Book of the month

Janet Backman considers the controversy surrounding the recently published collection of essays edited by the Archbishop of York


Firm foundations for Britain’s Future

Edited by John Sentamu

SPCK, 224pp, pbk

978 0281071746, Ł9.99

On the day that I began to write this review, the Daily Telegraph ran a front page story under the headline: ‘Church: We need the EU’. The article began, ‘There is an "enduring argument" for greater European Union integration, the Church of England has said, in a deeply political intervention ahead of the general election’. The full article inside the paper went further, saying that the Church was ‘preparing to campaign for greater European Union intervention’. It isn’t true, of course. The Telegraph knows it isn’t true. Readers of the Telegraph would have discovered it isn’t true if they had read far enough into the article.

What the document in question – a letter signed by a number of bishops, which is a slightly different thing from the mind of the Church – actually says is that while post-war history does not serve as an endorsement for the European Union as it currently exists, ‘it is an enduring argument for continuing to build structures of trust and cooperation between the nations of Europe’.

Discerning readers will note that this is a very different thing to campaigning for the EU. But I suppose that ‘Church leaders ask countries to play nice’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as a headline.

Christian response

The Daily Telegraph has form in this department. Along with other members of the right-wing press, it greeted On Rock or Sand?, the recently published collection of essays edited by John Sentamu and including a chapter by Justin Welby, with so much wailing and gnashing of teeth that readers might have been forgiven for thinking the two Archbishops had stormed the gates of Downing Street, mantled in red flags and bearing copies of Das Kapital. It isn’t true, of course. But I suppose that ‘Archbishops commend Christianity’ doesn’t have a whole lot of punch as a headline either.

But that is, so far as I can make out, the substance of On Rock or Sand? The book is not without its flaws – of which more in a moment – but it is fundamentally an unexceptionable programme for responding in a Christian way to many of the current issues in society – no more, and no less.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book is rather better at diagnosing and analysing these ailments than at offering remedies for them. At least, I find the former more convincing than the latter.

Safety net

In the opening chapter, Archbishop Sentamu establishes that morality should be a public concern, not a private matter; that Christians are called to speak truth to power, not least on social issues; and that the Church must present a vision for the ordering of our social life – in other words a political vision, though not a party-political one. This is a good exposition of

fairly standard Christian theology. Where Sentamu is perhaps on slightly more controversial ground is in his analysis of the current political situation, and his understanding as to how we got here. He quotes William Temple who, on the creation of the Welfare State wrote, ‘This is the first time anybody had set out to embody the whole spirit of the Christian ethic in an Act of Parliament’. And in different ways each of the contributors views the Welfare State as an unalloyed good thing.

Undoubtedly this is true so far as it goes – a safety net for the poor and needy is part of what defines a society as civilized. However, what is largely lacking here is any probing analysis of whether the Welfare State has continued in recent years to function as Temple, William Beveridge, and the Attlee government intended it to. Is the Welfare State still fit for purpose? Or, to put it another way: even if we accept the argument that ‘the social compact which the Welfare State represented is now under threat’, that by no means dictates that an ever-burgeoning Welfare State, which consistently draws more and more people into its grasp until it is not so much a safety net as a trawler, is necessarily the answer today. To be fair, it isn’t stated explicitly here that it is, but there is very often a tone which certainly suggests that it might be!

Politics and theology

Some of the essays in this book are more overtly political than others. To my mind, the more political the essay, the less convincing it is. Or to put it more positively, the more theological the essay, the more powerful it is. So Oliver O’Donovan’s stimulating essay on work, grounded on Christian principles and beginning from the starting point that our common vocation is to work (Genesis 2.15), is among the best contributions to this book.

I find Julia Unwin’s chapter on the changing face of poverty more challenging. I wonder whether the ‘social contract’ that she sets out has ever actually existed in reality, and I would question the extent to which her optimistic analysis of the motivation of the ‘undeserving poor’ (a term she uses in order to reject it) is actually true. Certainly, it is a pity that what is among the most political of the contributions to this volume contains very few footnotes or references to back up its repeated assertions about what is and is not based on reality in the current debates about poverty.

‘Good work’

One area which Unwin does rightly identify as hugely important – and it is picked up by other contributors too – is the question of the ‘living wage’, and the fact that being in employment no longer guarantees a life free from poverty.

Other contributors add to the discussion of this ‘new poverty’, along with the associated concepts of ‘good work’ and ‘bad work’. These are important issues with which the Church does need to grapple.

However, I wonder once again whether the concept of ‘good work’, work which is founded on cooperation and both utilises and creates solidarity, has ever actually existed to any large extent in the way that the authors seem to suggest. Was working in appalling conditions at the coal-face of a deep-shaft mine really any more ‘good work’ than the current problems presented by global corporations and zero-hour contracts? I am not suggesting this means that we should not strive to improve things as they stand; merely that harking back to a supposed golden age is not the most constructive way of doing it.

Facing a challenge

Whatever the merits and demerits of each individual chapter (health, education and ageing are among the subjects given particular attention here), where each and every contribution to this book is valuable is in acknowledging – indeed insisting – that the interplay between theology and politics is not only a valid one, but a necessary one. Indeed, despite its flaws, this book is an important one precisely because the basic Christian principles with which it deals are becoming so far removed from our political discourse that the idea of anyone – including the Church – telling others how they should behave is becoming anathema to many. This is the ‘ethics of I’, of which I have written previously in these pages, writ large.

As the Archbishop of Canterbury puts it in his contribution, ‘today there is no commonly held story about what is right and good’. This has led – and is leading – to a breakdown in the social contract (however we might define such a term), to the extent that the Archbishop claims that ‘we are a people in crisis’. His conclusion is that neither markets nor governments alone can solve the problems we face. The change has to be ‘in our hearts and minds’. In this he is surely correct, but we face a tremendous challenge in achieving this change in an age in which the fundamental Christian understanding of what it means to be a human is so far removed from the values and structures of society. This also bodes badly for the future well-being of the Church. The perception gap between what the Church says and what others hear is a crisis as much for the Church as for society.

First principles

Like Sentamu, Archbishop Welby might seem to enter choppier waters when he offers specific remedies – though even these can hardly be construed as deliberately party political, unless one is determined to find such a thing in his words. They include the adoption of the Living Wage, the provision of good and affordable housing, improvement in education and training, and fairer access to financial services. Hardly the stuff of which revolutions are made!

Nonetheless, this book is at its best when dealing with first principles. The trouble is that first principles don’t supply a ready-made, self-assembly answer to life’s problems. In an essay which is part summary of the rest of the book, and part programme for the future, Sir Philip Mawer (the first Independent Reviewer as created by the women bishops legislation) comes closest to bridging this gap. He calls for ‘values-based politics’, the foundations of which rest on four key principles: the equal and integral worth of all human beings; equality of opportunity; mutuality of well-being, sustained by vibrant communities (‘mutual flourishing’); and the rights and responsibilities of individuals. As Sir Philip makes clear – and Archbishop Sentamu echoes in his conclusion – this is not a blueprint for a party political manifesto, but rather a vision for the common good to which all responsible political parties should feel able to subscribe. It is a vision for the future built on the rock of the Gospel, and not on the shifting sands of contemporary desires.

The Good News

That is why a secular world will have difficulty in understanding the purpose of the book, and indeed will choose to focus on the parts that are more overtly political, thereby feeling able to ignore what is actually the more challenging message of the book: not whether individual reforms might or might not be desirable, but whether society as a whole will listen to the first principles enunciated here. That is why the book is important: because those first principles are those of the Gospel. And the Church has a duty to proclaim that Good News afresh to every generation. The question remains: is anybody listening? ND

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