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The Christmas before last, I read a very important book called The Social Entrepreneur by Lord Andrew Mawson, charting his journey transforming a church in Bromley-by-Bow, East London into a centre delivering arts, healthcare and education services. The overriding lessons for me were a) the success of mobilising untapped creativity and cash in communities to tackle social problems and b) using church space outside of congregation time is as good a place as any to start. I was reminded of Andrew’s work by two Fellows’ ventures supported by Catalyst who have taken a similar approach.

Cathedral Innovation CentreThe first venture is led by Francis Davis FRSA to use excess faith-run spaces to incubate start-up or growth businesses and social enterprises, initially across the Solent region but developed for replication by every faith-based centre. He was supported by Catalyst to find nine Fellows who stepped forward to be designated mentors for the businesses. Last week I went down to the Portsmouth Cathedral Innovation Centre and saw Francis launching community shares in the fund investing in the start-ups, with Baroness Berridge, Minister for Employment Mark Hoban and Dean of Portsmouth Cathedral David Brindley there to commit to be the fund’s first investors.

Creating wealth is a good thing, employing people is a good thing, and I think it’s really important that the cathedral gets involved so that the capitalists, the people who make the wealth of the future, do it in a way that’s more socially responsible than we’ve seen in the past – Baroness Berridge, backer of Cathedral Innovation Centre, speaking on Radio 4

It was great to hear Francis talk about the quality of the Fellows who had stepped forward as mentors as well as see the array of faith institutions in Southampton and Portsmouth who are keen to set up with Francis’s help.

The second is The Sunday Assembly who run big public meetings with the aim of helping people to “live better, help often, wonder more”. They get people together in churches and other available spaces to sing pop songs, meet their neighbours, hear how they can help out with local community projects and listen to inspiring speakers to teach them more about the world they live in. As co-founder and RSA Fellow Sanderson Jones put it: “Atheists make a mistake to look at church and throw it all out just because they don't believe in God.” Mobilising other faith spaces will be crucial to the ability to scale the assemblies to other communities. An encouraging sign came when one Assembly in North London dovetailed with a church service, the Bishop was very encouraged by the Assembly: “in the process of time, with love people will come to know the God that we serve.”

Of course the guardian could not resist citing experts who say “I do think it's going to appeal only to one particular section of the community… a middle-class cultural elite” and “atheist churches were formed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but petered out because people found other forms of social organisation that suited them better”. What Mawson said is relevant to these critiques: “start with people and action rather than research… avoid paralysis by analysis.” Sanderson is getting on with it and with the help of a Catalyst grant wants to provide clear instructions to help others launch Sunday Assemblies in communities across the world.

Atheists make a mistake to look at church and throw it all out just because they don't believe in God – Sanderson Jones FRSA, co-founder of The Sunday Assembly

Matthew Taylor said in his 21st century enlightenment pamphlet that “The Enlightenment had to struggle against the dogma of religious and monarchical authority, but are there today new dogmas, deeply embedded in our culture and consciousness which we need to find a way to question? That our lives are the story of self-consciously directed individuals, owing our allegiance to the large but exclusive tribe of strangers we call a nation, ever seeking to progress our material interests in a universe governed by knowable rules; this feels natural to us.” He noted that it is predicted that by 2050 four out of five of the world’s citizens will be religious believers, which makes it even more important to mobilise the religions’ methods, networks and spaces to tackle today’s problems.

I wanted to end with what Lord Mawson had learned from building his Bromley-by-Bow centre, which I think sums up what Catalyst is about, supporting RSA Fellows to try out new ventures. He said that: “answers to macro-political questions must be sought in the micro-experience of local activity… rewarding those who bother to get off their backsides to work together on practical projects and discouraging those who want to take the lazy, pontificating, seminar-attending approach.”

The Sunday Assembly was profiled by BBC London news here. Come along to the next Sunday Assembly or start your own.

The Cathedral Innovation Centre was profiled in last week’s Radio 4 Sunday episode (33 minutes 21 seconds in) and will be the ‘Big Idea’ in Monday’s RSA Fellowship newsletter.

Alex Watson is Catalyst Programme Manager at the RSA – follow him @watsoalex


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