What does it take to reimagine Britain?

Justin Welby had already left a significant legacy from the first half of his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury. The swift resolution to the inherited crisis of finding a workable settlement in relation to women bishops; the instigation of the Renewal and Reform programme; reorienting the Church’s administration and finances towards mission; the re-estalishment of evangelism as a priority; the prayer initiative around Thy Kingdom Come; and even the personal success of (just about) ‘putting Wonga out of business’—all these have been significant achievements. There have been frustrations and set-backs to. The discussions about sexuality drag on interminably without any sign of resolution or even a fragile peace breaking out in the war of words; and despite Welby’s intensive efforts at building relationships, trust across the Anglican Communion appears to be at an all-time low.

Welby’s latest book, Reimagining Britain, is an ambitious attempt to picture what Britain might look like, in the light of its present situation, its recent past, and the influence of Christian thinking, in a hopeful future. It is full of detailed analysis across an impressive range of areas, and offers much detailed comment in suggestions of issues that need addressing. But I must confess it left me with more questions than answers.

The introductory sections offer a brief account of key events in our recent history, and an argument about the resources that we have from our own distinctiveness response to contemporary challenges that Welby summarises as the qualities of ‘community, courage and stability’ (included in the helpful summary, offered at the end of each chapter, here on pp 59–60). I was surprised by several omissions here, in the recent history the most notable being Margaret Thatcher, and the eponymous shift to a free-market ideology known as ‘Thatcherism’. This is not just important in economic terms, signalling a decisive rejection of Keynesianism and a shift to a debt-driven, consumer-led approach to economic growth, but in human terms as an ideology. This shift (in the UK and across the Western world) has certainly brought economic growth and prosperity, but it has also fundamentally shifted our understanding of what it means to be human. It had led us to treat people not as beings-in-community-in-the-image-of-God, but as economic units of production, and it is this which now offers us the measure of everything. So it is not uncommon for political leaders to talk about education in terms of its effectiveness in equipping students for the workplace, language that demonstrates a reductionist loss of vision of what education is for. I was also surprised by the omission of any reference to the internet, and its impact on learning, relationships, sexuality, and the sense of self—not least because in the UK we have been distinctively early adopters of internet technology and use. Why is this, and what impact has it had on us?

And why draw on Catholic Social Teaching, important though that it, rather than the evangelical Quaker tradition of someone like Richard Foster, whose books Celebration of DisciplineMoney, Sex and Power, and The Freedom of Simplicity had a particular impact on British Christian readers. And what of the Mennonite tradition of social critique? Or simply drawing directly on key biblical themes like the sovereignty of God and the stewardship of his people, expressed acutely in Ps 24.1 ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’?

The central section of the book then explores in turn the five key building blocks of family, education, health, housing and economics & finance. These look like good choices as the basics of society, but I was surprised to find no mention of law, crime and punishment, for several reasons. First, law and order is a consistent political issue that comes to the fore in normal times when we are not obsessed with Brexit; secondly, a central Christian conviction is that God is a God of justice; thirdly, in practical terms prison reform is one of the most pressing social issues of our day, and the reality of British society is one where a third of adult males have a criminal record.

In the section on family, there was a clear description—perhaps with a slightly detached sense—of the changes and challenges of family life. But from this it is clear that ‘family’ means different things to different people, and when Welby then says that ‘Jesus upholds the values of family’ and that Catholic Social Teaching calls the family ‘the fundamental nucleus’ of society, it feels like ducking the issue to omit noting that in both these cases ‘family’ means something very specific, and not either general or particularly flexible. Welby is quite right to note that Christian understanding of the family includes particular values of ‘holiness, fidelity, hospitality and love’ (p 69), but these values are expressed in particular forms of relationship. Does Christian understanding of marriage have nothing to say to our culture’s increasing loss of ability to make life-long commitments? Are we simply called to work with the results of that—or are we to minister to the causes and not just the effects of the problems and challenges we find in our culture?

One oddity, which I found recurring, was the use here of Jesus’ parables. Because the parable of the prodigal son (from Luke 15) was strangely open ended, it perhaps suggests that we ‘shouldn’t take the moral high ground’ on the question of family and relations, but value whatever pattern of life people choose for themselves. That can be found in the parable—but only if you detach it from Jesus’ other teaching, and perhaps even detach Jesus from his first-century Jewish context. It seems part of a pattern of encouraging the church to ‘come to terms with’ the changes in society (p 67) rather than critiquing these changes or calling our country to a change of direction.

The chapter on education included some interesting details and analysis, and felt to me as though it offered a good map of where we are, particularly in relation to inequalities in eduction—but not so much of direction as to where we should go. I confess to wincing whenever I see the phrase ‘life in all its fulness’ (the heading of this chapter) attached to any education policy, since life in all its fulness comes from Jesus in John 10.10 and not from any education system or policy! But at least it does serve to question the utilitarian understanding of eduction I mentioned above, as simply equipping students with skills to be useful in the workplace. I am not at all convinced that the picture of the early church in Acts 2 offers us a model for schools, because schools are not churches and we cannot presume the commitments of discipleship. (Is the inability properly to tell the difference at the root of the failure of the Church of England’s eduction policy in connecting young people with church and discipleship?). I would have hoped to have seen a critique of the use of league tables, competition and the notion of ‘added value’ which I think (from my time as a parent and a school governor) I think are deeply problematic from a Christian point of view. And what about the connection between education and family—in a context where the single greatest predictor of educational achievement is the stability of the marriage relationship and the involvement of parents in a child’s education?

The chapter on health focussed on health inequalities and mental health, and did make a mention of mental health and the prison system. But, again, I was puzzled by the omissions. There was little critique of the managerialist approach to health strategy, which I think is the single most contentious issue within the health service itself—and do we not have anything to learn from alternative systems on continental Europe? What about the apparently corrupting influences of Big Pharma on health management? What about the loss of basic disciplines of self-management and healthy eating, which dominate the evening TV schedule these days? A key Christian value of massive important here is the virtue of self-management and self-stewardship—and the loss of such responsibilities is having a crippling effect on a service ‘free at the point of use’ regardless of self-management. A real weakness in this chapter is the use of the parable of the sheep and the goals in Matt 25—which (as I have repeatedly highlighted) has nothing to do with care for the poor!

Welby is right to note the increasing issues of mental health, particularly in young girls (p 121). But, once again, can we ask about the causes and not just the symptoms? Could this be connected with the sexualisation of culture, not least through young people’s use of the internet? What does the gospel say to this issue? And can we really talk about healthcare from a Christian perspective without mentioning abortion?

The chapter on housing included some good observations, highlighting the basic need for more homes, and the shortage caused by local authorities no longer building—though omitting the name of the person who brought in this change. But there was no mention of one of the key drivers in the housing shortage—the fragmentation of households caused by divorce, and by the loss of the habit (continued in most of the world) or intergenerational households where older members were cared for by the next generation. So we have lonely old people in larger houses and young families crowded into homes they cannot afford—and the most potent solution to this is not economic or political but relational.

On finance, you would expect Welby to know his onions, and indeed he does. There are some shocking statistics on the growth of the financial sector and the impact on pay inequalities, and Welby offers a critique of the UK’s becoming a ‘monocrop’ culture where the financial sector is so dominant. But I would like to have heard something about the relational nature of financial transactions within a Christian vision, and the fundamental problem with detaching investment from relationships in the stock market as we have it (quite contrary to its origins). The advent of computerisation, initially in the Big Bang of the 1980s, not only exacerbated this detachment, but also introduced the inherent instability of computer algorithms effectively trading with each other, which is a massive threat to future stability. And, again, is there not a fundamental question to be asked about an economic system that runs on debt?

And please, please, PLEASE, the parable of the talents (also in Matthew 25) is not about economic policy or about our use of our abilities (p 152). It is a parable about what we do with the treasure of the kingdom  that God has offered to us as a free gift, at great cost!

There are more, detailed questions I could ask about the final sections of the book—but I think I have already asked enough of those. The book overall left me with a bigger question: what is the nature of the hope that we have to offer, and what should be our strategy in thinking about the future of society?

Do we focus on what is realistic, looking for some of the positives in the situation that we are faced with, and attempting to build on those? Do we avoid some of the starker, more difficult challenges and assumptions that our culture makes? Do we first of all deal with the problems, with the symptoms that we find in our world, and do we work hard to avoid causing any unnecessary offence by challenging the starting places, trying to find practical partners in a project to improve the world? That appears to be the approach taken by this book—and I can see both its appeal and its practical application. This is a strategy informed by pastoral realism.

Or do we do something quite different? Do we look at some of the fundamental assumptions made by our culture about what the world is like, how things happen, and what it means to be human—and seek to offer a radically different vision of all of this? Do we seek to place the radically new and challenging perspective of Christian faith up against the starkly contrasting assumptions and values of contemporary Western culture—and see what emerges from this challenge that we can act on? Are we prepared to address not just the symptoms (something that the church has consistently done in its practical action) but also prepared to diagnose the causes?

Whether this is just a function of my temperament, or whether from theological conviction, I would always opt for the second.

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14 thoughts on “What does it take to reimagine Britain?”

  1. Morning ian,

    I know the football was a distraction last night but I’m sure you meant the parable of the sheep and goats…. 😉

    In friendship, Blair

  2. Thank you for this thorough and very well-informed review. I really appreciated all your observations about omissions. (Though I think individualism preceded Thatcher – the sexual revolution and radical 1970s feminism were (and are) very individualistic, however much hippies liked to talk about love and oneness – even if Thatcher’s economic policies and philosophy did make things worse.)

    At the end you ask, ‘Do we seek to place the radically new and challenging perspective of Christian faith up against the starkly contrasting assumptions and values of contemporary Western culture—and see what emerges from this challenge that we can act on?’

    I wonder if you came across Martin Davie’s review from April? https://mbarrattdavie.wordpress.com/2018/04/04/reimagining-reimagined-a-review-of-justin-welbys-reimagining-britain/

    He concludes with an alternative Christian vision for re-imagining Britain. I hope you don’t mind if I paste it here (apologies for the length) not because I necessarily agree with all of it, but to see what you or others think of it as a ‘radically Christian’ alternative to Welby’s?

    Here it is (I’ve added the numbering):
    ‘If we try to imagine what a Britain shaped once again by the Christian narrative would look like, then we can imagine that it would have the following features. It would be:
    1) A country which accepted the Christian faith as public truth. That is to say, it would be a country in which the government, the education system and the media all worked together with the Church to promote the understanding and acceptance of the Christian message and to encourage people to live out their faith in their individual and communal lives;
    2) A country in which it would once again be regarded as normal for people to be brought to baptism as infants, to then be instructed in the faith by their parents and by the Church, to commit themselves to a life of Christian discipleship when old enough to do so and to make that discipleship the basis for how they lived their lives;
    3) A country in which people were aware of the world to come and strove to live their lives in a way that prepared them for life in God’s eternal kingdom;
    4) A country in which those who were honoured and admired would be those whose lives were most marked by love for God and their neighbours and in which caring for children and other family members was valued as much as paid employment outside the home;
    5) A country which would fully accept people’s right to follow a non-Christian religion, or to be non-religious, and to share their convictions with others, but would also encourage and support Christians sharing the gospel with those who did not yet accept the Christian faith;
    6) A country where, as Lawhead imagines, the churches were packed out week by week and where abundant resources were made available to build new churches and to train and deploy new clergy;
    7) A country in which in place of the present confusion about sexual morality and family life (something which Welby notes, but declines to challenge) it was accepted that God created marriage to be a life-long relationship between a man and a woman and that marriage is the only legitimate place for sexual intercourse and the procreation of children;
    8) A country where intentional singleness was highly regarded as a God given vocation and where those who were single were not lonely because they were given love and support by the family of the Church;
    9) A country in which action was taken to ensure that everyone had enough to live on and in which affordable housing and decent healthcare were available to all;
    10) A country in which everyone would have the opportunity to serve God and the community by employing their God given skills for the benefit of others and to earn a sufficient income to provide for the needs of themselves and their families;
    11) A country in which people used the resources of the earth with care, aware of the need to act as good stewards of God’s creation and to ensure the well-being of future generations;
    12) A country that pursued foreign and aid policies designed to uphold justice, to support those in need and to support the Christian Church in spreading the gospel;
    13) A country which was as generous as possible in welcoming refugees and migrants and which would intentionally seek to ensure that they had the opportunity to hear and accept the Christian message if they were not Christians already.’

  3. I worry that the Archbishop is spreading himself too thin. Taking on the burden of comment across the whole range of social issues, when surely his primary task must be spiritual; primarily to the churches leaving other Christians to comment on specific areas. I bought his last book on money, finding it very good, but he has previous knowledge on that area, but will not invest in this one.
    As to the sheep and the goats I am very reluctant to see it as applying only to the treatment of Christians. It is the last parable in Matthew, and explicitly deals with the day of judgement, which sounds to me as though it applies to all mankind

  4. The most thrilling book I have read in years, which gave me hope for re-imagining Britain, was
    J Bready’s ‘England-Before & After Wesley – The Evangelical Revival and Social Reform’. This historian detailed the appalling spiritual, moral and social decline in Britain in the early C18th. He then describes the Awakening under Wesley & Whitfield et al and shows how the transformation of souls led to a transformation of society through education, law, the arts, etc. Bready published this book in 1938 when the dark clouds of a world war hung over Europe and he captured the past and offered a compelling vision of the future. That story needs retelling and that hope and vision of culture transformed by the gospel, recast for our future.

  5. But is there not a third option; Simon touched on it indirectly above? John Wesley concentrated on building a church of holiness which impacted society as a consequence and not as a deliberate strategy.
    I am yet to be convinced that there is any place in the Evangel for politicking. In the language of Colossians 1:13 ‘he has delivered us from the power of darkness and translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love’. This Kingdom is a spiritual kingdom which brings people into holy living and where the spiritual conflict is not against flesh and blood but spiritual powers. It’s so much easier to have political views and engage in activism than to understand this kingdom and how to make it “come” in the words of the Lord’s Prayer.
    I am saddened to see friends who once had great vision for this Kingdom seemingly lose their way and instead devote their energy to political activism; and that is both on the left and right of politics.
    The church is called to demonstrate how to live rather than legislate how to live. It should be light of the world, salt of the earth, a special people, a holy nation, etc. Constantine and Henry VIII have terrible reviews in their contributions to Christianity – grounding the church in politics and losing the spiritual dimensions of the Kingdom. Obviously the church in the UK is in a terrible state which really upsets me. Justin himself complained about homilies which only make comment on the state of the country: they lack the kind of power which Wesley knew in his preaching. Hopefully we haven’t gone full ‘Ichabod’ and there is some way back into the light of God’s holy presence.

    • Wesley opposed slavery and Victorian evangelicals were instrumental in abolishing it, among many other initiatives for social and moral improvement pursued through both voluntary societies and legislative action. Are you really saying you think all this was not of God, an outworking of the good works that are the fruit of the kingdom?

      Evangelicals and Protestants generally have (most of them) always believed that government is God’s servant and that it should abide by the moral law and Christians should be part of guiding it in line with that moral law, both from inside and out.

      I’m not entirely sure how you are envisaging the church impacting society by consequence rather than deliberate strategy, but historically evangelicals, from Wesley forward, have made deliberate efforts to influence society for the good, not just left it to happen through some mysterious agency. Social and legal reform doesn’t happen except by deliberate and focused effort. You can say that it’s not your role, but it’s a mistake to say that no Christian should get involved with politics and government and just hope it will happen all by itself. Apart from anything else, that way you’d end up with government and politics with no Christians in it!

      • Will,
        This comment may not be posted as I’ve sought to post a couple of others which haven’t been put up.
        It is rather sketchy anyway: I seem to recall from my time in Methodism,(and I’m not a historian) that a key to the social change wrought through Wesley times was the centrality of Wesley’s Class Meeting and the resultant desire to see the spread of literacy so that people could read the Bible. Whereas, he was prevented from preaching in the Anglican church and went out with his itinerant preaching ministry which often met with a hostile reception.
        Near where I live there is a plaque commemorating a place where he preached, and another plaque commemorating a meeting place of the Methodist Ranters.
        Clearly, they were not of any “curates egg” persuasion.
        And while it is obviously a different context, American Presbyterian Tim Keller address at a recent Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast, was an example of pre- persuasive- evangelism, based on “salt and light “scripture, mostly emphasising Christian saltiness (even mentioning sexuality).
        I’m not sure, particularly from the review of this book of the ABoC that there is a saltiness to it or to in the re-imagining the future, as we await Christ’s return.

      • Hello Will, you’re reading much more into what I wrote than I wrote. For instance: ‘Are you really saying you think all this was not of God’ – where did that come from? If I had meant that I would have said it. Nor did I imply ‘it’s a mistake to say that no Christian should get involved with politics and government’. Justin is trying to reimagine the ministry of the church and that’s what I was addressing. The work or employment of individuals is not generally the specific mission of the church but adds to it, especially by the testimony of a holy life. I am not convinced that the mission of the church as the Body of Christ should involve politics. The Wilberforce’s have their place but that is not the Evangel of Jesus – “Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God.” I cannot see that politics can produce the kingdom of God; only repentance and faith can.
        If you read John Wesley’s Journal you will see that this was his emphasis. He did encourage the setting up of schools, but that was for Christian education with a view to training future leaders. The amazing social change in Britain during the 18th century was accomplished by the powerful presence of Christian people who prayed fervently together and lived lives of holiness – not really the church today sadly.

        • Hi Peter

          You wrote ‘I am saddened to see friends who once had great vision for this Kingdom seemingly lose their way and instead devote their energy to political activism.’ This and other comments suggests an opposition to the idea of individual Christians being engaged in politics. You reference Henry VIII and Constantine apparently to discredit the idea of godly government. You dismiss the idea that legislation can play a part in Christians making a godly contribution to society. So I don’t think my comments were very wide of the mark!

          • Will, if I might but in, I suspect we’d all agree that there’s a difference between the mission of God’s church and what naturally and rightly happens to individual Christians and groups of Christians as the love of God moves them in various ways to act for the social or political good in the world around them. One is about the reason for the church’s existence (the Gospel lived and proclaimed by Christians), the other is about the practical outworking of being a Christian in the surrounding world (the salt effect)

            I think it’s quite important that we keep that clear distinction in our minds and therefore in terms of organisational separation too,
            a) because the two things are quite different (one is eternal and spiritual, the other is temporal and of this physical world)
            b) because of the danger that the (ultimately) more important spiritual mission becomes diluted or superseded by the more immediately recognisable temporal needs.

            And the arguments for mingling the two things are pretty seductive:
            It makes churches seem more immediately likable and relevant; it may be a way of drawing in people who might not otherwise care for the spiritual message; it signals virtue (and who could possibly object to any organisation which ‘does good’?); it offers tangible measurement of ordained ministry when the invisible spiritual benefits seem elusive or even non existent; it may appear to offer the best hope of winning people for Christ – and therefore ticks both boxes at one and the same time; too much time spent by clergy (for example) in prayer, Bible study and reading might seem to be a self indulgent luxury when the parish is crying out with social need!

            So, particularly in today’s world, the idea of a church which concentrates only on its spiritual mission seems almost eccentric. Yet that focus, far from being inward looking, should be equipping Christians so well that they go out and, deliberately or unknowingly, turn the world upside down by their witness and their involvement in society around them, not excluding politics. So it’s far from being an unhealthy interpretation of ‘come ye out from among them’.

            And therefore it would be my view that an Archbishop should be so fired up and has so much to do with the spiritual imperative of leading the church that there is not enough time for occupation with secular social and political affairs (beyond the opportunities as ‘the nation’s chaplain’ for prophetic warning and Gospel declaration on the national stage). Do that job well and I’d suggest that influence for good would far outweigh the writing of books while living in a palace, which must surely be done in haste and with considerable detachment from the true realities for ordinary people.

          • Thanks Will, I hope what Don has written makes it clearer – perhaps I should expand more when I write and not try to be so concise.
            Perhaps I could add that my friends have suffered from problems in their churches and this is now their vision outlet. I am not opposed but saddened.
            Yes, I need to be convinced that there can be such a thing as a godly Government especially in the light of what Jesus said about the world and its opposition to the church. But the work of individuals like Wilberforce, Shaftsbury, or Josephine Butler is all part of the exhortation to ‘let us do good to all’ but not the primary mission of the gospel.

  6. Reading the conclusion of Martin Davie i thought of the alternative approach of the understanding of the State in pluralist terms. Next year is the centenary of the death of the political philosopher and Mirfield monk John Neville Figgis. There will be some attention given to that not least an academic conference to evaluate his legacy. See also the work of his best known modern interpreter the late lamented David Nicholls. I cant but feel that approach is rather more realistic given political realities than that of Martin Davie to be honest.

  7. Dear Ian, you wrote:
    “….In the section on family, there was a clear description—perhaps with a slightly detached sense—of the changes and challenges of family life. But from this it is clear that ‘family’ means different things to different people, and when Welby then says that ‘Jesus upholds the values of family’ and that Catholic Social Teaching calls the family ‘the fundamental nucleus’ of society, it feels like ducking the issue…”

    For me, the most consistently worrying aspect of ABC’s pronouncements is that he doesn’t seem to have any rational idea about what is a family. He instead seems to believe in the vacuous mantra of ‘family’ means different things to different people from which there is NO agreement in modern society at all.

    All that is very worrying.


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