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Monday, 20 June 2011

Is there a Future for Community?

“Is there a Future for Community?” seems a provocative question. “Of course there is” would be the immediate reply of many but is this response grounded in evidence? This was the topic for a Council of Christians and Jews sponsored Seminar today at the Institute for Government with the Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks and Professor Robert Putnam, Harvard University; well known for his book “Bowling Alone”.

Hosted by Lord Adonis, former Government Minister and chaired by Daniel Johnson, Editor of Standpoint, it drew a high quality audience. Prof. Putnam introduced the key findings of his latest book “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us” (with David E. Campbell). He said that in the US religious people are “nicer” than secular; meaning that they give more, volunteer more and behave in more neighbourly ways. This seems a startling conclusion.

Apparently what denomination or faith groups you belong to does not make a difference; neither does the theology. What matters is frequency of engagement; going to Church or Synagogue or Mosque is therefore good for you! His work on the United Kingdom was already showing similar conclusions.

He also highlighted the dark side and emphasised that this must not be forgotten in any reporting of his work. Religious people can be somewhat intolerant of dissent and polarise opinion in public. This is counter-balanced on the ground in the US by the close inter-faith friendships that most people have in that very diverse nation.

Lord Sacks helpfully defined community; “Where they know who you are and miss you when you are not there”! These attributes were found in religious communities not Facebook or Twitter. Echoing Prof Putnam he rightly said that theology makes an interesting subject but religion makes a difference in the world by joining us to others.

Journalist, Matthew d’Ancona asked why this was so? There is as yet no answer and Prof Putnam is looking for the missing ingredient which ensures this is the case for religious groups and not other social movements or organisations.

Clearly the UK offers a very different picture to the US with (as with the rest of northern Europe) low levels of Church attendance. You should not therefore hope to build the “Big Society” by having a “revival” of religion. But what attributes are there to congregational life that provokes engagement with others; often outside the faith group to which you belong? I believe that Unitarian communities offer opportunities to engage with others on issues of meaning; there are few other spaces to do this in our busy world. So lets forget the secular-religion grandstanding and debate and focus on what brings us together across the various divides.


  1. Thoughtful post - thank you Derek. I do get slightly irritated by the underlying assumption that the Big Society does not already exist - at least in some places. Perhaps it's because I spend most of my life - working and non-working - within caring communities with people who are motivated to help their fellow human beings. These are not just comfortable neighbourhoods but also more disadvantaged ones. The thing that we have to do is invest time, expertise and money into those geographical areas where community cohesion is low - we cannot expect people to do things unaided - they may do so but we must not expect it. If we are to invest in the present and the future for areas which face major social difficulties then we need to do this professionally and not expect those living very difficult lives to not only make more for themselves and their families but also for their neighbours. Community work all but died in the early eighties to have a slight revival in the late nineties and early noughties - most, if not all, of the paid community work locally has now disappeared. This is not about the Big Society but the state investing in its poorest areas. As a faith community we need to regain our radical political stance and fight for the rights of our most disadvantaged people. Doing a bit of community work may help a bit but the issue is much bigger than that.

  2. Online communities can look after each other in a similar way to face-to-face ones (I have seen it happen - and I have also seen them fall apart due to the nature of email), but the mechanism of the way Facebook and Twitter work are not conducive to that (and they're probably not intended to be).

    I think it's better when online interaction supports or supplements real-life face-to-face interaction - where you're keeping in touch online with people you know in real life.

  3. Lord Sacks, Robert Putnam, Lord Adonis, Daniel Johnson, David E. Campbell (present by proxy), Matthew d’Ancona. Hmm, I sense a pattern. I check the website of the hosting organisation,, but can't see any better information. 2011, and an all-male line-up. In almost any context that single-gendered list of names would strike me as trying to fly using only one wing. But defining community? Discussing the Big Society? Talking about religion? Seriously lop-sided. On the other hand, if there was a woman on the panel, perhaps Derek or someone else could fill me in; there's surprisingly little on-line.