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
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
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
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
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.