The global credit collapse, and the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, has discredited the universal application of market solutions to social problems. There is a clear need for a replacement philosophy in a variety of intellectual areas, and not just economics, but also in the voluntary sector.
This paper suggests that one answer may lie in a revival of mutual self-help groups, inspired by spiritual values, which we might call by their old medieval name of “the guilds.” Indeed, it is argued that the guilds provide a model answer to two major problems of modern economic and social life. The first of these is the rapid shift in the labour market from life-time employment for most people to a world of self-employment and temporary contracts. The second, partly as a consequence of the former, is the reduction in the safety net provided by the welfare state and corporate pension provision.
The Future of the Christian Voluntary Sector clarifies what is meant by a “guild,” essentially a religious brotherhood as seen in the Middle Ages. They had a variety of functions: spiritual, economic, social, and even political. In essence the guilds were an association of freemen, of craftsmen working together to sustain each other, and through apprenticeship and training, to ensure the quality of what they produced. Spiritually, they were local groups based at a particular church and usually devoted to a particular saint. Economically the guilds were a key part of the medieval objective that commercial life should be an integrated expression of the Church’s teaching. There was a code of mercantile ethics decreeing that craftsmen should make their goods honestly and well, that sellers should give good weight and be satisfied with reasonable profits.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the guilds was the way they promoted works of charity in a poor society where the poor would otherwise have starved. The guilds carried out significant works of charity, ranging from direct alms-giving, to the running of hospitals and schools, as well as self-help between guild members, such as establishing the first ever pension scheme to help the aged or infirm who could no longer work.
The paper concludes that the guilds provide a useful model of the way to rebuild the social cohesion and the social safety net that have weakened significantly over the past decade. It argues that modern technology allows people to form self-help groups and to buy their pension or health care insurance in bulk, bypassing the insurance companies and their like. A self-help group works if its members have an interest or some area of activity in common, so that they feel ties of loyalty to each other and have a forum where they can meet. This is called the essential ‘common bond’ of credit unions, and provides a clear way Christians can inspire and revive a failing voluntary sector.