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The Nicholas Hinton Lecture - National Council for Voluntary Organisations

Wednesday 17th November 2004

A lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, given at the AGM of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations

The outcome of the US election has caused some heart-searching amongst the Left in Britain. Last week, William Davies of the Institute for Public Policy Research asked, in the New Statesman, whether the result suggested that the liberal or progressive elements in the US had underestimated the importance of 'religious, ideological or emotional commitment' in shaping political decisions. The Democrats, he said, had relied on a notion of political reason - a rational progressive agenda which all people of good will were more or less bound to agree with. Those who voted for George Bush were not necessarily all representatives of the extreme religious right, but were largely people who felt alienated from the assumption that there could be one impersonal and general picture of where we had come from and where we ought to be going, a picture that left out commitments to those things, including religious allegiance, that actually moulded their identity.

I'm not sure whether this analysis is completely correct. Some - including Shirley Williams, writing in the Tablet - have been a lot more sceptical about the role played by religious or moral concerns, and have seen the election as being fought on a small number of carefully honed issues about trustworthiness defined by hyper-active propaganda machines. We shouldn't underrate the fact that many voters apparently agreed that Senator Kerry had done well in debate, yet still refused to trust him on national security because of the overwhelming force behind the story of a successful war against terror conducted by President Bush. Yet the significance of that wider and more nebulous range of questions and of the sense of fear that a secular elite might be taking over is real enough as one factor among others. And it has something to do with those issues around 'social capital' which this organisation has made its focus.

Davies, building on the well-known work of Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone, is aware of two crucial facts. First: social health, a participatory, critical, innovative society, depends on social capital, on institutions which give a fairly immediate feeling of making a difference and which engage promptly and effectively with problems that national and international institutions seem to engage with only slowly. This is not, notice, only about local politics; it includes phenomena like Live Aid and Children in Need and its Red Nose Day. Second: these networks and organisations frequently (though not by any means always) have their foundation in and are supported by groups with an ideological or religious or moral axe to grind - that is groups with a strong conviction about what is owed to human beings and the urgency of honouring this. If you hold a position that enjoins radical respect for all individual human beings, your sense of urgency is likely to be stronger than if you simply have a conviction about the rights of 'humanity'. Community and voluntary organisations tend to arise from some such feeling of immediate imperatives arising from this sort of respect.

Many things, of course, apart from strong religious or ideological conviction generate such a feeling. As we all know, a simple sense of loyalty to a locality and its people is of great significance in generating action: this is the level of the grass roots campaign against a new flyover or an out-of-town supermarket or a bank closure. And as we know it is a double-edged matter, tending to Nimbyism and narrow focus at worst. But its roots are in a valuing, a respect, for what's there in front of your eyes in a community or locality. Sometimes the feelings can be generated by a particular local tragedy: a child dies from a rare disorder, or is abused and killed, and a community rallies around fundraising for medical care or new levels of 'neighbourhood watch' vigilance. This is about there being an identifiable face for a problem, a face recognised as one of your own. And of course initiatives like Live Aid (whose twentieth anniversary is coming up next year) are normally stirred by reports that give a human face to statistics - literally by showing the faces of suffering to us, unavoidable and immediate as our physical neighbours. But, when all has been said and done about such roots for motivation, it is still true that for a sustained commitment to these immediate calls, a response that doesn't depend on the fashion of the moment or the simple intensity of the emotion, broad conviction is a considerable help.

But whether we are talking about a religious passion for the image of God in human beings or about a highly emotive local campaign connected with local stories and faces, it remains true that motivation such as this is never going to be overtaken by general concerns for public welfare or even the greatest good of the greatest number. This is the level of motivation that lies beneath the surface of most voluntary work. And from the point of view both of government and of the rational progressive, the trouble is that it can be chaotic, unfair and contradictory. Classically, the Left has been unhappy with too much being relegated to the voluntary sector, because of these dangers, and because there are needs and sufferings which will never have the kind of popular appeal that can guarantee proper resources. There is also a strong and not unfounded suspicion that government is always eager to contract its business out to volunteers, to save money and administrative time - in a way that can leave essential services vulnerable to the ups and downs of volunteer enthusiasm, local interest or capacity for fundraising and other unplannable factors.

Hence the complexity in the last couple of decades of the rapprochement between the voluntary/community sector and statutory organisations - and the continuing awkwardness at times of the relation between defenders of the voluntary principle and the mainstream of 'progressive' thinking. From the latter point of view, it seems too easy to associate the voluntary with an ideology of maximal choice, in a way that could collude with a programme to roll back the frontiers of the state. We need to do some thinking around several issues here. Let me suggest three questions arising from the discussion so far -

Given that communities of strong conviction are often among the most important supporters of creative voluntary work, how do we guard against the sectarian or exclusivist dangers that are obviously around?
How does the state support without swamping the priorities of voluntary and community groups?
How do voluntary and statutory groups in an area sort out their shared concerns so as not to be in damaging competition?

I'll come back to how these might be practically addressed. But it helps in answering such questions to take for granted that there are means by which we can overcome the problem of seeing voluntary and statutory as representing rival philosophies. If I were trying to be systematic, I'd be inclined to say something like this. What I have called 'radical respect' is something that does not arise just by legal enactments or philosophical generalisations. Statutory provision and legal support create an environment in which respect is enshrined; but the motivation always comes from a more personal, interactive level, whether local or relational or both, from a situation of greater immediacy. The experience of state socialism in Eastern Europe and elsewhere has made it painfully obvious that motivation for co-operative work cannot be imposed at a level that is remote from people actual working lives and personal concerns. But equally a culture of respect that is ignored or undermined by public institutional indifference is at risk. We have seen in recent decades, especially the late eighties, a situation in which there was a strong belief that if government withdrew from a broadly welfarist approach, local and 'community' resources would swing into action to fill the gap. I have only to mention the slogan 'care in the community' to remind you how hollow that assumption was. The intermediate communities of co-operative work and welfare suffered because the message given from government seemed to be that moral duties were owed to the state and the family and nothing much in between.

So there is a mutuality that has to be realised here. Statutory policy must not be a shifting of every public or communal burden on to the voluntary (the basic principle of additionality is fundamentally important), but the creation of an environment in which action for shared welfare is assumed to be something that is endorsed and supported at every level of a society. When St Augustine said that the household should learn its moral priorities from the civic order, he wasn't recommending a Soviet style of homogenised, centralised command, but saying simply that what is done locally and directly needs to be informed and shaped by a common social vision. When the latter is weak, you can't take it for granted that tings will just naturally be all right at household and local level. Which is why, incidentally, some of us have such deep anxieties about the proposed gambling legislation: if public authority is seen to collude with exploitative and addictive patterns of behaviour and to be shaping policy not for communal good but for the interests of powerful financial concerns, a message is bound to be heard, intended or not. We can't assume that it will not impact upon local and family life.

But that's not my main focus at present. I've indicated some of the ways in which a confused and opportunistic public culture can damage local vision and motivation; let me turn this around to add some thoughts about the significance of the motivations of the voluntary sector for a healthy political culture overall. My suggestion is that what matters about the whole world of voluntary and community organisation is that it nurtures not only a culture of respect but a culture of self-respect. The person who becomes involved in this sort of organisation is someone who has come to believe that they are capable of making a difference. But we need to go a bit further - which is why I am a little cautious about moving too quickly to the language of 'empowerment'. It is important to believe that a difference can be made; it is equally important to keep hold of a sense of the worthwhileness of action and witness even when power actually to effect the changes desired eludes you - when you fail.

A lot of the rhetoric we are familiar with today, especially the sort of thing aimed, deliberately or thoughtlessly, at the young, suggests that everyone is capable of achieving their goals and making the difference they want to make in their own circumstances or those of others. Very often, I'd feel less uneasy if people, not least the young, were urged to commit themselves not to the possibility of achieving a dream but to having the kind of vision (dream, if you must) that sustains you even when it is hard to realise. Otherwise the risk is of cynicism on the one hand and fantasy on the other: or indeed a mixture of the two. And however this works out, the effect is the opposite of giving 'power'.

Which is why I prefer to talk of self-respect. What matters is not suddenly feeling an access of power to change, but acquiring a sense that you have made yourself responsible for how you see the world; that you have acquired a perspective of freedom, a perspective from which you can view the priorities and the myths of society critically. You know you don't have to take for granted all you are told about what is obvious, what is right and what is possible. You are able to take at least some actions that embody your convictions. You have found a place to stand and have become the subject of your moral life.

Respecting yourself in this context has nothing much to do with being able to enforce 'respect' because you are successful; it is about being able to question yourself about where you stand and bear your own critical scrutiny - not with self-satisfaction, as if the mere fact of taking a stand had been a success or a transformation of the situation, but with a sense of having some ownership of your moral life. This can of course be another rather ambivalent matter. We all know people who cling to causes to bolster a sense of their worth in a way that does nothing for the cause itself. But if a person's commitment is rooted in a serious vision of reality outside their own anxious or dysfunctional selves, they are able to have a perspective in their own lives that is essentially healthy - oriented towards something other than a private agenda, capable of self-criticism and so on.

We should be familiar in all sorts of different contexts with the way in which taking responsibility is a vital component in self-respect. I have spent time this afternoon with people involved in Kids' Company, a South London based group working with children from a variety of disadvantaged and dysfunctional backgrounds. They are currently mounting an exhibition at the Tate Modern, on the theme of 'Shrinking Childhood', which attempts to introduce you to the reality of the unprotected life of vulnerable children who have no effective carers, and have had to learn, with the help of the charity, to access help for themselves. It is entirely based on the testimony, the artwork and the planning of over 1,000 children who have been involved with Kids' Company; and so it represents in a twofold way the point about self-respect. The children involved here have been enabled to make decisions about where and how to seek help; they have taken responsibility for wanting a human and bearable future. And they have also taken responsibility for presenting their experience and advocating change. They have found a language in which they can share what they have endured and plead against it happening to others. They have in effect become agents within the work of a voluntary organisation as well as benefiting from it.

It is a very rare and special organisation that so directly draws its 'clients' into advocacy quite like this (though such a pattern is by no means unique); but it is a dramatic illustration of what it can mean, in some very extreme situations, to have the landscape changed by coming to 'own' both your suffering and your vision. The children with whom Kids' Company has worked have discovered self-respect - not in some magical way that removes their real problems, inner and outer, not in a way that guarantees them a clear path out of the huge complex of issues that imprisons them, but in the sense that they can bring their experience out in word and image in such a way that they can take it seriously - can see it and grieve over it and recognise what is terrible about it - and expect other people to take it seriously. They have become able to speak with themselves and with others.

I believe that this is the heart of self-respect; and the things that militate against it in our society are numerous. While we are encouraged to express our feelings and to cultivate self-esteem, this often means no more than the releasing of unprocessed, not-understood emotion and a stubborn belief that comfort and success are owed to you. Self-esteem and self-respect are, I'd argue, significantly different. Cynicism about the political process, about politicians and their journalistic interpreters, nurtures a low expectation of anyone (including yourself) showing integrity, plus a deep feeling of powerlessness and a sort of despair of any claim to be talking in a morally serious way. And people will pick up, from the entertainment industry, the lightly hidden assumption that they are capable only of being titillated and distracted. Restoring a sense of how to take yourself and others seriously against such a background is a long and tough job. But on it depends, I believe, any kind of lively social and political language and action.

So to the degree that the community and voluntary world enables this seriousness, it is a necessary part of social health - not a substitute for statutory provision, nor an optional, hobby-like concern, but a local and tangible foundation for what I elsewhere called a healthily argumentative democracy. The groups represented here have an irreplaceable role in generating motivation that is both based on and issues in self-respect - and so in creating the material for a participatory society. I suspect that only a society in which self-respect is fundamental can actually be a moral society; certainly its absence means (think of the old Soviet Union again) a less than moral order, a gulf between language and action, hope and reality. For the state to support and even appropriately subsidise (without 'buying') voluntary engagement is for it to invest in its own corporate honesty and dignity.

But we have to return at this point to some of the unease expressed earlier. The worries of the liberal media, mentioned at the beginning of this lecture are really about whether a robust, morally grounded set of civic society institutions, providing 'social capital' can avoid mortgaging public life to a range of irrational convictions and allegiances (such as religion). Does this not threaten to produce an over-moralised society, in which the powerful but sectarian motivation of particular groups distorts the balance of society or, worse, heralds ideological wars between strongly motivated interests. One obvious point can be made - and indeed has been made in the context specifically of faith-based education. It is that involvement by ideologically powerful groups in the public process of a society is likely to qualify any extreme positions. If you have to argue your case and negotiate in the public realm, you are obliged to work with the standards and assumptions of people who don't share your convictions; and this can (challengingly) extend the conversation on both sides. So I don't think that a voluntary sector with strong faith representation is necessarily a tool of fundamentalist repression. Even in the USA, the vocal presence of a right-leaning resource of social capital should not blind us to a range of other activities that have religious bases - things like the house-building programme, 'Habitat for Humanity', which enables people literally and physically to build their own new homes in areas of deprivation, with some basic financial support.

But a somewhat longer answer to the anxieties in question is found as we try to resolve some of the issues sketched earlier, especially the three concerns noted about the proper relation between voluntary and statutory. The report of February this year about the independence of the voluntary sector notes a need for 'the sector to accept a degree of collective responsibility for its actions' (p.40). This suggests that there is a need for 'brokerage' of concerns and priorities between diverse VCO's and between the sector and statutory bodies that is a bit more robust and informed than it sometimes is at present. We need regional and community strategies, orchestrated by agents or bodies that have no competitive interest; it is a role that the Church and its leadership can play (and have played) very effectively in some situations (for example in the work of some local Employment Forums, or even in discussions around the scope of regional government), without any suggestion that a sectarian agenda is being forwarded.

In such an overall context, it should be much harder to take for granted that, for instance, definitions of priorities set by statutory and centralised bodies ought to take precedence. To refer once again to Ann Blackmore's report, VCO's are in a position to show that their support networks, accountability, record of delivery or whatever point to their taking a primary not a secondary role in certain matters, not wholly regulated in detail by governmental and statutory mechanisms. 'The sector fails to recognise the value of its intellectual property', says the report (ibid.), and this points to the desirability of careful and well-brokered negotiation in specific contexts to determine how partnerships work and who leads.

The second and third of the questions I outlined earlier, to do with the particulars of negotiating between voluntary bodies and others, have an answer of sorts in the formation of structures in a locality that can act as 'clearing houses' for the recognition of concerns and for their prioritising. I suspect that part of what government can do to avoid either takeover or competition is to facilitate this kind of forum; and it may well be important to recognise that communities of faith can have a unique role in assisting such a process, because they have less to do in assuring trust. Of course this is not true in some areas; and there are situations where it may not be clear which religious community can help and deliver. I'd like to think that the network of local Christian-Muslim forums which are currently being set up might be a resource here (as some of the local Councils of Christians and Jews already are).

But we are left with the difficult first question. Are we admitting a Trojan Horse in encouraging faith communities to play so active a part in the voluntary sector? Even granted that a lot of particular people's motivation may owe a great deal to faith commitment, is it really a good idea to involve communal structures? We are all rightly sensitive to the risks of provoking inter-community tensions; but many are equally afraid of an inter-faith coalition pushing a socially conservative agenda (on abortion or sexuality or gender roles) in a way that is dangerous to what may be a numerically stronger but more weakly motivated proportion of the population. Once again, we need to appeal to mechanisms not of control but of brokerage; to processes that identify specific needs and skills and how to match them, and to clarify what is and isn't achievable by partnership. As I noted earlier, if we want to avoid repressive interference on the basis of beliefs not universally shared, or a standoff between rival militant ideologies or faiths, our best strategy is engagement, drawing people and groups into a position where they genuinely feel they have a stake in co-operation, consulting and negotiating - rather than trying to pretend that the contribution of communities of belief to the public good can be ignored. And if this sounds like an appeal to some statutory bodies to look again at their practice as regards concrete support for faith-related voluntary initiatives, that is because it is. I have seen too many carefully structured and non-manipulative programmes for children's welfare in particular treated as inadmissible for public/statutory support because of a 'faith' basis. As I have already said, I don't think we have to assume that the involvement of religious groups in the sector is selling the pass to fundamentalism; isolating religious groups and refusing to harness the motivation they can bring is a recipe for resentment and rivalry, and ultimately runs a higher risk of fostering extreme positions.

But I want to end by returning to the most important positive point. Healthy and morally robust societies don't happen by accident, by default, or by official decree. They happen when people are aware of the dignity, the complexity and the challenge of human living - which entails 'radical respect' for self and others, taking yourself seriously as a person who is capable, if not of changing external circumstances in just the way you'd want, then at least of changing the imaginative landscape by witnessing to values and visions. Part of that changing the landscape involves action that embodies attitudes other than those reinforced by convention and convenience: Desmond Tutu has often said that his world was changed the first time he saw a white man raising his hat to a black woman (the man being Trevor Huddleston, the woman being Desmond Tutu's mother). But translated into organisational terms, a good deal of the work of VCO's is about making effective gestures of respect, in the hope of changing how the world looks in the long run. Both the patience to go on with such gestures even when the macro-social organisations do not change, and the passion that makes respect an imperative need deep roots. They need some sort of faith, some sense of relationships that carry responsibilities beyond just the everyday and pragmatic: some faint echo at least of that reverence which the believer feels is due to another person as God's work and God's image. To recognise the role of religious commitment in the motivation of moral community is not to return to theocracy, but to do justice to what actually fuels human self-respect and respect for others. We can build little indeed without it.

© Rowan Williams 2004

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