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 Discipline, Money, 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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