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Beyond the liberal consensus

24 March 2017

Progressives in the C of E need to cultivate a politics of persuasion, says James Walters


Campaigning for change: protesters gather outside Church House, Westminster, in February

Campaigning for change: protesters gather outside Church House, Westminster, in February

FEW British institutions could be said to embody the values of liberalism in all its forms more than the London School of Economics (LSE). Since Friedrich Hayek’s free-market ap­­proach defeated the statist policies of John Maynard Keynes, the LSE has been a bastion of economic liberalism.

Co-founded by the socialist fem­inist Beatrice Webb, and the birth­place of the Gay Liberation Front, it has been a champion of social liberalism. Today, both the staff and student bodies are socially mobile and cosmopolitan. They epitomise what has come to be called the “liberal elite”.

When Professor Michael Sandel, of Harvard University, spoke at the LSE earlier this month on the current state of capitalism, democracy, and the com­­mon good, he had some chal­lenging things to say.

”The American Republic is tilting toward tyranny,” he said; and the reason for this, as with Brexit, was a popular backlash against “a techno­cractic liberalism more congenial to the professional classes than to blue-collar and middle-class workers”. Demo­­cracies throughout the West­ern world were seeing the angry rejec­tion of an approach to politics which “is tone deaf to the resent­ments of those who feel that the economy and also the culture have left them behind”.


SO THIS concerns both economy and culture: both economic and social liberalism are under threat. Voters are rejecting a globalisation that has taken jobs elsewhere, and seemingly dis­placed native workers with low-wage immigrants. And the social liberalism that globalisation reinforced is being undermined along with it. Homophobic hate crime rose 147 per cent in Britain in the three months after Brexit, and a man who brags about sexually harassing women has be­­come leader of the Free World.

Our societies are divided almost straight down the middle, with very narrow majorities for both President Trump and Brexit. The Whiggish conviction held by many liberals in the inevitability of their ultimate victory has been profoundly shaken. There is no foreseeable liberal con­sensus. Just as the New Atheists are reeling from the shock that the world is seeing not secularisation, but religious and spiritual diversifi­cation, so our societies are experi­encing not political liberalisation, but polarisa­tion.

Professor Sandel acknowledged that a state of shock among liberals was giving way to a “feverish worry, outrage, and protest”. But in the face of such profound social division, he called not merely for a politics of protest, but also a “politics of persua­sion”. The politics of protest simply wants to defeat the other side. The politics of persuasion recognises the need to be on a shared journey during which opponents are won over. Recovering a sense of the common good can begin only with an attempt to understand the discontent that is roiling politics in democracies around the world today.


IT SEEMS highly likely that the same Zeitgeist shapes the contemp­orary Church. For decades, the liberal ideal­ist spirit of Anglicanism has favoured pro­gressive readings of history, in which tolerant consensus would be built till “the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea”.

Progressive moves such as the ordination of women have been ad­­opted with the assumption that this was the inevitable direction of travel and that opposition would eventually die.

But recent events have questioned our own belief in an ecclesial liberal consensus. The Bishops’ report on the Shared Conversations, although rejected at the General Synod, demon­strated that opposition to homosexuality remains entrenched (News, 24 February). The Dean of St Albans, the Very Dr Jeffrey John, spoke this week of the “anti-gay discrimination” that he faced after he was informed that his name would not be taken forward for the see of Llandaff.

The Crown Nominations Com­mission’s first choice for the see of Sheffield has uncomfortably re­­minded many that opposition to women’s ordination is something that the Church of England may be living with indefinitely (News, Leader com­ment, 17 March).

The politics of protest abounds, waged primarily by the keyboard warriors of social media. Liberals seek to sustain their belief in inevit­able victory by shaming and margin­alising their opponents, while tradi­tion­alists and conservative Evangel­icals see hope for Christianity only in the with­er­­ing away of the liberal tradition. No wonder that the Arch­bishop of Canterbury’s leadership focuses on the theme of “disagreeing well”.

But Professor Sandel’s “politics of persuasion” reminds us that good disagree­ment is not just a set of guidelines to permit undisturbed co­­existence. Good disagreement based simply on “Live and let live” will cause no one to flourish. The politics of persuasion points to a culture of deeper understanding of the motiva­tions of those with whom we disagree — both their given argu­ments and broader cultural factors. It means sustaining the difficult con­vers­ations, based on that empathy, to develop a shared openness to new ways of moving forward from our current positions.

The bad news for liberals in the Church of England is that, within a global context of destabilising social change and reactionary backlash, the Church can easily become a refuge for conservative entrenchment. But under­­standing that motivation, and acknowledging that the opponents of liberalism will not simply “see sense” or go away, might enable us to cul­tivate a Christian politics of persua­sion.

We need to abandon the belief that our problems will be solved through liberal consensus. Instead, we should foster our unity in Christ through an empathetic exchange of perspectives which enables coexist­ence — and can even lead people to change their minds.


Canon James Walters is Chaplain to the London School of Economics and director of the LSE Faith Centre.

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