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Public voices and private feelings

14 February 2014

Anglican social thought is sprawling, unofficial, and incoherent. It is still evolving in response to changing circumstances, says Anna Rowlands


Table talk: the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury meet for a private audience at the Vatican in June last year; they have both emphasised the integration of evangelisation and social witness

Table talk: the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury meet for a private audience at the Vatican in June last year; they have both emphasised the in...

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 view.

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 society.

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 responsibility.

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 life.

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 community.

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.

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