Special agenda IV diocesan synod motion faith, work and economic life

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"That this Synod:

a) affirms daily work as essentially a spiritual activity;

b) recognises the importance of Christian values within economic life;

c) requests the Mission and Public Affairs Council to examine the engagement of the Church of England with the economic sector in this country and to present its findings to Synod"

A Background Paper from the Mission and Public Affairs Council

  1. Introduction

    1. The Mission and Public Affairs Council welcomes this motion from the St Albans Diocesan Synod which highlights an important area of work within the Council’s remit. If passed, it offers the MPA Council an opportunity to evaluate its own engagement with the economic sector; to consider the impact of economic issues and working life on the Church’s mission; to work with colleagues in Christian adult education to consider how people can be equipped for discipleship at work, and to map the numerous activities in the wider Church which address the economic sector and people’s working lives.

    1. Because economic issues touch so many aspects of life and society, many recent Synod debates on public affairs have had an economic dimension. There have also been important debates on equipping the laity for mission and ministry which are relevant to this motion.

    1. Synod last addressed the Church’s structures for mission in the economy in July 1989 when it debated a report from the Board for Social Responsibility entitled, Church and Economy: Effective Industrial Mission for the 1990s – itself a follow-up to the BSR document, Industrial Mission: An Appraisal which was the report of a working party chaired by Bishop Peter Selby when he was Bishop of Kingston.

    1. In 1997, the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland, with significant Church of England input, published the major report Unemployment and the Future of Work which included a substantial amount of material on the nature and theology of work. The General Synod debated this report in July 1997. The report was produced by an ecumenical working party to which Mr Andrew Britton acted as Secretary, and it was followed up by a collection of essays developing further the theological implications.1

In the debate on Unemployment and the Future of Work, the motion before Synod included the clause: That this Synod ….

  1. re-affirm the Christian understanding of work as a sharing in God’s creativity, and a means to human flourishing and service to others.

    1. However, since those debates, the context has changed considerably. Whilst a paper of this nature cannot hope to do justice to all the factors which are changing the experience of work in society, below is a list of ten developments which represent both a deepening of long-standing trends and a number of new phenomena :

  1. Increasing inequality of reward between the top and bottom of the workforce, and the changes in the equation between risk and reward;

  2. Increased global migration, including the free movement of labour within the EU and the impact of East European migration to Britain;

  3. Continuing decline in manufacturing, mining and agricultural jobs and the rise of the service sector;

  4. The impact of regeneration programmes on the shape of local labour markets and jobs;

  5. Falling levels of unemployment from the mid-1990s to 2008 – and the unknown impact of the current economic downturn;

  6. The impact of the Minimum Wage, and the continuing numbers of vulnerable workers;

  7. The shift towards more entrepreneurial models and methods in the public and voluntary sectors;

  8. The impact of Information and Communications Technology on patterns of work and the shape of workplaces;

  9. Differing interpretations of “labour market flexibility”, ranging from casualisation and insecurity to family-friendly work practices and many other aspects of flexibility;

  10. “portfolio working” taking the place of “jobs for life”, or even “one job at a time”.

  1. What is “Work”?

    1. Studies of “work” often struggle with definitions in order to express the differing social roles of, for example, entrepreneurship, paid employment, structured volunteering, home-making and childcare. Any definition of work which does not, in some way, embrace all these activities is likely to be inadequate, yet the considerable differences between them militate against straightforward generalisations. All these activities are highly significant in the economy and all contribute profoundly to human well being.

    1. The location where work takes place is no more useful as a way of defining what is meant by “work”, since homeworking (paid employment carried out in a person’s home) is a major feature of the workforce in both the upper and lower remuneration brackets. A definition of “work” and “the workplace” is, perhaps, best approached in relational terms – times and places where people enter into relationships of obligation to each other in order to achieve shared goals which contribute to economic activity. But it needs to be recognised that definitions in this field are, at best, of limited usefulness.

    1. The Christian tradition has never been satisfied with understandings of work which are limited to economic activity in any narrow sense. Prayer and worship have often been understood as part of humanity’s proper work, just as work can be understood as part of humanity’s worship of God. This is important as it affirms the nature of prayer and worship as acts of giving as well as receiving. In contemporary culture, this is an important corrective to the consumeristic view that religion is merely about benefits for the participants. This places Christian views of work at odds with the predominant materialist, cultural understandings.

  1. Work as a Spiritual Activity

    1. One has only to look at the dis-spiriting aspects of unfulfilling or badly organised work to recognise the profoundly spiritual dimensions of the ways in which people work today. Good work – work which is good both in its ends and in its methods – not only contributes to the spiritual well-being of individuals but affects the relational and community dimensions of spiritual living.

    1. All economic activity, and all work, is relational. From the entrepreneur whose activity creates work for others, to the worker in manufacturing or the public sector, to the mother with children, the volunteer or the solitary who prays alone – all their work is, or can be, at an important level, directed to the good of others. The ends to which work is directed are therefore a reflection of the many ways, seen and unseen, in which the Spirit’s life finds expression in people’s relationships with one another.

    1. Christians will also find in their work an opportunity for discipleship. In the Bible we find work presented as both blessing and curse. Whilst there is no space here to offer a comprehensive theological approach to work, there are several important points we can briefly note.

    1. First, in Genesis, we see both that human labour for survival is one effect of the Fall, and that God’s work in the creation of the world is celebrated (and differentiated from rest on the seventh day). Second, in the gospels we see that God became incarnate in Jesus who was brought up in the home of a carpenter, and that He called His disciples from among the fishermen. We also see that the work of others, such as tax collectors and publicans, which was regarded as a source of shame, can nonetheless be redeemed. In the Gospels, many of Jesus’ parables are framed around the working lives of ordinary people.

    1. In these and other ways, the Biblical account tells us that human work both has the potential for enabling us to participate in the creative activity of God and, at the same time, that work is tainted by sin and can lead us away from God. This shows us that there is nothing inherently salvific – or damning – about human work: it is the purposes to which we direct it that give it ethical and spiritual value.

    1. The idea of vocation is often used to indicate an attitude to work which embraces the whole person and expresses, for Christians, the belief that one’s work is an expression of discipleship and enacting God’s will for the world. Whilst the term may be used specifically of vocations to ordained ministry or the religious life, ‘vocation’ is often used much more broadly of a calling to particular jobs or professions such as teaching or medicine. As a church we need to do more exploration of the uses of the word “vocation”. We also need to think through the implications for Christians and others who find their working lives to be at odds with their discipleship or impossible to square with a sense of God’s call.

    1. If human work has so much spiritual potential, it follows that badly ordered work can be profoundly spiritually destructive. In our own culture and worldwide there is a great deal of “bad work” which is either directed to unworthy ends or so poorly managed and regulated that people are harmed by it. This is not just a factor affecting the poor and vulnerable: the spiritual consequences of how work is ordered can be felt for good and for ill among all strata of the workforce.2

    1. Living Christian values at work is not always a straightforward enterprise. To begin with, there are important questions to explore about the ‘morality of the market’ - the tension between the frequently asserted ‘value-neutral’ nature of the free-market economy and the way in which, to function effectively, the market nonetheless requires “players” to exhibit moral qualities – particularly those of truth telling and keeping one’s word.

    1. Second, as Christians we seek to live lives in which all that we do is brought together under God’s dominion. We therefore face the continuing challenge of how to integrate our work with the rest of our lives, particularly given that the way much work is ordered today actually encourages people to compartmentalise their lives and become, almost literally, different people at work and in the home. However different the things we do in different compartments of life, Christians will strive for the greatest level of moral and spiritual integrity. We need more – and more specific – resources to support us in this aspect of discipleship.

  1. The Church and Economic Life

Nine-tenths of the work of the Church in the world is done by Christian people fulfilling responsibilities and performing tasks which in themselves are not part of the official system of the Church at all …” Archbishop William Temple in Christianity and Social Order, 1942.

    1. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, and the processes of urbanisation, the Church of England, and other denominations in Britain, have recognised working life as both an arena for mission and also as a problem for which established models of church life have not always been adequate. Just as the parish system came under immense strain from the growth of cities, the later tendency for work and domestic life to be geographically separated has brought new challenges to parochial understandings of church life.

    1. The parish system has, however, proved highly adaptable, and has, for over 150 years, been creatively supplemented by a series of mission initiatives directed to working life and economic structures. For example, in the 19 century the Navvy Missions broke the ground, along with the Missions to Seafarers.

    1. Later, in the mid-20thth Century, the Industrial Mission movement as created by Bishop Leslie Hunter and the Rev Ted Wickham in Sheffield, sought to reconnect with the working classes alienated from a Church which seemed to have mistaken middle class values for Christian virtues. The movement still continues, largely in chaplaincy and issue-based modes. In the 1960s a number of clergy consciously adopted the Worker Priest model, pioneered in France, often persisting in a lonely but prophetic ministry for the rest of their lives.3

    1. Today, in the first decade of the 21 century the missiology of Hunter and Wickham may perhaps be most clearly seen in those Fresh Expressions of Church which are consciously seeking to engage with sub cultures in which people feel the Church is “not for them”.

    1. Those mission initiatives do not stand alone. Many other church-related groups engage with work and economic life, both theologically and practically. Examples include the work of the William Temple Foundation in Manchester, the Ridley Hall Foundation in Cambridge, the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, and work at Douai Abbey. Within the CofE’s own structures the Mission and Public Affairs Division in the Archbishops’ Council maintains a strong interest in economic affairs and the ways in which they touch upon almost every aspect of the Division’s work, at home and abroad, in public life and in the church’s own mission priorities.

    1. The all-enveloping nature of economic affairs means that much church activity in this field takes place at all levels, under a variety of organisational “labels” – social responsibility teams, diocesan missioners, rural and urban affairs advisers, those working with local regeneration projects. All of these are dealing with the economy and its impact upon people and communities. So do innumerable parish clergy and lay ministers whose ministry takes them “under the skin” of the local community to understand and influence the economic factors which help shape the identity of a place and its people.

    1. We can thus see that ‘economic life’ is not the preserve of any one organisation or movement within the church but is part of the fabric of mission and ministry for us all. This variety is captured in a recent book drawing together a broad picture of the churches’ involvement in economic affairs through the 20stth Century and especially since the Second World War.4

    1. William Temple’s famous comment from Christianity and Social Order is as true today as ever. The work of the church on earth is indeed being taken forward, for the most part, through the faithful lives of its members seeking to live with integrity, including in their working lives. The social context has changed greatly since 1942, but that principle remains the same. Not that this is a reason for complacency. Nearly seventy years on from Temple’s comment, there is now an even greater need for the church to find ways to resource lay men and women to live faithfully in all the communities they inhabit – including economic communities and those of the workplace.

  1. Taking the Work Forward

    1. The St Albans motion calls upon the Mission and Public Affairs Division to examine the engagement of the Church of England with the economic sector in this country. To attempt to produce a comprehensive survey of every economic dimension to the Church’s mission and ministry would be a huge undertaking and, since economic issues touch on every aspect of the Church’s life in some way, of limited value. Moreover, an exhaustive survey of the changing economic context would not only involve an immense amount of work but would risk being out of date as soon as it was published. Even an evaluation of the points we have listed in 3.1 above would produce enough material for a long run of Synod debates.

    1. Rather than attempting a comprehensive survey, therefore, the Mission and Public Affairs Council believes that there are two specific and achievable pieces of work which would take up the concerns of the motion and be of real value to the Church’s mission and ministry. Moreover, these pieces of work can be done within existing budgetary provision.

    1. The first is to give further consideration to a theological understanding of work for today. The literature on theology and work is surprisingly thin and little of it relates clearly to contemporary patterns of work and all the diverse activities which fall under the definition of “work”.

    1. The Council therefore proposes to convene a symposium to take this forward. It would bring together theologians, economists, labour market analysts and people with differing work experiences, and draw on perspectives from different areas of church life. Its objective would be to produce a collection of writings which would add to the resources available for the Church in thinking about economic life. There have been a number of recent publications addressing theology and economics, but not with an explicit focus on work today.5 There is a gap here which an MPA-led project can profitably fill.

    1. The second piece of work MPA proposes is to examine, in conjunction with adult education and other specialists, the resources available for parishes and congregations to enable their members to be better supported in dealing faithfully with the questions and dilemmas which arise in their working lives.

    1. A number of studies have shown that many Christians feel unable to raise the moral issues of their work in the context of their church and that ministers and that lay people often feel ill-equipped to help people struggling with ethical matters from the workplace.6 We believe that this second piece of work we propose has the potential to offer some degree of remedy for that situation, both by drawing attention to resources that already exist and also by encouraging the creation of new materials to help make our churches “safe places” where the questions from work and economic life can be openly addressed and offered to God.

    1. Economic questions and issues from working life will not go away – indeed, it could be that a time of impending recession will give them a much higher profile. The MPA Council believes that an appropriate response to this important motion would be to undertake these two worthwhile, specific and achievable pieces of work and to report on them to Synod within the next five years.

Dr Philip Giddings

Chair of the MPA Council

May 2008

1 CCBI, Unemployment and the Future of Work: An Enquiry for the Churches, London: CCBI, 1997. Malcolm Brown and Peter Sedgwick (eds.) Putting Theology to Work: A Theological Symposium on Unemployment and the Future of Work, London: CCBI, 1998.

2 See, for example, Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character: the Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.

3 John Mantle, Britain’s First Worker Priests, London: SCM, 2000.

4 Malcolm Brown and Paul Ballard, The Church and Economic Life – A Documentary Study: 1945 to the Present, Peterborough: Epworth Press, 2006.

5 A good example of contemporary theological reflection on economics is: John Atherton and Hannah Skinner (eds.) Through the Eye of a Needle: Theological Conversations over Political Economy, Peterborough: Epworth Press, 2007.

6 See for example, Rachel Jenkins, Changing Times: Unchanging Values? Manchester: The William Temple Foundation, 1991.

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