THE campaigning group Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH)
is now proposing a similar "Action on Sugar", advertising the
sugar-content of foods, and urging the public to consume less
The deep-seated reluctance of our society to listen to such
moralising was flagged up by the comments of "friends" on Facebook
that they would not be told what to eat and drink - one buying a
Coke in protest, when that was far from his normal beverage. This
set me thinking about the place of moral exhortation in our
society, or, as we in the Church might think of it, the state of
being "preached at".
One of the aspects of our society which is historically unusual
is that most adults seldom hear (or read or download) much in the
way of life-guidance from authority. This is the flip-side of
assuming the right to determine the course of their lives to suit
themselves. Historically more normal is to receive a steady stream
of guidance, most obviously from the pulpit.
In the mid-20th century, however, the State in Britain most
vigorously - and not only during the Second World War - took on a
high profile as propagandist of "right behaviour" in many aspects
of life. The now-tired fashion for the "Keep Calm and Carry On"
posters is the familiar face of a deep-seated tradition of public
propaganda that helped to develop civil society. It could be argued
that this replaced the part played by the Churches.
I use the term "preached at" deliberately, because the response
is always anything but compliant obedience. All preachers can be
resented when they urge unwelcome changes.
It is easy to identify hypocrisy if the preacher does not embody
the virtues that he or she proclaims. Perhaps this is a strength of
anonymous official propaganda compared with the individual in the
pulpit. The preacher can also simply be ignored. One example today
might be relentless information for new mothers on the virtues of
breastfeeding, but the sluggish progress in increasing the
None the less, the importance of exhortation in shaping
expectations and culture should not be underestimated.
THIS becomes significant in the context of government. In
Britain, our Government consists of Parliamentarians' holding
office on the basis of their party's majority in the House of
Commons. That is how we achieved democracy. But the underlying
function of Parliament is to legislate, not to choose
The less obvious consequence is that the governing tool of
choice of Parliamentarians, faced with the need to "do something"
about a problem, is to pass a law. We read that legislation is
being brought forward by the Government to "send a message" to a
particular group (criminals, benefit fraudsters, corrupt bankers,
and so on). In fact, the real intended recipient of the message is
the media, which then present the responsible minister as the
strong man or woman who has solved the problem.
Months, or even years, later, the legislation makes it on to the
statute book. Magistrates have explained to me how, in the heyday
of the Blair ASBO era, they barely had time to assimilate one
change to the law before another arrived, while the underlying
problems were barely touched on.
Many of those whom the law is intended to redirect simply evade
or ignore it, and are thereby criminalised, creating a greater
problem. I believe that, sometimes, it might be a good idea just to
"send a message" in the form of well-compiled advertising and
propaganda. This would also imply a more realistic understanding of
human behaviour and our unwillingness to be coerced than would the
imposition of a new law.
THE challenge is whether government of any political colour is
able to articulate a vision of the good life which commands enough
of a consensus to undergird such official preaching.
There are things that most seem to agree about: excessive
drinking, personal borrowing, or relationship unfaithfulness are
bad, and exercise and participation in community life are good. But
even those are advanced only timidly.
As Christians, we should not find it difficult to be preached
at: it is a weekly experience. In the Church, however, the
bewildering range of visions on offer - for example, in the final
instalment of the Church Times Health Check (Features, 28
February) - suggests that we are far from articulating a shared
vision of our own future, let alone that of our society.
Hearing speakers at the most recent General Synod articulate
their concerns for "Christian girls" in the context of the Guides
debate, for example, made me fear for those who seem able only to
defend their own corner. God's concern must surely be for the good
life of all people.
Given that few other than its own members listen to the Church,
it can only be by example that we contribute to a consensus about
the good life in a plural society today.
So, for instance, if dioceses were to sell their scraps of glebe
and invest the funds in green energy for churches and parsonages,
that would show a real commitment to mitigate climate change. Or if
the National Society sought to change the law so that 25 per cent
of places at church schools were open to non-Anglicans, that would
demonstrate the distinctive place of our schools as places of
plurality, and not sectarianism.
Like other good ideas, however, these are probably doomed inthe
swamp of ecclesiastical risk-aversion.
More important than such symbolic actions, however, are our
efforts to engage with a politics that is not only about passing
laws or spending money, but about changing culture. Our
self-confessed fellow-churchman David Cameron began his premiership
desiring to build a Big Society. He was scoffed at by many
Christians, saying either "We're there already, what do you know?"
or "It's just a cover-up for cuts," and the rhetoric has been
Yet there were insights there that the wrongs of our society are
not ultimately about money, and shame on us for not engaging with
them. We need to show, by word and action, that we worship the God
who is interested in the whole nation, not only in people like
The Revd Neil Patterson is Rector of Ariconium, in the
diocese of Hereford.