Giles Fraser: Blowing on the embers of society

13 May 2010

The Corporation of the Sons of the Clergy was founded in 1655, in response to the extreme hardship experienced by many clerics’ families after Oliver Cromwell’s persecution of those who remained loyal to the Crown. City merchants gathered at St Paul’s Cathedral and afterwards in the Mer­chant Taylors’ Hall to raise money. There has been an annual service every year since then, and earlier this week we held the 356th one.

Yet, given that we no longer have Cromwell dispossessing the clergy of their livings, what pressures do clerics’ children live with these days? As I was pondering this question, I came across a disturbing quotation from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, which sent an exis­tential shiver down my spine:

“Children remain tied to their father by nature only so long as they need him for their preservation. As soon as this need ends, the natural bond is dissolved. Once the children are freed from the obedience they owe to their father, and the father is freed from his responsibilities to­wards them, both parties equally regain their independence.”

This is a dangerous load of old tosh. As Phillip Blond rightly points out in his book Red Tory (Faber, 2010), where I came across this quotation, it has become almost a matter of contemporary secular faith that liberal individualism, of the sort pioneered by Rousseau, must be at the heart of modern morality.

This morality regards the in­dividual as sovereign, and does all in its power to protect the individual from any encroachments on its self-defining authority. When an extreme liberal such as Mrs Thatcher said “Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women, and there are families,” she saw herself as defending the rights of the individual. But, as the quota­tion from Rousseau suggests, this same logic leads on to the conclusion that is no such thing as the family, either.

Clerics’ children live with the same pressures that exist for children throughout our society. They are being raised in an atomised culture that can see right and wrong only in terms of the narrow language of individual rights.

I am not sure what David Cameron meant when he spoke of the “big society”, but I hope he was suggesting that we ought to be blowing on the dying embers of civil society to develop forms of human together­ness that resist the “bowling-alone” philosophy of our corrosive individ­ual­ism. One such form of together­ness involved 2500 people packing into St Paul’s this week to celebrate a centuries-old tradition of civic participation and public gen­erosity.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.

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