected to happen in the family should be nourished by and shaped by what a whole society believed in. And surely one of the difficulties we have at the moment is that there is quite a gulf here. We can't take it for granted that we're in a cultural and social environment where what is needed for family stability and welfare has the priority we'd like it to have.

Now I'm not here to suggest practical solutions to that immediately – but just to point up the problem. We need – not just locally, but nationally – a set of commitments, about the priority of stability, about the need for that kind of security. We need affirmations of the family that are not simply an unthinking defence of "family values", whatever exactly that means, but are rooted in a very specific sense of the need for a stable background precisely to let people grow creatively.

And if there is a congruence between what society at large thinks about this and what families really need, then we can expect greater health, in every sense of the word health, in our society.

Now, it's the making of those connections which is exciting about this course and those who've been involved have already borne very eloquent testimony to what this looks like, and have shown how the making of those connections runs out in all sorts of different directions, into issues about prisoners, issues about housing, issues about the care of teenagers. And I note also the way in which what's been said takes for granted that young people need to take their own responsibility, and be given a voice and a part in deciding their own priorities, their own needs. That's hugely important here. And with that reference to young people in mind, perhaps I can just say a little bit about what I'm going to be doing for the rest of today.

Today is clearly designated as a sort of "community day" – here I am for the morning listening and sharing with you about a vision that has to do with community, and children and young people and community, and when I go back to London I'm going to spend this afternoon with a number of projects under the umbrella of "Soul in the City". This is a mission to London, conducted by several thousand young people. It happened in Manchester a couple of years ago, very impressively. Young people from churches all round the country come in for a period to a city and grapple with immediate local problems and needs. That's to say, they'll go into decayed premises and work for their renovation. They'll work with local children providing clubs and activities for them. They will, in short, show that it's perfectly possible for young people to take the kind of responsibility for their environment and their society that we hope they will. And one reason I am wearing my third-best clerical shirt this morning is that I shall be this afternoon helping out with various projects which are not "Sunday clothes" in their style. I think I shall have to wield a paintbrush at some stage this afternoon, in the stairwell of some council flats in South London.

Now, Soul in the City is a very different enterprise from what we are talking about this morning, but I think you'll see the connections. People engage in the Soul in the City projects because they have an integral and integrated view of human needs. They understand about the need to look after, provide activity and inspiration for children and teenagers, they understand about the need to grapple with a decaying physical environment. They understand that the morale of a community has a huge amount to do with whether its physical environment looks loved and valued. And there's a great issue for many of our cities, I think. We've often assumed that that is, perhaps, a matter for second thoughts. But I think we all know, if we've listened, we all know that people who live in degenerating physical environments have low self-worth very often, because they look around and they say this is not a place that anybody loves. And if I live here, am I somebody that anybody loves?

So, this afternoon, that'll be what I'll be doing. And I look forward very much to it, though with some trepidation, especially the bit at the end of the programme that "Archbishop talks for three minutes to primary schoolchildren".

But it is indeed very much a "community day", because as one or two of you may be aware, today is the day that the Church of England commemorates William Wilberforce – to my mind the greatest single Englishman of the last 500 years, perhaps more. A man who made more difference to the world than anyone else this country has produced, I would say, quite simply because of his leadership in the campaign against slavery.

At first, almost single-handedly, William Wilberforce began an unwelcome, unfashionable campaign, in and out of Parliament, addressing a major human evil. He was pushing against both a set of fixed cultural assumptions and a set of rooted economic advantages. And with a force which seems in retrospect almost miraculous, he lived to see the abolition of slavery within the British Empire. But he and his circle, the Clapham sect – devoted evangelical Christians with a keen sense of social need and injustice – he and his circle established a kind of tone, a kind of atmosphere, in which it became more and more impossible to ignore crying social evils. It is out of that background that there come the great 19th-century struggles against child labour, for example; the attempts to deal with the appalling effects of prostitution in Victorian cities; and the really sacrificial and imaginative work done by people to tackle the disease, the poverty and the violence endemic in that world.

Wilberforce and his friends were a small group with a large vision. They were people who made connections. A friend of mine is currently writing a book under the title The Clapham Connection about all of this work and this vision.

Making connections, keeping the overview. Seeing voluntary and community work as more than just what I called a series of enterprises in firefighting – this is what is positive about what we are celebrating this morning. This is what I would say every town, every city, deeply needs, in order to work as a genuine human community. A picture of human value, and human good. A sense that work for the needy must never be fragmented and competitive, but must always be co-operative, imaginative, comprehensive.

So it's with a great sense of gratitude and appreciation that I come to share this morning with you. I think what's being done here is exemplary. I would love to see more of it around, and I believe that the resources that there are in communities for this kind of co-operation are almost always greater than we imagine.

Open the door an inch, and people will come rushing through, it seems.

And it's wonderful to know of the response there's been to Barbara's initiative and all that's gone with it.

I won't take up more of your time, but I'll simply wish you every blessing in this work. I hope that in this work also the local churches will continue to play the part that they have played, for the simple reason that churches, whether they like it or not – sometimes they don't – are well-placed to take the overview and make the connections. And if they can't do it, I don't know who can. And in an environment where not everybody is very keen to have a comprehensive view of what human beings are about, it's really quite important for people who believe human beings are made in the image of God to say that, and work out the consequences.

So, thank you for having me. Thank you for sharing what you have with me. I look forward to further discussion, and I look forward to hearing further about the great things that I know you will be doing here.

Thank you.

© Rowan Williams 2004

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