Faith in Social Care

This paper was delivered at the Social Care Association Annual Seminar in Cardiff on 11 March 2009, and is republished with SCA’s permission. Other papers from the Seminar, which focused on the theme of Faith in Social Care can be found on the SCA website: .

Thanks for invitation; it is great privilege to be asked to come and talk. Action for Children has a strong link with SCA, both in terms of individuals and also in terms of shared aspiration and vision. The timing to come was good – we also have a celebration this year. 140 years ago the Reverend Thomas Bowman Stephenson set up ministry in Lambeth, South East London, and so I have been researching our heritage and roots in preparation for this.

I am therefore going to spend a bit of time talking about the history and genesis of my organisation as context, before going on to say a bit about what faith in social care looks like to me in the early twenty first century and some of the challenges I think we must overcome if we are to stay relevant and true to our enduring values and mission.

John Wesley and Rev. Thomas Stephenson

So first, a short look backwards. As a Methodist, Stephenson was obviously greatly influenced by John Wesley’s thinking on rationality – “that good could be comprehended without revelation” – in other words that the emphasis was on works, not faith. Wesley believed that a Christian could be made “perfect in love” and that a believer’s motives would be guided by a deep desire to please God. This was captured in the idea of prevenient grace – personal salvation coming through faith rather than pre-destination. This was a real departure from earlier thinking and provided Methodists with a huge impetus to do and this was certainly true for Stephenson.

Stephenson was himself a son of the Manse from the North of England, raised with Wesley’s words ringing in his ears. He came to Lambeth from Newcastle in 1868 and was shocked by what he saw on arrival in London.

Stephenson was of his time – a Victorian in the late 19th century in an England where there were no public services provided for children other than the workhouse. Compulsory education for under-10-year-olds was two years away and free universal schooling was still twenty years away.

To quote him on his impression of the homeless children who confronted him, “Here were my poor brothers and sisters, sold to hunger and the devil. How could I be free of their blood if I did not try to save some of them? I began to feel that my time had come.”

The Children’s Home

In parallel, two Sunday School secretaries, Alfred Mager and Francis Horner, had been moved to do something about the plight of destitute homeless children in Southwark and approached Stephenson with an idea of developing a model lodging house for homeless children. Within a year of his arrival in London, Stephenson was sufficiently well known for Mager and Horner to consider that he would assist them with their not inconsiderable fundraising task

Within 3 months, George Oliver (who all his life signed himself G. Oliver Number 1) had moved in to 8 Church Street, Waterloo and the Children’s Home was born. From the beginning, the Children’s Home sought to be innovative and child-centred. Stephenson was very influenced when setting up the regime at Waterloo Road by Dr. Wichern at the Rauhe Haus, near Hamburg in Germany.

Wichern’s idea was to gather children in families, living in separate houses, with a common school and common workshop, as opposed to offering large, impersonal institutional care. This made sense to Stephenson as a reaction against the impersonality of the workhouse and the “home principle” was to be a pervasive influence in voluntary child provision for many years. Ironically, of course, it is still the case that, 140 years on, politicians regularly make the journey to Germany to learn about pedagogy and to understand why it is that outcomes for looked after children are so much more impressive there than here. (The issue of comparative resourcing between the two countries is curiously absent when they return with their insights but that’s another story.)

Aims and Objectives

Stephenson described his model in one of his fundraising pamphlets thus:

It checks, if it does not entirely prevent, the evils so frequently found in very large gatherings of children – evils against which special precautions are needed, when the previous habits and associations of the children have been so foul. It renders maintenance of discipline possible without crushing the spontaneity and vivacity of child-life. It secures an exactness of oversight and a dealing with individual temperaments according to their special peculiarities which, in other circumstances, would not be possible; and it reproduces, as nearly as may be, that home life which is God’s grand device for the education, in the best meaning of the word, of the human race.

He goes on to elaborate on the objectives of the home which were:

To shelter, feed, clothe, education, train to industrial habits and, by God’s blessing, lead to Christ, children who are in danger of falling into criminal habits. It is commenced in humble dependence on the blessings of Almighty God, and it is hoped that its daily engagements will be pervaded by a religious spirit. For it is the firm faith of its founders that good citizens can only be found in good Christians and that Christian philanthropy should aim at nothing less than the conversion of the soul from sin to God.

Evangelism and Links with Methodism

Unlike some of his more evangelical peers, as a Methodist Stephenson believed in “taking faith to the people wherever they are” and that no distinction could be made between faith and social responsibilities. Whilst there was still a missionary element to his work, and he firmly believed that it was not possible to separate Christianity from salvation, he was working at a time when the hitherto inexorable link between evangelicism and good works was beginning to loosen. And certainly, by the end of the First World War, voluntary agencies were far less inclined to talk in religious or evangelical terms about their work and increasingly the context was more secular and so it has remained until now.

The links between Methodism and Action for Children have remained very strong. Constitutionally Action for Children was a part of the Methodist Church until very recently, although the evangelical element went long ago. Nonetheless, the enduring values of the organisation have continued to reflect Stephenson’s belief that the organisation must go to where it is needed the most, and it must do and say what it needs to, in order to be in a position to offer support and comfort to a child who needs it.

At times this has caused tensions between the organisation and the Church – our position on sexuality and adoption and fostering, for instance, has troubled some of the more traditional Methodists and been debated on several occasions at their annual Conference.

At other times, however, our links with the Church have strengthened our resolve as an organisation, reminding us of those enduring values, encouraging us to work with German Jewish refugee children during the Second World War, as an example, when anti-German sentiment was eclipsing everything else.

Core Values

This centrality of values to social care creates, I believe, the linkage to faith its broadest sense. Action for Children’s core and enduring values, revisited periodically and never changed in terms of substance, are, as already stated, to reach out to the most vulnerable children and young people and to be there for them

Further, the recent re-examination and subsequent restatement of our values and mission statement have resulted in us realising that in order to make sense of the increasingly complex value bases, cultural identities and religious perspectives in the wider communities in which we work, it is essential that we find a route map through that – a compass point if you like – that will assist us in steering us through some of the ethical dilemmas that we face.

Our (obvious I know) solution to these came through a realisation that if we explicitly, and repeatedly, put the child at the centre of what we do and how we think, that gives us at least a framework to guide us. Putting the child first and reaching out to the children who need it the most are principals underpinned by the faith that we have in children and the belief that we have in their right to be loved and nurtured – Barnardo’s current strap line is, of course, Believe in Children which expresses the same sentiment and core values, no coincidence given our common history.


So what are the challenges that face us in keeping this at the front of our minds in 2009?

We work with some of the most disadvantaged children and young people across the UK. In some communities religion or faith is a key identifier of self for members of those communities. For us, who want to work with the children who need us the most, it is imperative that we find ways of reaching those children and this must be done sensitively.

This means we must identify ways to reach out to those communities, and this includes finding ways of encouraging members of those communities to work with and for our organisation. To do this successfully, of course, means that we must have a narrative ourselves for how different perspectives and religious beliefs can co-exist and learn from each other

Until very recently, Action for Children employed a Director of Pastoral Care who was always an ordained Methodist Minister. The history of this post went right back to the days when many of our staff were not social work qualified and, indeed, we were leading the way ourselves in providing social work training to young women working in our residential children’s homes.

More recently, the need for a specific individual with responsibility for pastoral care has been overtaken by formal mechanisms for supervising and supporting staff. As a result, the role became more one that acted as key liaison point with the Methodist Church, ensuring that the relationship remained healthy and dialogue ongoing. Two years ago, we decided that we should extend this further into other faiths, in recognition of the multi-cultural environment within which we now operate. Thus, we now have a Faith Communities Advisor whose responsibility it is to develop our thinking on how we extend our work and practice into different faith communities.

Part of the thinking on this came from conversations and work with people from faiths other than our founding one of Methodism, who said that they wanted to work alongside us, and indeed in some instances, felt more comfortable doing this with an organisation with these roots, rather than one without.

Interestingly also, in these times of increasing economic hardship, we are finding that it is members of local churches of different denominations who are coming forwards with credit unions, premises and other resources which they have to offer and where they feel it is their duty to make these available to communities in need. This is particularly the case with some of our children’s centres, offering precious community resource in some of the poorest communities.

Other Faiths

What we have yet to do is develop an effective dialogue into faiths beyond Christianity although the intention is there and there is a willingness that we know of within some of the communities where we work where there are a high percentage of Muslim families.

The third pillar of Islam, Zakat – purity and property purification – which is the idea that Muslims pay a proportion of their goods or wealth for the welfare of their community is not only compatible with what I have just described, but seems to me to go much further than its Judaeo-Christian equivalents. In the Christian context, as pointed out by Hartley Dean and Zafar Khan in Muslim Perspectives on Welfare, the parting with wealth is a private and pious but essentially charitable – and discretionary – act.

In contrast, atonement is not the purpose of the Zakat in Islam which has a far broader and more altruistic purpose altogether, considering as it does that it is social justice itself that is served by a redistribution of wealth among the ummah or community. In Islam, the hoarding of wealth is believed to lead to economic malaise and Zakat not only purifies the wealth of the individual, but also keeps the social, economic and political body or structure of the ummah from deterioration.

Dean and Khan explain this by using the metaphor that Zakat taps the parts of the body where the blood is congested and transfers it to those parts which are weak or anaemic. I would suggest that it is redistribution.

In the Christian tradition of giving, beneficiaries are supplicants, with no rights to assistance. In the Islamic world, however, this is not the case. The needy are considered to be as worthy in their own right and have the right to claim from wealthier sections of society.


What might we be able to achieve, then, if we could take these faith-driven approaches to redistribution and learn from the best of each of them, or even think of how the whole could be made greater than the sum of the parts, particularly when moving into recession when the pressures and challenges facing children will be particularly great?

This might be fanciful, but I believe it is worth exploring and, at the very least, there is clearly much for us to learn about how this personal relationship with faith in Islam translates itself into community responsibility in a way that is much less stigmatising than the approach we are most familiar with, which has its roots in Victorian philanthropy, underpinned by an innate sense of “mission” and salvation

Further, I also believe that if we are to keep meeting the needs of the most vulnerable children at the centre of our work, we must play our part in understanding how we can disentangle and address the complex factors of race, ethnicity, identity, class and gender better.

Faith and Conflicting Beliefs

All this plays out against a backdrop, however, of an organisation that is now, here in 2009, an essentially secular one, albeit with a strong historical link with Methodism. The articulation of our guiding principles and values as already set out, being the centrality of the child, works well for us as a glue, going some way to uniting each of us with our individual belief systems with the core mission of the organisation’s goals.

This doesn’t mean that faith, or indeed the absence of faith for many, does not come up and is not an issue that needs to be tackled. As an organisation there are occasions when different belief systems and how the difference applies to children, become an issue.

Social work values in this country and culture rightly place great emphasis on anti-discriminatory stances and this can become a real issue when the personal lives or orientation may be unacceptable to people of particular religious points of view. Many religions struggle with homosexuality as an obvious example. Recently we have seen how the Christian churches’ teachings are ambiguous and sometimes tortured in seeking to tolerate but not condone. Likewise, Islam is not tolerant of homosexuality in principle.

At Action for Children, we come across too many instances where young people have been bullied, assaulted or even thrown out of home because of their sexuality and we do everything that we can to support these young people in who they are and in the choices that they are making about their lives. This can create dilemmas for those who feel conflicted between their personal beliefs and what they have been taught, and our emphasis on not judging and supporting.

There are many other issues which may offend and cause difficulties within the context of belief systems. Abortion, euthanasia and, as previously mentioned, some kinds of adoption, are all considered very contentious and all are, of course, intensely personal.

These are not new dilemmas in social care: every generation has them. They manifest themselves currently through the complexity of the multi-faith and multi-cultural societies that we live in.

Many of the child protection cases which have ended tragically over recent years have included within them some elements of differing belief systems, creating at best a nervousness on the part of social workers around the legitimacy of their interventions. This has to be understood and improved upon if we are to keep children safe and help them to thrive.

And fundamental to this is finding a way to put to one side notions of superiority, whether it be that our own belief system is the better one or that because we believe in something, we are inherently better or, indeed, because we believe that our conviction that there is no God sets us apart.

I say putting to one side here because herein surely lies one of the most challenging elements of this debate.

Christianity, as pointed out by Terry Philpot in his chapter on Values in Social Work: A Christian Perspective, with its fundamental belief in the existence of original sin, asserts a flawedness in man, an inability to reach his true potential. He goes on to remind us that Christianity also teaches that unless man works with God in the world, then his efforts will be foredoomed to failure, however well-intended.

Islam for its part has a perspective that all people are born Muslims, but that social and cultural influences can divert the development of people from becoming proper Muslims. Therefore, it is not possible to convert to Islam, rather people revert, symbolising a return to the correct and original spiritual path.

And the Torah makes similar claims for Jews stating, “For you are a holy people to YHWH your God, and God has chosen you to be his treasured people from all the nations that are on the face of the earth.”

I don’t pretend to know how we reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable forces. They are not new and indeed they underpin a huge amount of what has defined world history.

The Need for a Personal Narrative

We do need a personal narrative, however, to assist us in the navigation I talked about earlier. If we are to be true to mission and values; if we are to find ways of putting social care into practice and, further, providing the environment and circumstances where a vulnerable child or young person can know love, safety and security, then we must understand how to reconcile this personal narrative with these wider contexts. We must know ourselves and understand where our beliefs and faith will be challenged and be honest when this brings limitations to our intellectual processes and ability to make objective decisions.

Social care has strong and enduring links to religion and faith. The Victorians showed us this in their missionary work, both here and abroad. There are many examples in other religions of the same thing, where there is belief that people are essentially good and redeemable and that we have a duty to reach out to people in finding and nurturing this.

But social work or social care, unlike the so-called professions, does not have a recognisable and strongly asserted identity. In a society where faith is not always held in esteem, maybe social work needs a new way of making its values relevant or, at least, a way of re-expressing what we do.

I began by talking about John Wesley and his conviction that personal salvation comes through faith rather than pre-destination and that good can be comprehended without revelation. Wesley taught that acting through conviction is what counts and this is what seems to characterise most the great social reformers throughout history. Acting on and doing something about injustice and poverty that they are witnessing.

Action for Children celebrates 140 years of this in 2009. And individually, all those of us who work in social care are concerned with this, and grapple with steering what is a difficult path with integrity on a daily basis so that we can demonstrate our overriding faith in the people we serve.

For me this is faith, howsoever defined, into practice.

Clare Tickell is the Chief Executive of Action for Children, until recently known as NCH.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.