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122 APRIL 2009
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Love and God

Mark Smith

Some of the reading I’ve been doing over the past month has got me thinking. Specifically, I reviewed a book by Keith White called The Growth of Love*. Keith, along with his wife has, for the past thirty years or so, lived with and brought up his own and other people’s kids in Millgrove, a residential community in London, a sort of hybrid between a residential care home and a foster family. Writing about “love” in the context of care beyond the biological family might be thought to be taking something of a risk: to combine it with the word “God” as White does, might seem positively reckless. Perhaps the tide is changing slightly and some people feel sufficiently emboldened to say the kind of things that it can feel have been very difficult to say in the climate of regulated consensus that has emerged in respect of child care in recent years.

In such climates, assertion of any religious conviction or motivation for involvement in child care can be presented almost as suspect, seen to be imposing a particular set of moral and, arguably, moralistic values on what is regarded as a state (and thus secularised) service. But the truth is, the functions once performed by religion have not gone away. In fact they persist in spades. John Gray, the author of Straw Dogs, a romp through philosophical thought on the human condition, while certainly not advancing a religious perspective, argues, nevertheless, that present day “liberal humanism has the pervasive power that was once possessed by revealed religion.” “Humanists” he says “like to think they have a rational view of the world; but their core belief in progress is a superstition, further from the truth about the human animal than any of the world's religions”. Further, he argues, “secular believers – held fast by the conventional wisdom of the time – are in the grip of unexamined dogmas” (p.x1).

The worrying thing is that current dogmas remain taken for granted and unexamined and their proponents advance them untroubled by doubt and unaware that they merely replicate the very features of a religious system that they purport to have moved beyond. Specifically, the rise of regulatory regimes in the social services impose the same sort of behavioural norms that might previously have been thought of as the preserve of religious fundamentalists.

In a recent article in the British Journal of Social Work McLaughlin argues that, “There is certainly a similarity to religion in the way that the GSCC (General Social Care Council, social work’s regulatory body in England) has taken to censuring our sex, drink and drug habits, its hostility to denial and favouring of confession and repentance. In some respects, it could be argued that the GSCC is replacing the priest or imam as the contemporary arbiter of morally “correct” behaviour” (2008p.15).

One of the things that worries me about the proliferation of regulatory regimes and the reification of more and more aspects of social work practice within codes and standards is the foreclosure of any different ways of thinking about or being with kids. The imposition of behavioural diktats and mandated adherence to the rules, irrespective of how banal and contradictory those rules might be, does not augur well for the kind of service improvement that might come about through tossing different ideas about and thinking what can be unthinkable within the regimes of truth that have grown up around child care.

The trouble, too, with secularized ways of imposing conformity is that they are too often (and perhaps by definition) soulless. While I don’t necessarily propose religiously-based care I do think it is a legitimate tradition. I also think that it speaks a language that captures the essence of care far better than secularized and regulated vocabularies permit. White uses words like security, boundaries, significance, community, creativity and, of course, love – qualities that catch the imagination in a way that codes, standards, corporate, service level agreements and complaints procedures don’t really come close to.

One final thought (and I suppose this is where I betray something of where I come from in this); I was at Mass this Sunday past and within this there was a Lenten reconciliation service (in lieu of the traditional one to one Confession within the Catholic Church). Now I don’t particularly go with the old form of Confession but I do like the idea of forgiveness and of moving on. I found myself drawn to thinking of this need for children we work with to experience forgiveness. We all know, I suspect, how things we've got wrong can hang over us and hamper how we engage with our worlds. Kids in care must live with these weights hanging over them all the time. They too need to feel that they can be forgiven, that they are worthy again and they can move on. Instead we confront them with legalistic notions of justice or at another level with some psychobabble of “closure”. Might notions such as “closure” merely be secularized ways of achieving what religious thought seeks from forgiveness?


Gray, J. (2003) Straw Dogs. London: Granta Books

McLaughlin. K. (2008) The Social Worker versus the General Social Care Council: An Analysis of Care Standards Tribunal Hearings and Decisions. British Journal of Social Work 1–17

White, K. J. (2008) The Growth of Love, Abingdon: The Bible Reading Fellowship.

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