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Reimagining Britain: Foundations for hope by Justin Welby

by
16 March 2018

Peter Selby considers the social imagination of Archbishop Welby

OF VISIONS of post-Brexit Britain there is no end — its opportunities, challenges, disasters, costs; nor is there likely to be for years, as Government, Opposition, and commentators have most of their energy consumed in this long process. So, the first test of any thinking about our future is whether it avoids being sucked into that vortex: is this a piece of thinking that lifts our eyes above the simplicities of the overheated Brexit debate?

This book certainly passes that test. In elaborating his call for “reimagining”, Justin Welby is daring in his range of topics, determined that the indelible marks that Christian faith and practice have left on our social fabric should be acknowledged. The book is the expression of his deepest desire: “The UK grew from Christian roots: my hope is that in the future it rediscovers the power of the narrative that has shaped it for so long and set its values so deeply.”

His introduction invites us, given the tumultuous changes that have occurred since the last great national “reimagining” in 1945, to wrestle, and in detail, with the significant developments in our society which cause him to call for a reimagining now: inter-generational justice, the vast expansion of migration, the destabilising effect of income inequality, all occurring in a plural society without common values or the shared narrative of virtue derived from the Christian tradition.

That shared narrative will not return, Welby knows, through Churches’ seeking to impose their thinking on society at large. Rather, we need to gain access from our history to the virtues of community, courage, and stability, virtues that he describes with insight drawn especially from the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Key words from that tradition appear again and again through the pages of the book — the universal destination of goods, solidarity, gratuity, the common good, subsidiarity — and are, for the most part, explained for readers who may be unfamiliar with them.

To build on our history we need policies of support for the family; educational provision that fosters abundant life for all; health and social care and housing (“the architecture of community”); and an economy and financial system that “serves and inspires”. The chapters devoted to these “building-blocks” do not shy away from detail, including statistics and graphs (some of the latter rather hard on the eye, and perhaps not always the best means of communication). In each case, we are also given biblical themes, narratives, and parables to cause us to reflect on the issues involved.

A world now globalised also requires new responses. If, in 1945, an isolated national economy was something conceivable, Britain cannot now furnish these building-blocks by itself. And, in the second of two chapters relating to our global setting, Welby insists that we cannot and should not want to wish away the politically contentious subject of migration; what is needed is far greater thought and resources to be devoted to the task of integration. He might usefully have pointed to the sheer brutality and injustice inflicted on immigrants, including asylum-seekers, by policies more focused on exclusion and deportation.

As solidarity is a key word in Welby’s thinking, the climate-change chapter focuses on the need to be in solidarity with the future — of our planet and those yet unborn — and on relating that challenge to the tradition of Christian faith which begins with the creation narrative and includes, among the most recent examples, Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’.

The two chapters before the conclusion call for a common effort by all who have the capacity to play a part in this “reimagining”, including government and the “intermediate institutions” of civil society; and he particularly calls on the faith communities and Churches to act as “healthy disrupters”, raising the questions that must not be ignored.

Thus far, this review is of the content, and the author is referred to simply by his name. But the book will not be read in that way: the Archbishop of Canterbury is right to say that his writing is not “official C of E policy”; but neither can it be a “personal contribution” to the debate. The book will be read for signs of the direction and manner of his leading; and there are clear and hopeful indications about that.

Although he professes inspiration gained from Anglican Social Theology (Church House Publishing, 2014), evidence of that in the book is hard to find; his conviction is that we are in a new time, and the Archbishop seeks to offer something new — a “reimagining” — that draws on many sources. It is interesting to draw a contrast with Faith in the City, produced more than 30 years ago by an Archbishop’s Commission; this book is an archbishop gathering his own range of advisers and taking personal responsibility for his insights; the acknowledgments at the end of the book display a deeply encouraging diversity of advice, including his annual involvement in discussions that have enriched his understanding of the RC Church’s social teaching, an enrichment shared with his readers in many parts of the book.

Such openness to a range of sources is courageous, and there is no want of courage in this book. Contentious, headline-risking observations are not avoided: the archbishop who commends competition as virtuous can also say: “Austerity is a theory for the rich and a reality of suffering for the poor. It hits the least well off disproportionately, randomly and without mercy.” It would have been good if he had included among the by-products of that austerity our dysfunctional criminal justice system, biased against the poorest and among the aspects of our society most in need of such reimagining.

In that title word, constantly reappearing throughout, lies perhaps the hardest question with which a reader of this profoundly welcome book is left: why, even in a book with such trenchant diagnoses and strong Christian convictions, do we keep seeing the terrible want of imagination in addressing the range of issues which we face?

Will incremental thought and political proposals, however passionately presented, be enough to offer us and later generations a foundation for hope? Or should we also look elsewhere to the practitioners of imagination — the artists, poets, novelists, and musicians among us — to create an inspiring image of the future for which, reflecting God’s own longing, we can hope, pray, and act?
 

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester.

 

Reimagining Britain: Foundations for hope
Justin Welby
Bloomsbury £16.99
(978-1-4729-4607-2)
Church Times Bookshop special price £12.99

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