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Consumers’ rites

by
03 January 2014

This is a clear analysis, says Jonathan Ewer

Rescuing the Church from Consumerism
Mark Clavier
SPCK £10.99
(978-0-281-07038-1)
Church Times Bookshop £9.90 (Use code CT440 )

MARK CLAVIER has served as a priest in the United States and the UK. He has read widely, and has thought long and hard about the Church and its relationship to the world.

He sees Consumerism as a religion, as pervasive as any the world has known, but utterly destructive (Chapter 1). It has its own value system, which it imposes and reinforces through its own version of the Christian sacraments. In some detail, the author compares the exposure of children to consumerism from birth to baptism. Its reinforcement in adolescence through advertising and peer-group pressure is a kind of confirmation (Chapter 2). The Christian view of marriage as a vocation for the benefit of society has been replaced by the consumerist notion of choosing, rejecting, and choosing someone else. The discipline of self-examination and confession has been replaced by the choice of whatever appears to validate one's lifestyle and identity, including even public exposure on TV. One can buy techniques that are supposed to enable individuals to achieve "wholeness" (but don't!), and these replace the Christian view of wholeness and healing as primarily corporate, as symbolised in anointing. Priesthood is no longer a vocation, but a career in an institution where clergy form the middle management (Chapter 3).

This is an instructive depiction of the situation that we all recognise and abhor, especially since the few who "benefit" are able to do so only by consenting to the enslavement of most of the world's population.

One might not swallow the argument that it all began with the explosion of advertising in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Your reviewer was present many years ago at a meal with a saintly old man who had spent most of his adult life as a missionary in central Australia. He was asked when he thought the values of traditional tribal society on the mission had begun to disintegrate. After a short pause, he answered with complete conviction: "When we introduced money into the mission store." There are grounds for arguing that as soon as money is introduced into an economy a wedge is driven between a worker and what he or she produces, and that is the beginning of the alienation that lies at the heart of capitalism.

One might also argue that the problem is the ancient sin of self-interest. Without a money economy, however, technological progress would have been impossible, and life would have remained for all of us "nasty, brutish, and short".

Capitalism, not simply consumerism, has got out of hand, and the Church has a part to play in keeping it honest. Clavier is undoubtedly right in arguing that the Church must give up dumbed-down "feel-good religion", with its consumerist tactics such as turning worship into entertainment and using inappropriate devices from the business world to measure the effectiveness of the clergy. We must return to the notion of being the household of God, getting back to wholesome values, being a space, and giving time, for relationships to develop into a genuine sense of committed belonging, which in turn fosters the nurturing of other families and the universe itself.

The wonderful thing is that Clavier is not alone in his call to arms. In recent weeks, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Martin Lewis, Richard Godwin in the Evening Standard, and Russell Brand, talking with Jeremy Paxman, have attacked various aspects of the consumerist monster that we enjoy, but which enslaves most of the world and destroys its habitat.

The book is very readable. It challenges the received wisdom of the Church, especially things such as Fresh Expressions, but suggests hopeful ways of recovering our true vocation. 

Fr Ewer SSM is a resident member of the Well Community.


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