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Life in a post-Temple world

12 September 2014

Anglicans are facing up to change, says Nicholas Sagovsky

Anglican Social Theology: Renewing the vision today
Edited by Malcolm Brown, with Jonathan Chaplin, John Hughes, Anna Rowlands, and Alan Suggate
Church House Publishing £19.99 (978-0-7151-4440-4)
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT263 )

SINCE the banking crisis of 2008 and the austerity measures that followed, Britain has been through a significant shift in social policy.

In five years, we have seen the bailouts that protected the banks, cuts in benefit levels and local-government services, the growth of academies funded by central government, the tripling of undergraduate tuition fees, the "bedroom tax", reductions in NHS staffing levels, reductions in numbers of police and prison officers, and reductions in legal aid; and there is more to come. Same-sex marriage has arrived; the "Big Society" has come and gone. Inequality of income has increased, and foodbanks have multiplied. Britain is now officially out of recession.

This book comes from the questioning of the Bishops about what kind of society are we now building, and whether the Church of England, both locally and nationally, has the makings of a coherent response.

The contributors argue that, undergirding the many ways in which the Church engages with local communities and national policy-makers, there lies a coherent tradition of Anglican social theology (AST). Malcolm Brown, Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Archbishops' Council - the bishops' chief adviser on social policy - surveys the Church's social theology as it has developed over the past three decades, since Faith in the City and the foundation of the Church Urban Fund.

Alan Suggate focuses on the now problematic [William] "Temple Tradition" as an "ethic of collective action" in the service of the nation. John Hughes, who was, sadly, killed in a recent car accident, surveys the scene "After Temple", identifying "The Recent Revival in AST" with the new approaches of Rowan Williams, John Milbank, and Oliver O'Donovan. Jonathan Chaplin identifies biblically based Evangelical contributions to the future of AST. Anna Rowlands compares AST and (Roman) Catholic social teaching as "fraternal traditions" with much to learn from each other.

Malcolm Brown asks about the health of "AST tomorrow". He argues that, despite current conflicts, "commitment to the common good and a focus on the life of the Church as intrinsic to that commitment" remain at the heart of AST.

These excellent essays have a sharp but limited focus. They contain little reference to social theology before Temple, or to Lambeth Conferences. "Anglican" is used interchangeably with "Church of England". Nevertheless, they show clearly why Temple cared about Christianity and social order and helped to fashion the welfare state. They show why Robert Runcie commissioned Faith in the City (a report addressed to nation as well as Church), and why Justin Welby declared "War on Wonga" (with the aim, Brown says, of "defenestrating the payday lenders and loan sharks").

They show not a tradition of magisterial teaching, but a tradition of committed social action and impassioned debate, based on robust theological convictions about the mission of the Church, human dignity, and social flourishing. If the House of Bishops could capture these presuppositions and priorities in an ecumenically alert teaching document on social theology, whata gift in troubled times that would be.

The Revd Dr Nicholas Sagovsky is the Whitelands Professorial Fellow at Roehampton University.

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