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Sunday, December 4, 2016
Text of Archbishop Rowan Williams' Richard Dimbleby Lecture - Part 2
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 In such a world, political conflict is likely to be about shifting patterns of advantage rather than major ideological concerns (as it has largely become already in the USA). You'll remember that television drama in mid-November, The Project, tracing the crises of conscience, the hard choices of a group of political enthusiasts in the years that saw the shaping of New Labour? One of the defining moments in that was when the unscrupulous political adviser says to the idealistic young MP with the words, 'It's just a game'. If that is really what politics comes to be, arguments about what is due to human beings as such, arguments about the nature of the story, mine and ours, become a waste of time - whatever the political party. So the problem of the market state looks rather like this. By pushing politics towards a consumerist model, with the state as the guarantor of 'purchasing power', it raises short-term expectations. By raising short-term expectations, it invites instability, reactive administration, rule by opinion poll and pressure. To facilitate some of its goals and to avoid chaos, government inevitably relies more on centralised managerial authority. So there will be a dangerous tension between excessive government and the paralysis that can result from trying to respond adequately to consumer demand. To put it in another way, government and culture drift apart: government abandons the attempt to give shape to society. Is this such a bad thing? A good many, here and in the USA, would say that it's relatively positive. But those who do say that are often those who can afford to feel confident about the strength of non-governmental communities that support and nourish the sense of continuity, the sense of a story, which I have been suggesting is vital for reasonable moral action that looks beyond the immediate scene. Take a wider look, though, and the picture is not encouraging in this respect. We are still, in this country, very much at sea over what concrete moral content we want to see in our children's education. In those environments where there is acute deprivation, including deprivation of everyday habits of mutuality and respect, a school bears an impossible burden of trying to create a 'culture' practically on its own, because the institutions that help you shape a story for your life are not around. Family continuity is rare; conventional religious practice is minimal; shared public activity is unusual. These are communities in which a school curriculum about 'values', however passionately believed, can yield heartbreakingly disappointing results. Those who are taught come from and go to a social environment in which common life, in the simplest sense, has often become problematic. Work and relationships tend to be equally transient. What teachers do achieve in such settings is little short of miraculous - I have seen enough of this in the South Wales valleys to make me very impatient of the tendency to scapegoat teachers for our ills. But it is often our attempt to make bricks without straw. Let me put it provocatively. We are no longer confident of educating children in a tradition. Schools can't do the job of a whole society, sustaining a 'tradition' on behalf of the whole community, an accepted set of perspectives on human priorities and relationships, a feel for the conventions of common life; they can do a certain amount of damage limitation in the context of a rootless social environment, but cannot of themselves sustain a culture that can command loyalty outside the school gates. What they can manage by way of civic and moral education is for the most part - inevitably - at the formal level, the procedural level - encouraging general respect and tolerance. Which is excellent, but doesn't help define a positive core of vision. It can easily degenerate into vague uplift. You may have sat through - as I have, many times - school choirs performing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. I have a very soft spot for it - but as I listen to 'Any dream will do' my conscience bothers me: it's as though although the ideal personal goal recommended were simply activating your potential in any direction you happen to set your heart on. And that it echoes rather cruelly in some of the social settings I've described. And it is in any case a vision that has nothing to say about shared humanity and the hard labour of creating and keeping going a shared world of values. Being provocative again, I'd want to say that a proper use of tradition makes us more not less critical and independent in society. The great revolt against traditional authority in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a necessary moment, because tradition was understood as the way in which the past dominated the present - or at least how some people's version of the past seeks to limit what's possible now. But what about the person who is now able to inhabit a tradition with confidence, fully aware that it isn't' t the only possible perspective on persons and things, but equally aware that they are part of a network of relations and conventions far wider than what is instantly visible or even instantly profitable, and this network is inseparable from who they concretely are? I suspect that many of us would recognise in this more of freedom than of slavery, because it makes possible a real questioning of the immediate agenda of a society, the choices that are defined and managed for you by the market. Further: if specifically religious tradition has a place here, it is because of those elements that only religious conviction seems to secure in our sense of what is human. For the religious believer - very particularly in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim worlds - each of us, and each item in our environment, exists first in relation to something other than me, my needs, my instincts. They are related to a life or agency quite independent of any aspect of how things happen to be or happen to turn out in the universe; to the eternal, to God. To see or know anything adequately is to be aware of its relation to the eternal. So that we care - say - about the environment not simply because of concern for the human future of our descendants (since we see them in potential relation to God and therefore as people having a claim to live in an environment that is not ruined), but also because of the prior relation that the material world to itself, has to its maker. And if the stuff of the world around us is related to, grounded in God, our current human desires, our immediate agenda, cannot exhaust what can be said about that world. Or, to take the other long-term moral and social issue I mentioned, there are things that must be said about penal policy if you want to see both criminal and victim in the light of their prior relation to God, not just in relation to each other or to 'society'. Penal policy should, in a religious perspective, be asking about how everyone involved grows in human maturity. Without that, there is no mending of the relations broken by crime; but it can't happen unless there is some radical awareness of a person's distinctiveness in relation to God. And I'm not talking about a sentimental belief in the innate capacities of the criminal, let alone seeing the criminal as victim; it's simply a recognition that some other presence, some other relationship is at work in the offender, over and above what is involved in dealing with the offence itself. What I see as typical of religious tradition, then, is the sense of arriving in the wake of relations that are already established, in a way that puts into perspective what my immediate agenda happens to be. And I want to argue that without that relativising moment, our whole politics is likely to be in deep trouble. In the heyday of the welfarist nation state, there was a reasonable case for saying that public morality was taken for granted, and that particular religious loyalties might be something of a problem. The normal language of liberalism still repeats this, assuming that the culture of political rights and liberties and governmental duties is obvious, and that religious communities can be and must be relegated to a sphere of private choice. But here is one of the paradoxes of the transition to a new model of the state. Because of its abandonment of a clear morality for the public sphere, the market state is in danger of linking its legitimacy, its right to be taken seriously by citizens, to its capacity to maximise varieties of personal insurance; but as it does so, it reinforces those elements in popular political culture that undermine the very idea of reasonable politics, the rule of law and the education of active citizens. What if the answer to why we should do what government tells us in the new era had something to do with the willingness of the market state government to engage with traditional religious communities in a new way, so as at least to keep alive the question of what persons and things relate to before they relate to anyone's particular wants and plans? Now this is going to sound dangerous to many, especially in an audience like this. Institutional religion has a history of violence, of nurturing bitter exclusivism and claiming powers for which it will answer to no-one body. So the challenge for religious communities is how we are to offer our vision, not in a bid for social control but as a way of opening up some of the depth of human choices, offering resources for the construction of growing and critical human identities. And this also means, incidentally but not insignificantly, that religions have work to do intellectually and imaginatively to defend their basic credibility, their truth claims. The nation state could put up a pretty good case for relegating religion to the private sphere: internal differences of spiritual vision or moral loyalty posed a problem, public truth was defined by what seemed the self-evidently truthful vision of liberal modernity. But as national boundaries dissolve and administrations struggle to secure fields of opportunity against a global backcloth, there seems to be a more significant role for versions of human nature that help us avoid a reduction of politics to power struggles and a hectic quest for the purchase of individual or local securities. The sheer presence of the church - or any place of religious activity in the middle of communities of primary deprivation such as I have been speaking about indicates that there is still a space where you can give voice to these accounts of humanity. The historic role of the Church of England has been and still is making such space available. Its history, its constitutional position - however controversial that may have become for some - means that is obliged just to be there speaking a certain language, telling a certain story, witnessing to certain non-negotiable things about humanity and about the context in which humanity lives. A really secular society would be one where there were no more such spaces left. The market state is much in love with partnership as a model of public action, and the possibilities of partnership with religious communities are many. To point to the importance of religious communities as, for example, partners in statutory education is not to license unbridled superstition and indoctrination but to invite - to challenge - religious communities to find a way of bringing their beliefs into practical contact with public questions, to identify exactly what difference faith commitments make to the educational process. Similarly, to look at partnership with religious groups in community regeneration isn't about hiving off essential work to private agencies with shaky lines of accountability. What's at issue is a very specific need in many fragmented and deprived communities. They need brokers - people who can help negotiations over resources because they're not just one group competing with other groups. That's the kind of competition that's always the curse of needy communities. They can draw groups together to define some shared priorities. There are now local forums in several regions - the midlands, the North East, South Wales, sponsored by local churches with just these goals in view. And there is another very simple fact worth pondering. During the last two general election campaigns, the largest numbers of people addressed directly by candidates in the flesh were the audiences at hustings arranged by local churches. What we're talking about is a space where reflective politics is still possible because it belongs to a tradition whose interests are more than political. If it is true that the nation state has had its day and that we are - whether we like it or not - already caught up in a political system both more centralised and more laissez-faire, we are bound to ask whether there is a future for the reasonable citizen, for public debate about what is due to human beings, for intelligent argument about goals beyond the next election. My conclusion is that this future depends heavily on those perspectives that are offered by religious belief. In the pre-modern period, religion sanctioned the social order; in the modern period it was a potential rival to be pushed to the edges, a natural reaction. But are we at the point where, as the 'public sphere' becomes more value-free, the very survival of the idea of a public sphere, a realm of political argument about vision and education, is going to demand that we take religion a good deal more seriously? So why should we do what the government tells us? The structures and priorities of the market state alone will simply not deliver an answer to this question that isn't finally destructive of our liberty - because they deprive us of the resources we need to make decisions that are properly human decisions, bound up with past and future. We need to be able to talk about what we're related to that isn't just defined by the specific agenda of the moment. This presents religious traditions with enormous opportunities - and enormous responsibilities. Because we know that religious involvement in public life has not always been benign; but those of us who have religious faith have learned something of how to engage with the social orders of the modern world; and it is up to us to articulate with as much energy and imagination as we can our understanding of that larger story without which the most fundamental and challenging human questions won't even get asked, let alone answered. Published with permission from the Anglican Communion Office
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