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Common touch is not enough

24 April 2015

Ann Morisy on social thought from the concerned privileged


On Rock or Sand? Firm foundations for Britain's future

John Sentamu, editor

SPCK £9.99


Church Times Bookshop £9

Together for the Common Good: Towards a national conversation

Nicholas Sagovsky and Peter McGrail, editors

SCM Press £25


Church Times Bookshop £22.50

MY OLD dad used to say that "money comes to money." I would wager that most if not all of the contributors to these edited collections will have been beneficiaries of this stealthy dynamic, Archbishop Sentamu perhaps being the exception.

On Rock or Sand?, although dedicated to hard-pressed families on poverty wages, is really a Cook's tour of the means and mechanisms that are thought best to achieve the common good and restore collective responsibility within the nation. The tour takes in health, education, work, civics, ageing, and the economy.

The chapters that carry the greatest import are both written by women. Julia Unwin, the CEO of the Rowntree Foundation, analyses the changing face of poverty, and provides the clearest warning that when work no longer provides a way out of poverty, then the implicit social contract between the individual, the state, and the market has ruptured. Adding to this dismal assessment, Ruth Fox, Director of the Hansard Society, assesses the sullen mood of a populace where so many have fallen out of love with democracy, and offers suggestions about how to ameliorate this.

And the contributions from our Archbishops? Justin Welby, more than most of the contributors, overlooks the basic fact of life that, for all except for autocrats of earlier centuries, to assert is not to effect. He argues that stability and hope are linked to purpose and productivity, high-mindedness more suited to the ephemeral world of sermons than open to scrutiny by informed readers.

Sentamu goes to great effort to make the case that something must be done, with a profusion of citations and quotations, besides paying regular homage to William Temple, in both his introduction and conclusion. This lauding of his predecessor, however, makes for nostalgic longing for the post-war consensus that the welfare of the people was the duty of the state.

Together for the Common Good is another edited collection (edited by Nicholas Sagovsky and Peter McGrail), and, unlike On Rock or Sand?, is part of a larger project that likewise goes under the name Together for the Common Good (T4CG). This is inspired by the commitment of Bishop David Sheppard and Archbishop Worlock to working together on behalf of a stricken Liverpool in the 1980s.

Catholic social teaching is much to the fore in all three sections. The first two focus on the language and traditions of the common good, and are followed by a section on the market and the common good. The subtitle, Towards a National Conversation, explains the purpose of the book, although, to be frank, very few would probably be motivated to plough through the diverse offerings. But any effort will be well rewarded. In particular, Malcolm Brown on "The Church of England and the Common Good" and Jonathan Chaplin's "Evangelicalism and the Language(s) of the Common Good" repay any effort, especially for Anglicans.

Together for the Common Good is accompanied by a study guide (at http://togetherforthecommongood.co.uk/resources/the-book.html), and is supported by conferences at St Paul's Cathedral and St Martin-in-the-Fields (a report and an audio recording of the latter, on 13 April, are now online) in the run-up to the election. This conversation is clearly a confident process led by engaged intellectuals (in contrast to academic intellectuals who, Gramsci suggested, do their work in a social vacuum and with minimal commitment to social transformation).

Readers of this review may detect a slight curl of the lip by the reviewer in response to these worthy and welcome offerings that seek to foster firm foundations for Britain's future. Why, at the outset, make an ungallant poke at these probably well-heeled commentators?

There are two reasons. First, their efforts betray a naïvety that borders on disavowal of the cultural and material gap that exists between the thinking commentariate and the brooding masses. This gap is not inevitable, however, and there are effective processes that enable those diminished by chronic exclusion to speak for themselves and rightfully and competently claim a platform - for example, the long-term work by Church Action on Poverty, and the skilful use of invitation by the Church of Scotland in hosting Poverty Truth Commissions.

Alas, both these collections, despite their intention to inform and promote conversations on the "common good", are lax in recognising the importance of who is at the table when things get said and written. Conversations that have integrity and legitimacy need the involvement of those for whom precariousness is real rather than imagined.

Second, radical social movements are suspicious of Christian concern for the poor, alert to the ease with which such concern can mask a more fundamental issue - how is it that "money goes to money"? Neither of these collections faces up to such a consideration, and, until we in the Church are prepared to ponder this question, we risk being presumed to be part of the problem rather than the solution.

Ann Morisy is a freelance community theologian and lecturer.

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