WHEN the newly elected Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury met
in Rome in the early summer of 2013, an unprecedented suggestion
emerged. Why not work together to address the global issue of
suffering and poverty? A mutual confidence in integrating
evangelisation and social witness has been one of the most striking
features of the early stages of both men's leadership.
And yet the critics have their questions. Laudable as the
intentions may be, do we really need more church statements and
episcopal initiatives on social issues?
Despite the surprisingly approving headlines, does this not
sound like more of the wrong kind of Church paternalism? Isn't this
too top-heavy when the energy should be going into a much more
relational, and intensely local processof renewal? Is all this a
distraction from the Church's setting its own house in order?
Others wonder, when the bishops speak publicly on political and
moral questions, who it is that they meaningfully represent.
The research conducted by Professor Linda Woodhead throws up two
paradoxical realities. When the Church speaks on social issues it
often does not represent the views of the laity. This is the
social-values gap. Yet the findings also indicate that the Church
continues to be valued for its willingness to raise ethical matters
in public debate.
Our social values have changedin other ways, however, that are
deeply relevant to the vocation of the Church of England, too.
Earlier research has shown that our ideas about social duty and
citizenship have been affected not just by the decline of religion,
but also by individualism and consumerism.
It is not that we now think less about social duty or the common
good, but we do so in rather different terms. As individuals, our
conception of the common good has mutated away from a strong focus
on the nation or state towards a more fragmented identification
with the global and the local.
WHILE the social tradition of the Church of England has always
placed great emphasis on the local, it has also perceived its
unique vocation to foster a Christian vision within a national
community. To grasp this means taking in something of the long
Unlike its more formal cousin Roman Catholic social teaching,
Anglican social thought is a sprawling, vibrant, and unofficial
body of thought. The coherence of the Anglican social tradition
does not lie in social principles or official statements. Indeed,
the Church of England has historically sought to protect the laity
from a teaching magisterium.
Rather, both Evangelical and Catholic traditions within the
Church have placed strong biblical and doctrinal emphasis on the
incarnation. Virtue was to be fostered through worship, and focused
on real and practical expressions of fellowship and service.
In this context, the practical "social incarnationalism" of the
19th and 20th centuries emerged from quite different spiritual
traditions within Anglicanism, each responding to their particular
contexts. Innovations in schooling, nursing, home- and
prison-visiting, and political campaigning were historically
significant fruits of this plural labour.
But these were more than simply important social practices,
inspired by the deep channels of spiritual life running through the
Church of England. From Richard Hooker, through William Gladstone
to William Temple, the mainstream Anglican social tradition has
worked - and reworked - a distinctive Christian vision of anational
This vision was an ordered and hierarchical one. Christian
citizenship was conceived in terms of a vision of a national
Church, rooted through the parish system, and complemented by a
limited but active state. A Christian religious presence was one of
the basic conditions necessary for an active, free, socially just,
and cohesive national life.
By dint of its vocation, it was the foundation of civil society.
Our contribution to social institutions in the present time was
connected to our ultimate citizenship in the heavenly city.
Establishment, therefore, was less about the power and influence of
the Church, and more a burden, borne gladly as a service to
ensuring the best hope of a Christian politics, and a cohesive
society. It certainly entailed privileges, but was primarily about
IN HIS seminal work Christianity and Social Order,
William Temple expressed this social Anglicanism in principles of
"freedom", "fellowship", and "service". Temple argued for a
collaborative approach to church-state relations, fostering new
approaches to economics, education, welfare, and housing.
While not all of his theology has aged well, Temple's views have
often been unfairly represented as narrowly statist. In fact, read
carefully, it is clear that Temple was drivenby a vision of the
State in service to the vital life of local communities, fostering
greater social equality, based on a sacramental view of human
The various church reports of the 20th century sought to bridge
the local and the national through comment on perceived threats to
the health of citizenship and social fellowship: debt and health,
work, housing, education, and racism.
And these reports were, albeit unevenly, influential in public
policy discussion. As late as 1997, at a time when a wider vision
of full employment was lacking in economic and political circles,
Unemployment and the Future of Work (briefly) received a
serious hearing from the incoming New Labour government.
It is not just the ways that Anglicans were using the Bible to
reach social conclusions that are important. What also matters is
that the Established Church was interpreting its ecclesial task in
a particular way. Threats to national unity were matters that
touched on the core of Anglican purpose and identity - its
ecclesial covenant with the nation.
Faith in the City arguablycontinues this focus, even
though it was seen by some as a break with prior Anglican social
tradition. Despite its embrace of liberation theology, the report
remained centrally concerned with the character and cohesion of the
national community. It simply brought liberation-theology
perspectives to bear on that task.
The authors assert their Christian responsibility to speak from
their local contexts, bringing to national attention the social
realities they judged to threaten social integration: poverty,
powerlessness, and economic inequality.
TODAY's Church stands on shakier ground, and it is the clergy in
parishes and chaplaincies who are negotiating the complex
faultlines that have emerged. Unemployment and the Future of
Work (1997) was the last of the big commission-style reports,
focused on Church, State, and nation.
A new generation of Anglican social theologians has welcomed the
chance to think again about the covenant between Church and nation.
When he was Archbishop, the Rt Revd Lord Williams began to frame
the central question of Church and nation in a different way,
raising questions about the shape of our economic life, militarism
and nationalism, aggressive secularism, and inequality.
Much of what he said was premised on the importance of
recognising that narrow ethnic and linguistic notions of national
identity no longer work for us, and that our notions of democracy,
law, and nationhood need to be renewed. All of this was part of the
Anglican vocation to foster a covenant between Church and national
Migration, secularism, and interreligious realities were taken
with absolute seriousness as stimuli to new forms of Anglican civic
thought. As more aggressive forms of secularism challenged the very
idea of a public Church, Lord Williams was left with little option
but to venture newly angled ways to make the case for religion as
itself a form of, and contributor to, public life.
Others have focused their vision of renewal more squarely on the
local context. Professor Elaine Graham has called for the
development of a renewed model of establishment "from below". She
is one of a number of theologians who are calling for greater
attention to the potential for interfaith partner-ships and civic
friendships that can arise and be nurtured best within the context
of local faith communities.
FOR Canon Sam Wells, the answer seems to lie less in focusing on
establishment per se, and more on rethinking our basic
covenant theology. He sets a challenge to move from a logic of
"working for" to a logic of "being with" others, at every level of
church life. Dr Luke Bretherton has pursued a study of the part
played by the local church in community organising.
He suggests that local congregations, acting together with those
of other faith traditions on the economic and social goods they
share in common - such as a living wage, or action on payday
lending - creates a new form of faithful social practice. For
others, the answer lies in theologically infused attempts to
recreate more participatory democratic practices: for example,
through asset-based community development.
In their (very) different ways, these theologians are pushing
less for a return to the era of Church statements and more to ways
of reanimating the connection between various spiritual traditions
within the Church of England and their social visions - encouraging
these visions to take deep root in their contexts.
Perhaps, then, we can offer two-and-a-half cheers for ecumenical
collaboration on social issues at the highest level. It is vital
and exciting. But such statements will mean little if they happen
in a vacuum. The reweaving of an Anglican covenant requires a
rather deeper process of renewal.
Dr Anna Rowlands is a lecturer in theology and ministry at
King's College, London.