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The C of E's gift to politicians

06 July 2012

The Church's coalition of parties can teach neighbourliness, says Malcolm Brown


Big Society: the Prime Minister at St Michael and All Angels, Southfields, London, earlier this year, where he spoke to residents about buying council homes

Big Society: the Prime Minister at St Michael and All Angels, Southfields, London, earlier this year, where he spoke to residents about buying counc...

NOT surprisingly, the Churches were quick to endorse ideas of the Big Society when, straight after the 2010 election, they seemed central to the Government's plans. Although, in 2012, the Big Society may be politically dead in the water, its ideas have been let out of the box, and are there to be played with creatively.

While Christians have some reason to claim that we have been doing the Big Society for 2000 years, the Church's instinctive endorsement of these notions needs to reflect on what it is, exactly, that connects the Big Society vision with the Church's vocation.

The danger is that we will fall back on an unimaginative binary approach, typical of much public discourse today. Because the Big Society and other communitarian ideas challenge the core assumptions of liberalism, it is tempting to see them as endorsing a deeply illiberal version of Christianity. "Religiously inspired communities: good; godless liberal individualism: bad" runs the mantra.

There is no shortage of Christians who seem avid to import US-inspired culture-wars into this country. So, if the Churches are to contribute usefully to a shared political life that is more functional and supportive of human flourishing, it is worth evaluating the pros and cons of what is being promoted.

The evaluation might start with anthropology. What is it to be human - and what is it to be human when you factor in the God revealed in Jesus? We should, at least, challenge the conceit that we are most truly human when we are most autonomous. That myth is part of what excludes the very young and the very old from being true subjects of political and social existence.

If our conception of being human is to embrace the whole of our lives, it must surely give a higher place to dependency than to autonomy. And from that focus on our dependency on one another comes renewed seriousness about the relationships that help to make us good human beings. Yet we must not go too far: the re-emphasis on human dependency cannot dispense with the virtues of autonomy altogether, such as personal responsibility and conscience.

A developed anthropology needs to incorporate both autonomy and dependency, liberalism and communitarianism, in a much richer story about being human: either/or is too stark and too limiting. It is no accident that holding together the "both/and" is not just sensible, but is firmly rooted at the heart of Christian doctrine, and should be a touchstone of Christian ethics.

Christian discipleship becomes problematic if it ignores the "both/ and" nature of Christ himself, and the nature of the times we inhabit. Classic Christology does not allow us to separate the human figure of Jesus from the second Person of the Trinity. And the theological interim between Pentecost and the parousia forces Christian practice to work simultaneously with the presence of Spirit-given grace, and the persistence of sin. The notion that the Kingdom of God is present among us, but not yet fulfilled, has to be embodied in approaches to all relationships, not least the political.

THIS is where, perhaps surprisingly, Anglicans may have something to teach politicians. People constantly make the mistake of seeing the Church of England as a kind of corporation, with the Archbishop as a strangely impotent CEO. In reality, we are not a corporation, but a coalition, created to bring conflicting ideas together and to prevent civil war by uniting around neither doctrine, nor leaders, but the simple fact of being neighbours.

Anglicanism is a coalition of three parties. Each party has a project, and each party thinks its project is the only project that matters. To caricature only a little: one project is to complete the work of the Reformation; one project is to complete the Counter-Reformation; and one is to complete the Enlightenment.

There's the rub: if one project wins outright, the Church of England as we know it ceases to exist. We have several hundred years' experience of keeping that coalition together, and this matters precisely because, theologically, it is crucial never to lose sight of the corrective pressure of other readings, other emphases, and other insights.

Anglicanism is where liberals, conservatives, and different sorts of communitarians try to work out ways of living alongside each other authentically. Coalition is actually a rather good way of securing the kind of diversity which values the other, and does not pretend to possess all the truth.

THE Churches are finding their social voice again. But the challenge is to sidestep the allure of projects, initiatives, and large-scale schemes, and to recover the idea that discipleship is mainly lived out on a small stage. Images of the community life that we have largely lost need to be called in, as correctives to what we have now - not as a remembered Eden to which we must force a return.

The Church is, as it were, a school for the virtues of neighbourliness, even among people who have little in common. Most of all, Christians need to regain the confidence that what they do, almost instinctively, to embody mutual dependency, freely chosen, is worth ten times more than any government Bill.

Moving beyond the society of strangers starts by valuing the places where vibrant community never went away, but where community is never mistaken for narrow conformity. Unlike a tribe, and unlike a society of strangers, flourishing, complex communities include argument and dissent about what it means to be "us".

The Revd Dr Malcolm Brown is the director of the Mission and Public Affairs Division of the Archbishops' Council.

This is an edited extract from his Ebor Lecture, given at York St John University last month.


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