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Society needs us to be Anglican, not sectarian

11 May 2018

The C of E’s ability to hold together different points of view has much to teach politicians, says Malcolm Brown

MORE than 75 years years since William Temple argued, in Christianity and Social Order, that the Church had a right and duty to “interfere” in political and social policy issues, we seem to be witnessing new interest in the interface between religion and public life.

Much current public thinking about theology and society focuses on Roman Catholic Social Teaching, but neglects the important Anglican tradition, which is less comprehensively codified, but arguably, since Temple, more influential in British history.

There is a distinctive and robust tradition of social theology within Anglicanism, especially the Church of England. I argued in Anglican Social Theology, published in 2014, that the continuities in the tradition would be able to carry the weight of repositioning Anglican thinking in response to financial crisis of 2008, which led either to an aggressively resurgent market and social liberalism, or to an authoritarian and introspective reaction to it.

Although an aggressive mode of liberalism appears, superficially, to have followed the financial crisis, deeper doubts about both social and economic liberalism are also surfacing more prominently.

BUT, in mainstream politics, we see no shift in the political centre of gravity comparable to Clement Attlee’s administration in 1945, or Margaret Thatcher’s in 1979. No party is addressing today’s febrile context with any depth of thought about how politics should justify itself to the people.

It is worth recalling that Temple used the term “welfare state” not as a description of the policies brought in by Attlee’s government, but as a rationale for the state itself, contrasting a state devoted to enhancing the welfare of its citizens with the totalitarian “power state” in which the citizen’s job was to venerate and project the might of the state.

Today, with mutual admiration between Presidents Putin and Trump, and populism rising in Europe and elsewhere, who can say that the dream of the power state is dead? Perhaps the Welfare State will be killed, not by a thousand cuts, but by the death of any philosophical commitment to a state legitimised by its pursuit of the welfare of the citizen.

Rejecting both the Right’s project of the minimal state and the Left’s nostalgia for the 1945 settlement, the Bishops’ Pastoral Letter for the 2015 General Election called for a new kind of communitarian politics (News, 15 February 2015). What we got, a year later, was the vote for Brexit, where both Leave and Remain campaigns merely emphasised the shallowness of contemporary political thought. Yet it is clear that the Brexit vote was, in its way, a reassertion of the importance of culture, community, and identity.

It was clear that the Bishops’ Pastoral Letter reflected the political movements known as Red Tory and Blue Labour. Both draw explicitly, though differently, on Christian conceptions of society, and share explicitly theological antecedents.

Neither Red Tory nor Blue Labour has yet captured the policy trajectory of the parties. Yet, when she became Prime Minister, The Guardian could speculate that Theresa May was an instinctive Red Tory, and argue for those on the Left to recognise the congruences with Blue Labour.

But Mrs May’s problem is that her party has become an unstable coalition. And, if there is one thing that Anglicans ought to understand, it is coalition, since we have been a coalition Church since at least the Civil War.

THE Church of England today is a coalition of three parties. This is not political pragmatism: it is theological reality. The Jesus of St Luke’s Gospel needs to be filled out by the Jesus of John before we can grasp his full significance. The epistles of Paul need the corrective of James to capture the tensions and potentials of discipleship. The insights of the Catholic, Evangelical, and liberal theological traditions need the corrective influences of each other to embrace the depth and beauty of the Christian inheritance.

The Church knows, or at least ought to know, that people in parishes and communities have not abandoned God, even if they have abandoned the Church that seemed for so long to have abandoned them. The “ordinary people”, as they are patronisingly called (and, yes, some of them had seen enough of the broken global economic settlement to vote for Brexit), have not abandoned family ties, nor given up on simple acts of unsung neighbourliness which make life bearable.

The Church, more than any other institution, sees this day after day — sometimes in programmes of social action; more often in small acts of generosity to neighbour or stranger. If those impulses could be captured in a new political settlement, a period of political danger might be turned into a moment for serious political change.

But, to get there, we must learn to be really Anglican and not sectarians treating Anglicanism as a flag of convenience. We have been too coy for too long about Anglican “vagueness”, “wishy-washiness”, and moderation. Yet those epithets represent the skills needed to maintain the kind of coalition that knows that, whenever you think that you have a unique hold on truth, it is certain that you haven’t.

Temple showed that, even in the middle of a war that threatened the nation’s very survival, Christian theology and ethics could inform public debate about the sort of society we wanted to be. It may just be that the climate of society and politics today is again ready for a Church that speaks of vision and hope in surprising terms.

The Revd Dr Malcolm Brown is Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England.

This is a much abridged version of a lecture given recently at Blackburn Cathedral, in the series Transforming Communities. A version was originally published on the blog of the William Temple Foundation.

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