I never expected this. I have been studying official Church of England publications for many years. In every case I was at best critical of a number of claims, often totally opposed. I never expected to see something so good that it would positively excite me.
It has come. It is called ‘Who is my neighbour?’ In the introduction it describes itself as
a letter from the House of Bishops to the people and parishes of the Church of England for the General Election 2015.
Alongside a healthy openness to new ideas, worrying and unfamiliar trends are appearing in our national life. There is a growing appetite to exploit grievances, find scapegoats and create barriers between people and nations. The issues around the election call for a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be… how can we negotiate these dangerous times to build the kind of society which many people say they want but which is not yet being expressed in the vision of any of the parties? (§§1&3)
What, not any of the parties? I would like to exclude the party I support, and no doubt others will feel the same; but the Letter picks up that widespread sense that the traditional parties are led by a professional political caste yet to appreciate the need for significant change. In Southern Europe new parties have sprung up in reaction against the old ways, and the Greek one is already in government. As we read on we find that the situation is explained rather well.
Its main limitation is that it bends over backwards to avoid recommending or blaming any one party. This is a limitation we must accept: no national church would do otherwise, least of all the Established Church.
After the introductory comments it defends itself against the claim that religion should keep its nose out of politics. Religion is about the whole of life, not just the private (§6). This is spelt out in a way which links specifically Christian language with the political agenda. It is a tricky thing to do and cannot please everyone. The bit I like best is
Christians everywhere and throughout the ages have prayed, as part of The Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven”. That is why politics and the life of the Christian disciple cannot be separated. That is why the church calls its members to play a full part in the political life of the nation and to support politicians and the government with their prayers (§12).
Because the Letter is so well worded I offer extracts rather than summaries. I have aimed to pick out the most important points, and have rearranged the order a bit. At the end I offer some concluding remarks.
How is the political culture failing?
Politicians today are held in low esteem but we should not blame individual politicians (§22). Outside Scotland most people think it will make little difference which party is in power:
Our democracy is failing because successive administrations have done little to address the trends which are most influential in shaping ordinary people’s lives… no one in politics today has a convincing story about a healthy balance between national government and global economic power. (§§25 & 26).
The different parties have failed to offer attractive visions of the kind of society and culture they wish to see, or distinctive goals they might pursue. Instead, we are subjected to sterile arguments about who might manage the existing system best. There is no idealism in this prospectus (§29).
Parties fashion their policies to attract the marginal constituencies:
The idea that politics is about satisfying the wants of distinct groups so as to win their votes has prevented our politics from rising above a kind of Dutch auction (§31).
We need more substantial change:
Our country is hungry for a new approach to political life that will “change the political weather” as decisively as did the administrations of 1945 and 1979. We need a new political story that will enable the people of Britain to articulate who they are, what they want to become and how they will work together to live virtuously as well as prosperously. No such thing is yet on offer for 2015, though this may be an election that sows the seeds from which a new narrative might emerge. Or it may be an election which confirms people in cynicism and despair and sows a very different sort of seed from which may grow a tree of conflict, unrest and division (§§90-91).
Why are we in this position now?
We are now as distant in time from Margaret Thatcher’s first government as hers was from Attlee’s. Both administrations changed the way people looked at society, politics, the role of government and the nature of human relationships. But today, neither vision addresses our condition… Thatcher’s market revolution emphasised individualism, consumerism and the importance of the corporate sector to the extent that, far from returning to Victorian notions of social responsibility, the paradigm for all relationships became competitive individualism, consumption and the commercial contract, fragmenting social solidarity at many levels. (§35 & 37).
How to respond?
To name only a few of the major questions which contemporary politics seems determined to avoid, we need a richer justification for the state, a better account of the purposes of government, and a more serious way of talking about taxation. Most of all, we need an honest account of how we must live in the future if generations yet to come are not to inherit a denuded and exhausted planet…
Decent answers to the questions facing the nation will only emerge when politicians start to promote a dialogue with the people about a worthwhile society, how individuals, communities and the nation relate to each other, and the potentials and limitations of politics in achieving such ends (§28).
Governments will always tend to prefer structures which accumulate more power to themselves – and oppositions will collude with this in the hope that their turn in power will come – leaving ordinary people increasingly powerless… A good constitution will maximise the involvement of as many people as possible in the decisions that shape their country, their neighbourhood and their family (§§97 & 99).
Consumption, rather than production, has come to define us, and individualism has tended to estrange people from one another. So has an excessive emphasis on competition regarded as a sort of social Darwinism (§§44-45).
We are most human when we know ourselves to be dependent on others. That is something we first learn in families, if we are fortunate enough to experience the blessings of family life… Our society celebrates the autonomy of individuals but does too little to acknowledge that dependency on others is what makes human beings social creatures. Paradoxically, too much stress on the individual, and on the supposedly autonomous choices of the individual-as-consumer, has tended to diminish rather than enhance the moral significance of each unique person. It has led us to undervalue individuals who exhibit weakness, are dependent on others, or who try to live selflessly. When individuality is thought to stem from autonomy and freedom of choice, a particular image of the ideal individual – young, free, attractive, and materially comfortable – becomes the archetype against which everyone is measured and most are found wanting (§§59-60).
Too much stress on individualism thus undermines equality:
Most people, when asked, subscribe to some version of the idea that all people are created equal. Yet this is contradicted in the way that some categories of people are spoken about… It is particularly counter-productive to denigrate those who are in need, because this undermines the wider social instinct to support one another in the community. For instance, when those who rely on social security payments are all described in terms that imply they are undeserving, dependent, and ought to be self-sufficient, it deters others from offering the informal, neighbourly support which could ease some of the burden of welfare on the state (§§61-62).
Stirring up resentment against some identifiable “other” always dehumanises some social group or people. Ethnic minorities, immigrants, welfare claimants, bankers and oligarchs – all have been called up as threats to some fictitious “us”. They become the hated “other” without whose presence among us all would be well. It is a deep irony that the whole political class is often regarded as an alien “other” by many sectors of the population (§76).
The politics of migration has, too often, been framed in crude terms of “us” and “them” with scant regard for the Christian traditions of neighbourliness and hospitality. The way we talk about migration, with ethnically identifiable communities being treated as “the problem” has, deliberately or inadvertently, created an ugly undercurrent of racism in every debate about immigration (§103).
Indebtedness means handing power over one’s life to the creditor – widespread indebtedness is another manifestation of the accumulation of power in too few hands. This is as true for nations as for individuals and families (§107).
It has been widely observed that the greatest burdens of austerity have not been born by those with the broadest shoulders… Those whose margin of material security was always narrow have not been adequately protected from the impact of recession (§110).
We have seen the burgeoning of in-work poverty – people who, despite working hard, cannot earn enough to live decently. The market can, and does, allow wages to rise and fall in response to demand and supply. But human lives are not infinitely flexible… This is why the Church of England has backed the concept of the Living Wage… It represents the basic principle that people are not commodities… The labour market cannot enable people to live and flourish unless the moral limits of the market are recognised (§§112-113).
I quote this paragraph in full as it deserves to be circulated in its own right.
At this election, we can sow the seeds of a new politics. We encourage voters to support candidates and policies which demonstrate the following key values:
• Halting and reversing the accumulation of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands, whether those of the state, corporations or individuals.
• Involving people at a deeper level in the decisions that affect them most.
• Recognising the distinctive communities, whether defined by geography, religion or culture, which make up the nation and enabling all to thrive and participate together.
• Treating the electorate as people with roots, commitments and traditions and addressing us all in terms of the common good and not just as self-interested consumers.
• Demonstrating that the weak, the dependent, the sick, the aged and the vulnerable are persons of equal value to everybody else.
• Offering the electorate a grown up debate about Britain’s place in the world order and the possibilities and obligations that entails (§120).
The main points I would make about this Letter are as follows.
1) It is right to draw attention to the current disillusionment with politicians as an issue in its own right, an issue which shows that, collectively, the political class are trying to achieve what public opinion considers to be the wrong objectives. To my mind, top of the list would be economic growth for its own sake. Management of the economy has become the one thing above all else on which governments expect to be judged. Increasingly political debate is between those who want to grow the economy at the expense of other priorities, and those concerned to protect the other priorities. No wonder people are disillusioned.
2) Its account of the development of this situation is in my view correct. Attlee established a social consensus that lasted until the late 1970s. Thatcher replaced it with a very different social consensus, which is now unravelling. We need something new, and we cannot simply go back to Attlee’s.
Nevertheless, there are places where its care to balance a criticism of the right with a criticism of the left seems to me rather forced. Some texts imply, but do not spell out, what I consider to be a central Christian principle – central because it expresses the teaching and actions of Jesus, who himself seems to have understood it as central to the scriptures known Christians know as the Old Testament.
This principle is that the quality of a society is to be judged not by its overall wealth or power, but by how it treats the most disadvantaged, the poor and despised. By this measure Attlee’s system must be judged vastly superior to Thatcher’s whatever its organisational failures; but Thatcher herself should not be blamed for the rapidly deteriorating situation of recent years, when many thousands depend on food banks just to eat.
3) Resentment of ‘the other’ seems to me a significant element in our deteriorating culture. When societies become ill at ease with themselves, the usual response is to pick on unpopular minorities and treat them as scapegoats. The theologian René Girard has explored this theme at length. The most disadvantaged members of a society can be helped or they can be despised. Governments often find ways to direct the despising for their own electoral advantage. Recently the emphasis has been on blaming the unemployed and immigrants for society’s ills. They are not to blame, but blaming them distracts attention from the real causes.
4) The remarks about debt are well judged, but again I would have gone further. To speak of ‘the moral limits of the market’ is now essential because it is so controversial. Neo-liberal economic theory often promotes the view that the market itself is the supreme moral authority in economic matters.
A topical example is the language of ‘forgiveness’ of debts used by Angela Merkel and others regarding the current negotiations with Greece. The cumulative effect of the operations of the Euro and the International Monetary Fund, and the way creditors calculate interest rates, has been to produce a ‘market’ in which wealth predictably migrates from poorer to richer countries. To describe debt cancellations as ‘forgiveness’ is to presuppose that this ‘market’ sets the standards of morality. On the contrary, a market that produces this result should itself be judged inadequate in the light of civilised moral standards.
5) Compared with other recent Church of England reports the Letter uses a clearer, more convincing language. The recent pattern has been to cite a large number of biblical texts, especially at the beginning, and make rather pompous claims about them before getting down to the serious business. The purpose of the citations is to reassure those Christians who believe that true statements need direct biblical sanction. Mercifully this Letter does not do that. The reference to the Lord’s Prayer cited above illustrates exactly how biblical quotations should be used. A passionate atheist could see the point of the statement. I am less comfortable with the two preceding paragraphs (§§10-11), which seem to suggest that the incarnation and resurrection of Christ are essential elements of the argument. They are not. I assume that these paragraphs are included for the benefit of those who prefer an exclusive Christianity; but of course the more ground we give to them, the more non-Christian sympathisers we exclude. However, the limited number of such texts marks a great improvement over most recent Church publications.
Both in its language and in its content, this is an excellent publication. If I could change it, I would add more to the points already made, but this is hardly a fair criticism.
I am useless at predicting the results of elections, but I will hazard this much. This Letter will not have a significant effect between now and 7th May. However it should have some effect. Thereafter, whichever party is in government, I guess that by the end of the year its popularity will have plummeted – for the reasons given here. Then there may well be a growing sense that we need to look for something different, much as has happened in Greece and Spain, and perhaps this document will be a valued resource.