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Faithful Untidiness: Christian Social Action in a British City

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AbstractContemporary debates about faith and volunteering raise questions about the relationship between, on the one hand, claims from theological ethics about the sources and forms of Christian action in the world and, on the other hand, claims and assumptions in policy discourse about why people of faith undertake voluntary work. Using findings from a small-scale study of volunteers in a Christian social action organization in the UK, we argue that a narrative- and community-focused theological ethics can offer an important corrective to oversimplified accounts of volunteer motivation, but that it needs to give a theological account of the multiple overlapping narratives and communities that form ethical character, and also of the gratuitous and ‘extraordinary’ nature of voluntary action. In dialogue with Paul Cloke, Nicholas Adams and Charles Elliott, Luke Bretherton and others, we propose ‘sustained untidiness’ as a starting-point for theological descriptions of Christian social action in a multi-faith and secular society.

1. FN0*) The authors acknowledge with gratitude the constructive comments of two anonymous reviewers for IJPT on an earlier version of this article, and subsequent discussions with the editor.
2. FN11) For a recent example see Department for Communities and Local Government, ‘Ministers Talk Big Society with Faith Leaders’, <> [accessed 23 December 2010].
3. FN22) For US examples, see Robert Wuthnow, Virginia Hodgkinson and associates, Faith and Philanthropy: Exploring the Role of Religion in America’s Voluntary Sector (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990); John Wilson and Thomas Janoski, ‘The Contribution of Religion to Volunteer Work’, Sociology of Religion, 56:1 (1995), 137–52; Jerry Z. Park and Christian Smith, ‘To Whom Much Has Been Given: Religious Capital and Voluntarism Among Churchgoing Protestants’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 39:3 (2000), 272–86; J. L. Perry, J. L. Brudney, D. Coursey and L. Littlepage, ‘What Drives Morally Committed Citizens? A Study of the Antecedents of Public Service Motivation’, Public Administration Review, 68:3 (2008), 445–58. For European examples, see A. B. Yeung, ‘An Intricate Triangle—Religiosity, Volunteering and Social Capital: The European Perspective, the Case of Finland’, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 33:3 (2004), 401–22; K. Stromsnes, ‘The Importance of Church Attendance and Membership of Religious Voluntary Organisations for the Formation of Social Capital’, Social Compass, 55:4 (2008), 478–96.
4. FN33) Robert Putnam, ‘Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital’, Journal of Democracy, 6 (1995), 65–78.
5. FN44) James L. Perry, ‘Measuring Public Service Motivation: An Assessment of Construct Reliability and Validity’, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 6:1 (1996), 5–22.
6. FN55) See Priya Lukka and Michael Locke with Andri Sorteri-Proctor, Faith and Voluntary Action: Community, Values and Resources (London: Volunteering England, 2003); Robert Furbey, Adam Dinham, Richard Farnell, Doreen Finneron and Guy Wilkinson with Catherine Howarth, Dilwar Hussain and Sharon Palmer, Faith and Social Capital (York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2006) and Véronique Jochum, Belinda Pratten and Karl Wilding, eds, Faith and Voluntary Action: An Overview of Current Evidence and Debates (London: National Council of Voluntary Organisations, 2007). See also Stacey Burlet and Helen Reid, ‘Faith in Our Future: People of Faith, Social Action and the City of Leeds’, Theology and Religious Studies, University of Leeds, 1998 and Stacey Burlet and Helen Reid, ‘The Social and Political Implications of Lay Activism: A Case Study of Christian Social Action in Leeds’, Religion, State and Society, 27: 1 (1999), 47–57.
7. FN66) Greg Smith, ‘An Agenda for Researching Faith and Volunteering’, paper for research conference on voluntary action, Manchester, 1–2 March 2010, <> [accessed 23 December 2010]. See also Michael Locke, ‘Faith as a Motivation for Voluntary Action’, in Jochum et al., eds, Faith and Voluntary Action, pp. 29–34.
8. FN77) On the empirical testability of the claims of theological ethics, following the turn to community and narrative described below, see Robin Gill, Churchgoing and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). We, however, share Scharen’s concern that Gill’s use of large-scale quantitative data misses ‘the way real communities of faith are Christian’ (Christian Baldaten Scharen, “ ‘Judicious narratives’, or ethnography as ecclesiology”, Scottish Journal of Theology, 58:2 (2005), 125–42 at 129).
9. FN88) We gratefully acknowledge our enormous debt to our partner organization, St George’s Crypt; in particular, to our interviewees and to the Crypt staff (including Martin Patterson, Steve Dye and Tara McMillan), and also the support of Tess Hornsby Smith. The study was funded by donations from alumni of the University of Leeds. Transcripts of the interviews are held by Rachel Muers at the University of Leeds. Interviewees are referred to in the text by code letters.
10. FN99) See <> [accessed 23 December 2010] for full accounts of the Crypt’s history and current work.
11. FN1010) Paul Cloke, Jon May and Sarah Johnsen, Swept Up Lives? Re-envisioning the Homeless City (Oxford: Blackwell, 2010). See also Paul Cloke, Sarah Johnsen and Jon May, ‘Ethical Citizenship? Volunteers and the Ethics of Providing Service to Homeless People’, Geoforum, 38 (2007), 1089–1101.
12. FN1111) John Reader, Blurred Encounters: A Reasoned Practice of Faith (St Bride’s Major: Aureus, 2005). See also Elaine Graham and Stephen Lowe, What Makes a Good City?: Public Theology and the Urban Church (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2009), which draws extensively on Lowe’s work as Bishop for Urban Life and Faith.
13. FN1212) Our initial decision not to include non-Christian volunteers on principle was partly triggered by the requirement, at ethical review, to justify any selection of participants on grounds of religion (among other criteria). We could, of course, have made a case at that stage for limiting our study to Christian volunteers, but we saw no overriding reason for doing so.
14. FN1313) Nicholas Adams and Charles Elliott, ‘Ethnography is Dogmatics: Making Description Central to Systematic Theology’, Scottish Journal of Theology, 53 (2000), 339–64.
15. FN1414) Burlet and Reid note that ‘the laity is formulating and acting on its own theology which it constructs, or reconstructs, in urban environments’ (Burlet and Reid, ‘Social and Political Implications of Lay Activism’, 47).
16. FN1515) The best-known proponent of this approach is Stanley Hauerwas, and it is exemplified in the major collection of pieces edited by Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006). See also David S. Cunningham, Christian Ethics: The End of the Law (London: Routledge, 2008), which takes this approach as the starting-point for introducing ‘Christian ethics’ to an undergraduate audience.
17. FN1616) See James Fodor, ‘Postliberal Theology’, in David F. Ford with Rachel Muers eds, The Modern Theologians, 3rd edn (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).
18. FN1717) Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).
19. FN1818) See Charles Mathewes, A Theology of Public Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
20. FN1919) ‘Excerpts from farewell comments by PM David Cameron and Pope Benedict’, 19 September 2010, <> [accessed 23 December 2010].
21. FN2020) FaithWorks, ‘Who we are’, <> [accessed 23 December 2010].
22. FN2121) ‘Faith does not appear to be a motivating factor in the same way that—simplistically—wages might be regarded as a motivating factor for paid workers’ (Locke, ‘Faith as Motivation for Voluntary Action’, 33).
23. FN2222) From a policy point of view, it is noteworthy that questions of the ‘faith’ of individual volunteers were given a relatively low priority in the conclusions to Jochum et al., eds, Faith and Voluntary Action, despite being discussed at some length by Locke, ‘Faith as a Motivation for Voluntary Action’. It is often easier, for practical reasons, to approach ‘faith and voluntary action’ at an institutional and organizational level. We would contend, taking up the suggestions of Smith and Locke, that this risks oversimplification.
24. FN2323) On the church as complex public space, see Rosemary P. Carbine, ‘Ekklesial Work: Towards a Feminist Public Theology’, Harvard Theological Review, 99:4 (2006), 433–55.
25. FN2424) See Locke, ‘Faith as Motivation for Voluntary Action’, 30.
26. FN2525) Perry et al., ‘What drives morally committed citizens?’.
27. FN2626) Cloke et al., ‘Ethical Citizenship?’, 1098.
28. FN2727) Adams and Elliott, ‘Ethnography is Dogmatics’, 358.
29. FN2828) This is the case, for example, with the practices discussed in Miroslav Volf and Dorothy Bass, eds, Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), and with many of the case studies used by contributors to Hauerwas and Wells, eds, Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics. Song, for example, closely links his discussion of ‘fair trade’ food to the role of ‘Christian organisations’ and churches in promoting fair trade (Song, ‘Sharing Communion: Hunger, Food and Genetically Modified Food’, in Hauerwas and Wells, eds, Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, pp. 388–400).
30. FN2929) See Smith, ‘An Agenda’; Cloke et al., Swept-Up Lives?, p. 252.
31. FN3030) ‘The sociology of English religion has generally not been one of the gathered remnant, but of overlapping affinities between parish and people’ (Graham and Lowe, What Makes a Good City?, p. 17).
32. FN3131) For example, some uses of the term ‘postsecular’ to describe the contemporary landscape of voluntary action carry, implicitly or explicitly, the assumption that there was a ‘secular’ age. See Cloke et al., Swept-Up Lives?, pp. 47–50; see also Arie L. Molendijk, Justin Beaumont and Christoph Jedan, eds, Exploring the Postsecular: The Religious, the Political and the Urban (Leiden: Brill, 2010).
33. FN3232) Luke Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), p. 222, n. 8.
34. FN3333) In relation to ‘faith and public life’, it has been noted, for example, that the modus operandi of faith communities is ‘often more informal and tolerant of ‘messiness’ and contingency than more ‘orderly’ official programmes’, and that this can cause problems in interactions with public bodies (Furbey, et al., Faith and Social Capital, 53).
35. FN3434) Christopher Baker, The Hybrid Church in the City: Third Space Thinking (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).
36. FN3535) See for example Christine Pohl, Making Room: The Recovery of Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999); Luke Bretherton, Hospitality as Holiness: Christian Witness Amid Moral Diversity (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009); George Newlands and Allen Smith, Hospitable God: The Transformative Dream (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010).
37. FN3636) Kathryn Tanner, ‘Theological Reflection and Christian Practice’, in Miroslav Volf and Dorothy Bass, eds, Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), pp. 228–42.
38. FN3737) Cloke et al., ‘Ethical Citizenship?’.
39. FN3838) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 6), trans. Reinhard Krauss (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), p. 53.
40. FN3939) The locus classicus for Christological ‘hybridity’ is Kwok Pui-Lan, Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005). See also Frances Ward, ‘Theological Strand—Power’, in Helen Cameron, Philip Richter and Douglas Davies, eds, Studying Local Churches: A Handbook (London: SCM, 2005), pp. 221–33, and see the discussion of Kwok in Baker, The Hybrid Church, pp. 146–7.

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