Monday, 9 June 2008

Moral but no compass?

This morning’s report from the Cambridge Von Hugel Foundation, excellently summarized with extracts by Ruth Gledhill, raises key questions about how the Church of England serves everybody in this country, and the assumptions political elites often make about it.
In the course of our research for this report, we have encountered a Church of England that, proportionate to its size, makes extensive contributions to the civic health of the nation. Bishops engage in countless activities ranging from involvement in fundraising appeals, to regeneration, to sitting on governing bodies of local schools or colleges, to community leadership. Cathedrals serve a dual role of being centres of prayer and of great potential for social action, education and regeneration – all within a rich Christian narrative of ‘hospitality’ and ‘openness’. Dioceses contain significant resources, both financial and human, that could enable them to become meaningful players in welfare provision and the strengthening of community foundations. Congregations, with their unique ability to know and understand the situation locally, have shown a true spirit of innovation in their quest to meet the needs presented (i.e. opening a post office in church) and to raise funds for wider Christian social innovations in housing, addiction, family support and anti-poverty campaigning. In this sense, it is no wonder that Anglican organisations and institutions have been pioneers and leaders in development work, children’s needs, and every area of civil society. All in all, the Church of England has proven itself to have the conviction, institutional capacity, innovative spirit and skills to extend its current reach even more widely, should it so wish. This will be a moment for leadership in the Church. Yet, despite this immense and longstanding involvement by the Anglican Church, the government, with notable exceptions, has consistently failed to pay more than enthusiastic lip service to its role in society generally and in the third sector in particular. In turn this means that Government is being experienced at the local and national level in negative ways. Its perceived discrimination against the Christian Church and other religious bodies, coupled with the relative downgrading of regional and other
local actors, suggests a policy-making environment that has essentially excluded, or pushed to the margins, social voices (not just religious ones) that are vital to civic debate. Those whom we met felt that the social welfare contracting regime as presently constituted must be reshaped in light of these concerns.
It is clear that the Conservatives have, at the least, a rhetorical desire to address many of these issues. In the case of the Labour Government, that intention is not so clear despite, as we have said, the outstanding efforts of a few Ministers and MPs. The prevailing culture of the government seems to flow against these principled pioneers.
In this, as in other areas of English life, the story from the top down is very different from the bottom up one. Many top-down politicos habitually see the Church of England as a quaint part of the infrastructure, oft taken for granted or patronised. Our ruling cliques are polite enough, but are essentially dismissive — thus Tony Blair’s holy terror about his chums thinking the party “did God.” Politicians’ default operating modes are often instumentalist (what they can get away with), knee jerk, or spin doctored (“I have my principles, but if you don’t like them here are some others”). They haven’t, by and large got a clue about majority religions in this country on the ground. They don’t even know, or apparently care, how many people and buildings there are, let alone what they do! Inviting the odd token bishop along to a press launch is apparently a good enough substitute for any hard knowledge of what’s happening on the streets. It’s pathetic.

Out on the streets, the story is different. The local vicar is just about the last professional to live where they serve. S/he’s the person who came to see you when your mum died, who often as not had time for you and in collaboration with the long-suffering but much-maligned funeral director tried to bring a bit of kindness, respect and faith into a situation where nobody quite knew what to do. S/he’s the person you could cry with when your baby died, who wasn’t working to the NHS standard target of under ten minutes a go. S/he’s the person who your kids laugh at in assembly or playgroup. You may not understand or share all of his or her faith, but it’s good there’s someone like that around. Bottom up, most people like the local holy man or woman — the church on the corner people seldom use weekly but fight to keep open for everybody — sometimes the only public space left in the village. Remember Priest Idol? An ex-mining community in Yorkshire was shown coming to life through the sometimes halting but faithful service of a parish priest with a sense of humour who was willing to be part of the place and believe in it a bit.

And that’s just the vicars. Go to any gathering of people who energise and service real needs on the ground, heave a brick and you’ll probably hit a dozen churchwardens. I remember the launch of the Bucks Voluntary Sector compact — non religious voluntary organisations, brownies, meals on wheels, hospital friends, children’s and youth groups. I was amazed, but about two thirds of those people had strong church connections. Ask who cares about the environment? Human trafficking? Overseas Debt? Fair trade? get them in a room, and you’ll have a very similar experience. A third of the nation’s children go to Church schools of one sort or another. Instead of wondering why parents fight to get their children into them, powerful voices in politics and the media sneer cynically at others’ motives. Who made them the judge over these? This is also pathetic.

The Christian churches reflect and articulate positively, imperfectly but surprisingly clearly at times, the core values and convictions of almost 80% of the population about right and wrong, family life, loving thy neighbour, etc. Yet they embarrass our rulers, who are ashamed to be caught doing God. Surprisingly perhaps, the few politicians who have the courage of their convictions are respected for it — many people are longing for authenticity, roots, courage, and a bit of faith in place of cynicism, despair and materialism.

All UK public service provision has to be delivered according to exclusively secularist assumptions — motives well underground and privatised. Why? In Australia, for example, they have a characteristically more pragmatic and less elitist attitude. Services aren’t imposed on people according to the assumptions of the governing classes, but grown within communities themselves according to their identity and core values. There’s no particular privilege for faith groups, but neither is the local secularism all pervasive like ours. To win back much needed respect, this report suggests, our leaders need, not PR, but a grounding for their morals, concern for public truth, and a compass by which to steer that transcends vapid secularism or media hysteria.

So how do we help our ruling elites to get real about the Church of England and, for that matter, other mainline Christian Churches? All this report is doing is asking our rulers to understand and respect, rather than belittle and patronise, the core values of three quarters of the population. In most democracies this wouldn’t be too tall an order, but perhaps in Britain it is.

Perhaps the Churches have been too lily livered in the public square. Perhaps they could find new and creative ways to be transparent about their activities and quantify them in forms that are accessible to outsiders. I look forward to an interesting and more down to earth public debate in future...


Anonymous said...

Thank you for an excellent posting. I've linked to it from

Anonymous said...

Nice post alan


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