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Beyond human rights to responsibilities

29 January 2016

Local mutually supportive networks are the fabric of a just society, argues Adrian Leak


Building Jerusalem: volunteers at a community lunch club

Building Jerusalem: volunteers at a community lunch club

THE Conservative Party manifesto for the General Election in May said that the Government intended to introduce a Bill, during the lifetime of this Parliament, to abolish the 1998 Human Rights Act, and replace it with a new one.

Opinions about the 1998 Act are sharply divided. Some believe that it protects our liberties by incorporating into UK law the rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights. Others believe that it is a surrender of our judicial independence to foreign interference, and that it has released a flood of mischievous litigation, which appears to favour the criminal.

Besides the rights debate, however, there lies another equally important issue. It concerns our responsibilities as individual citizens, and the extent to which we care about each other. The glue that holds our country together is found only partly in its laws; it also manifests itself in our good will as we engage with one another.

And it is in the families, friendships, and voluntary organisations of local society where we can see this good will most effectively at work.


IN THE debate over rights, we risk losing sight of the basic truth that a nation cannot live by rights alone. Lord Habgood, in his Sydney Bailey Memorial Lecture at Westminster Abbey, in 1998 (when the Act was being introduced), said: “The indiscriminate use of the concept of rights can undermine morality at its very core by focusing attention on what the world owes us rather than on the network of mutual obligations and shared assumptions which compose the fabric of a healthy society.”

The language of rights is necessarily self-concerned and divisive. It is inherently contentious. There is nothing wrong with that: if individuals and minority groups have to fight for equal rights, that is not their fault, but the fault of a careless society.

Yet a Bill of Rights, however well drafted, can give only a partial, perhaps even a distorted, picture of our nation. We must dig deeper to find the roots of a just society, to discover those networks of mutual obligation where the qualities of compassion, forbearance, loyalty, and affection supplement those of the law court, with its judicial impartiality and measured quid pro quo.


WE ARE more than mere individuals, each defined by a portfolio of human rights. What defines our humanity is our engagement with others.

“We are most human when we are in community. To be fully human, I need to be fully engaged with my community.” These words of the South African theologian David Bosch may have been in Tony Blair’s mind when he said, in a lecture in Southwark Cathedral in 1996 to mark the tenth anniversary of Faith in the City: “We are social beings, nurtured in families and communities, and human only because we develop the moral power of personal responsibility for ourselves and each other.”

For Christians, as for Jews, from whom we have inherited the shema (Deuteronomy 6.4), the instruction to love one’s neighbour is fundamental, and second only to loving God. To the question “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus’s response (in the Lukan account) was the parable of the Good Samaritan. So responsibility for each other exceeds the call of duty.

Compassion outruns the pace of duty, and is bound to do so by its very nature. It calls for a voluntary response of “going the extra mile”. For this, there can be no law. It is immediate, voluntary, and, above all, local.


THE network of mutual obligations (to use Lord Habgood’s phrase) through which we develop our personal responsibility for each other is most clearly displayed in those groupings familiar to daily life: family, friends, neighbourhood, church, school, workshop, office, choir, team, telephone, Facebook. Our interaction with each other at this immediate level creates bonds so resilient that they can outlive empires, cross cultural boundaries, survive wars, and start revolutions.

The Bible, not usually read as a text book on sociology, provides valuable insights into how society works. In particular, it focuses, both in the Old Testament and the New, on the extended family as the effective unit of social life.

Here is an example of society in the pre-Christian Levant. In Proverbs 31.10-31, there is an account of a large, busy household. It is often read on Mothering Sunday as a tribute to womanhood: “Who can find a virtuous woman? Her price is far above rubies” — which, of course, it is.

It is also, however, a celebration of female headship, and a paean for household management. Read it, and you will find — besides courtesy and competence — effective management, care for the household staff, shrewd investment, and concern for the poor. There are also allusions to the town council (it met at the town gate) and, by implication, the local estate agent and conveyancing clerk, whose attendance must have been needed to witness the purchase of the field.

We miss the point, however, if we read it only as a salute to good household management. It is also an allegory of Wisdom: divine Wisdom, foreshadowing the Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos, personified elsewhere in Proverbs 9.1-6 as the generous hostess who prepares her table, and here as the efficient and caring housewife. It is in the domestic economy of a well-run household that the writer perceived a revelation of divine Wisdom.


IT IS rare to find anything in the configuration of 21st-century Western society quite like this extended household, which combines business, workshop, and home; but we do have something equally precious and robust.

Our medieval ancestors developed the self-governing guild, or corporation, as a model for mercantile and professional life —— a construct that did more to shape urban society than any other institution apart from the monarchy and the Church (although even the Church, at that time, was a collection of semi-autonomous corporations).

Incorporation was a device that conferred on these local groups the legal status of a person, and, by doing so, allowed the incorporated body to hold property in its own name, and to sue, or be sued, in court. This gave the corporation a continuity of existence distinct from its individual members.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, corporate life in our growing towns burgeoned. University colleges, trading companies, craft guilds, hospices for the old and infirm, schools, Inns of Court, social fraternities, and charities provided an environment in which individual citizens could flourish in community.

Today, the small corporation continues to exist in many areas of our nation’s life. Besides those ancient foundations already mentioned, and still active today, there are countless modern examples of local corporate life, among which, for example, are the village horticultural society, the Women’s Institute, the cricket club, the corner shop, the parish church, the local garage, and countless other incorporated bodies that either deliberately or accidentally foster social interaction.

These bodies, mostly voluntary, are structures in which individuals can exercise their gifts of co-operation and competition, loyalty and leadership. And, as anyone who has been a member of a PCC knows, they also offer excellent opportunities for forbearance and conciliation.


ANOTHER area of society in which the network of mutual obligation can flourish is the extended family: that wide fellowship of kith and kin in which we are nurtured, and through which we first learn to exercise our responsibility for each other.

The New Testament gives us glimpses of Jesus’s extended family. Before his birth, when his mother was carrying him in her womb, she went to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, who was also expecting a baby. When Jesus was 12, the year of his bar mitzvah, he accompanied his extended family to Jerusalem for Passover. The party was big enough for the boy to slip away unseen.

Then there was the wedding at Cana. We are told that his mother was there, and her instructions to the servants indicate her status. She was more than just a guest: she was “family”. It is a fair guess that Jesus’s siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins were also present. This was the context of “the first miracle that he wrought”. And his last action in his earthly life was to commend his mother and his close friend, John, to each other — to create a new household.

When Jesus began his ministry, at the age of 30, he already had a network of friends and relations from which to draw his disciples.

In the incarnation, divinity became enmeshed in humanity — not just in the single person of Jesus, but also in the fabric of the family and society of which he was and is a member. There is a sacred continuity between the individual and the community through Christ’s incarnation in history, as well as through the eucharist (“We are one body because we all share in one bread”).


WE NEED our rights. Of course we do. We need our laws to protect the individual citizen from injustice at the hands of a bullying State or a careless society. The world owes a great debt to the civil-rights movements of the 20th century.

Nevertheless, to maintain and heal the fabric of society, we need more than our rights: we need compassion, forbearance, loyalty, humour, and affection — those qualities more easily found in the small print of local life than the headlines of national politics.

Politicians are able to do their bit at the national level to give us wise laws; but it is up to us, as individual citizens, to provide, through our local networks, the good will that we alone can give, and without which there can be no just society.


The Revd Adrian Leak is an Hon. Assistant Priest at Holy Trinity, Bramley, in the diocese of Guildford.

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