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What’s wrong with being a preaching Church?

02 May 2014

The C of E needs to make greater efforts, by example and political engagement, to change British culture, argues Neil Patterson

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 sugar.

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 practice.

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 governments.

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 abandoned.

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 us.

The Revd Neil Patterson is Rector of Ariconium, in the diocese of Hereford.

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