Social Cohesion & The Nurturing Role of Chaplaincy
Social Cohesion as a desired outcome: At their best Churches are emblematic of an approach that views cohesion as a desirable outcome in its own right. Many of those who get involved in community and civic activities are usually motivated by their faith convictions in wanting to serve others such as volunteering in Food Banks and other outreach projects. Chaplaincy of course also forms part of this motivation. Very often policy makers react to an evolving crisis within our communities usually after things have started to go wrong and then seek solutions based on what they define as greater cohesion between them. However as with most crisis-driven approaches, it does not always take into account what the local community actually wants or needs. Working with Churches and other faith groups and organisations is something policy makers should do much earlier but to what end? While we may welcome earlier and closer involvement with policy makers and others of influence, we must also accept that there is still in some sectors, a hostility toward working with Churches providing delivery of community services which the report goes into in greater detail. What churches need to establish when they engage locally is what is actually needed before trying to establish the ‘correct’ course of action and to ensure policy makers take all the pertinent the issues raised fully onboard. This art of listening to people of all backgrounds and persuasions is one which for a Chaplain is sacrosanct. Very rarely is it though when we engage with those we minister to that things are always that black and white, the reality is they are often much more nuanced. Yet we continually engage with others on this basis and then liaise where appropriate all the while keeping those we seek to help at the forefront of what we do. While Churches quite rightly see greater social cohesion in their communities as their objective, it is also the case that they sometimes feel the need as they see it, to be seen to be doing something but without really knowing what. Sometimes doing nothing at this stage might be the best and wisest course. Either way, the first step is to listen intently in a non-judgmental way what those issues are, and then taking the collaborative approach with others to determine the best way forward.
Bridging and Bonding: A truly cohesive society is not one where everybody agrees, but one in which everyone feels they have a stake – and this requires bridging and bonding opportunities.
Bridging and bonding, arguably two of the most important capabilities we Chaplains must have in our lockers if we are to be able to give of ourselves to those we seek to serve. The terms bridging capital and bonding capital are frequently used when discussing community engagement or any kind of networking relationship.
Bridging and bonding are in my view two sides of the same coin. One cannot be separated from the other when we seek to reach out to others either in a Chaplaincy setting or as private individuals or corporately as local churches. While bridging is considered to be a more outgoing activity, reaching out to others, bonding is sometimes seen as being more inward looking, keeping things internally focused. As Chaplains we do the bridging bit first as a rule, the bonding comes later once we get to know people better and we find common ground, likes and dislikes etc. Churches also do this already in a variety of ways, sometimes ecumenically, sometimes culturally. The bridging bit is often the easier of the two, bonding is a process which cannot be rushed and may require more than one attempt to engage fully, something which has I’m sure happened to every chaplain on at least one occasion. Jesus did this with his disciples, firstly by reaching out and saying “follow me” to then bonding with them despite the odd difference of opinion along the way. Jesus’ ministry was very localised confined to specific places. Local churches like Chaplains also work to specific areas, so opportunities for bridging and bonding locally at first assume greater importance than ever before. In the words of the prophet Jeremiah 29:7-:
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
Engagement comes in many forms: How churches engage with others is marked by their authentic nature as churches. What makes positive interfaith engagement is not necessarily the same as what makes positive ecumenical work… or to put it another way; “Engagement comes in many forms; there is no one size fits all way of doing it”. The term Catholic in the Christian Creeds was meant to show a universal, apostolic church but was often marked by a rigid doctrine which forbade any and all engagement with those who were different even when we professed the same faith. In this increasingly secular age, churches like all faith groups have to be more flexible in their how they engage with the outside community they are part of. We simply cannot afford to take things for granted anymore. Like workplace Chaplains, churches’ engagement practices must be tailored to local circumstances and an awareness of difference must be taken into consideration at all times.
Social cohesion is about loving your neighbour as yourself as we stated above and like in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) your neighbour is the one with whom the Good Lord places before you whatever the circumstances. Social cohesion is also about inclusivity, but to do this successfully requires a great deal of effort across all the social and economic groups and one where Churches, other faith groups and secular groups can work together where a common interest exists.
The book itself is well worth reading for some of the specific examples of social cohesion it describes but I still feel that there is nothing really new that hasn’t been or isn’t being done already.
Chaplains already play their part in nurturing social cohesion particularly in multi-cultural and multi-faith workplaces. Such experiences should also be utilised within our churches as part of a wider engagement within our own local communities.
 Pennington, Church & Social Cohesion, pp.140-141
 Pennington, Church & Social Cohesion, p.143
 Pennington, Church & Social Cohesion, p.144