Cole Moreton: Can religion rescue Dave's Big Society?

David Cameron wants a return to volunteering, but a weakened Church, the welfare state and Thatcherism make that a tall order
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The most arresting thing about David Cameron's call for a Big Society a few days ago was not the sight of him getting down with the poor kids on a council estate in Stepney or the dodgy brown anorak he wore, but this sentence: "We want every adult to be a member of an active neighbourhood group."

Hang on, I thought, didn't we have that system, back in the old days? Wasn't it called the Church? It still is called that by the many men and women all over Britain who work hard for their local communities in the name of faith. And this Easter Sunday they will presumably welcome the Conservative leader's vow to release them from bureaucracy and political correctness to follow their calling.

The same goes for those who work as hard in the name of Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism or any of the other faiths that now contribute to British life. Our cultural and spiritual lives are much the richer for them.

But there are two equally rich ironies in Mr Cameron scheme to save the state a fortune by setting believers free to care. The first is that it is nothing new. As is often the case with Dave, this is an old Establishment idea wearing trendy new clothes. Think back to a time before the world wars, when education, heathcare and welfare were mainly provided by the Church.

The principle was biblical: those with privilege and wealth, in the middle classes and above, had a Christian duty to help their neighbours in trouble. Quite right, too. Most of us still believe that now, in our guts, even if we're not sure who God is or where He or She has got to. But then it was the only way, a paternal system that depended on a sense of obligation from the likes of Sam and Dave.

The Church of England offered a structure through which it could happen, thanks to its fundamental historic mission to put a priest into every parish, to care for every soul. (And other churches fulfilled a similar function in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, although not with the same intimate ties to power.) Then, like chocolate bunnies canvassing for Easter, the Church campaigned its way out of a job.

For very good reasons, Christians were some of the most committed advocates of free, universal schooling, the National Health Service and the social services.

But by leading those campaigns, as Jeremy Paxman points out in his book Friends in High Places, "they actively promoted the instruments of their own irrelevance". If you had a calling to serve society in the Fifties, there was suddenly no need to be a believer. "Many who before the war might have joined the ministry because they wanted to act out their Christian beliefs found they could do so more easily working as state-employed teachers, social workers or doctors." The Church was left without much of a purpose, except to consider the things of God, which in the long run was not enough. If faith means anything, it has an impact on the whole of life. Those who have it feel compelled to make the world comply with their ideals, which leads us to a serious problem we will consider in a moment.

But first, the other irony. There are many reasons why we have lost our old, established faith in this country within the past 30 years, and I uncover some surprising ones in my new book, Is God Still an Englishman? But the person who can claim to have done more than anyone else to snip the ties between the Church, the state and the crown is Dave's predecessor, Margaret Thatcher.

She looked like an ally to the churches when she arrived at No 10 quoting St Francis of Assisi, but Maggie the Methodist's daughter was no friend of the Establishment. She took on archbishops over the Falklands, the miners' strike, and the state of the inner cities, but, more importantly, converted the country to her own gospel of self-interest.

Perhaps she never said there was no such thing as society, but she did say it was your duty to fend for your family and yourself first and foremost. Wealth and charity could trickle down, but the state had little part to play in helping it happen.

Cameron's Big Society is in tune with that, but there is a big snag: the Church is on its knees, and I don't mean in prayer. It was already suffering a decline – like every other social group from the Scouts to the unions – when she came in, but her individualistic creed gave that wings.

Church attendance halved in 30 years and is now down to fewer than four million on any given Sunday across the whole of the UK, including places such as Ulster where the habit has yet to be broken. Her biggest impact was the introduction of free market forces to spirituality: spellbound, the last Tory government allowed shops (and many other things) to open on a Sunday, and pretty venues to host weddings. Given a choice, we chose to go elsewhere. The Church can no longer claim to hatch, match and dispatch us.

Nor can it do its main job any more. The Anglican money men caught Thatcher fever and made a series of disastrous investments in property that cost them a fortune. They're still at it: the last accounts showed an annual loss to their assets of one billion pounds.

The infrastructure is at breaking point, with an ageing volunteer force stepping in to hold services and keep open buildings that are among the jewels of England, but are crumbling as quickly as the parishioners.

The mild, decent C of E will not be able to pick up Cameron's challenge unless it reinvents itself. Who else will do so in the meantime? As a society, we now have a new national faith, a loose, improvised belief system informed by superstition, paganism, Buddhism and the green movement, which is fun and interesting but totally disorganised. The believers with the skills to respond, and the most enthusiastic backers, are those who shout loud and have few doubts – most obviously the pentecostals, Muslims and Roman Catholics.

Which is fine – they include some good people. But there is also danger ahead. Who would you rather have looking after those in need, such as vulnerable children? A state-sponsored, supervised social worker, or a zealot with a tract in her hand?

'Is God Still an Englishman? How we Lost our Faith (but Found New Soul)' by Cole Moreton is published this weekend by Little, Brown