On Rock or Sand? Firm foundations for Britain's
John Sentamu, editor
Church Times Bookshop £9
Together for the Common Good: Towards a national
Nicholas Sagovsky and Peter McGrail,
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
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
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
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