Yesterday the Church of England published a remarkable document, ‘Who is my neighbour? A Letter from the House of Bishops to the People and Parishes of the Church of England for the General Election 2015’. It is noteworthy in three ways.
First, it is the first time the House of Bishops has published such a ‘pastoral letter’ ahead of an election – and a 50-page one at that. Its message is refreshingly bold, even proclamatory: ‘we believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is enormously relevant to the questions which the coming Election will throw into sharp relief’ (§21), not least because ‘the political parties have failed to offer attractive visions of the kind of society and culture they wish to see’ (§29).
The letter’s goal of setting out a broad, ‘evangelical’ social vision was absolutely bound to be misrepresented even by intelligent media commentators. With weary predictability, The Times dismissed it as ‘unsolicited, disingenuous…and nakedly partisan’. But a newspaper that can still wheel out the ignorant canard that the role of the church is ‘the soothing and saving of troubled souls’ has forfeited its right to be taken seriously in this debate. Even the more thoughtful John Bingham at The Telegraph claimed that ‘it amounts to an unofficial election manifesto from the established Church’, a goal which it explicitly disavows on its opening page. The letter is, actually, what it says on the tin: a call for a ‘new kind of politics’, one rooted in an unusually well-articulated account of the common good. We may legitimately disagree with some of its judgements but we cannot lazily sweep it aside as a partisan tract.
Second, whereas previous social commentaries, such as Faith in the City, were often addressed optimistically (and a tad self-importantly) to ‘church and nation’, this one is addressed in the first instance to ‘the people and parishes of the Church of England’. It is not an attack on politicians but a teaching document for Anglican citizens, meriting serious attention from parishes up and down the country. The Bishops also hope, however, that others will ‘join in the conversation’. In any case, given the established status of the Church a ‘pastoral letter’ like this will inevitably be heard and robustly assessed, as it should be, as a piece of ‘public theology’.
Third, and most remarkably, the letter offers the outlines of what looks like a coherent and authoritative social theology for the UK today. It is true that the letter’s 126 paragraphs inevitably give the impression of having been drafted by committee (‘I know the deadline was yesterday but we simply must have something on….’); the letter’s conceptual architecture is in fact more clearly on display in the helpful ‘guide’ which accompanies it. Yet it effectively deploys its chosen social theology both to offer perceptive diagnoses of our serious national pathologies and to point suggestively towards a credible new vision of a flourishing society. It is the nearest thing the contemporary Church of England has yet produced to the Roman Catholic Church’s celebrated, and still rightly admired, 1996 document, ‘The Common Good and the Catholic Church’s Social Teaching’ (the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales are due to publish their own election letter next week).
At the heart of the document’s emerging social theology is an attempt to move decisively beyond the obsolete ‘left/right’ divide (Old Labour statism versus Thatcherite neo-liberalism) which has stifled the nation’s political imagination for a generation – and to do so without merely resuscitating the dead parrot of New Labour’s purported ‘third way’. This is an eminently laudable goal. What emerges is not a detailed set of ‘neither left nor right’ policy prescriptions but an appealing vision of the complementary, and mutually limiting, relationships that need to be put in place between the state, the market and civil society so that each makes its distinctive contribution to the common good, and especially to the weak and vulnerable members of society. On this it compares favourably with the election statement of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, ‘2020 Vision of the Good Society’, which, while containing much of value, seems to want to load the vast majority of responsibilities for addressing social ills on the state.
The Bishops’ letter is most eloquent on civil society, which it understands as a rich, vital network of ‘intermediate’ institutions (§81, 58) that nurture the essential public virtues of solidarity, mutuality, neighbourliness, trust, and sense of place – those required to sustain any healthy society, economy and polity but which are being increasingly undermined by our culture of individualism, consumerism and rootlessness. These virtues are ‘the missing link which has prevented the state and the market alike from generating a better, more humane, society’ (§41).
Thus, a state role in welfare is indispensable but should not be allowed to supplant local voluntary action or individual responsibility (§38). Equally, the market is an ‘impressively effective system of distribution’ but one which, if not directed to the common good, also tends to entrench inequality and undermine the conditions for its own survival (§39). While tribute is paid to the original inspiration behind the ‘Big Society’ (§94), it is asserted that neither right nor left has been able to develop a ‘coherent policy programme which made a virtue of dispersing power and control as widely across the population as possible’. Rather, the letter charges (with a touch of hyperbole, perhaps) that ‘we have been offered salvation through the state and salvation through the market’ (§56). Neglect of the realm of intermediate institutions also helps explain why Britain has increasingly become a ‘society of strangers’ rather than a ‘community of communities’ (§43).
It is this structural analysis of society that sets this church document off against previous ones which confined themselves to generic ethical platitudes. The analysis is not in any sense new; one should not expect originality from a pastoral letter. Variants if it have been espoused for many years by influential theological and secular voices (such as former Archbishop Rowan Williams, theologian John Milbank, Conservative politician Jesse Norman and political theorist Maurice Glasman). It has long been central to Catholic Social Teaching. It also animates some of the contributions to Archbishop John Sentamu’s collection, On Rock or Sand? Firm foundations for Britain’s future, appearing last month (and reviewed here). What is new is that this structural analysis should receive official endorsement from the House of Bishops in the run-up to a national election.
While, obviously, the letter couldn’t be expected to address every important issue, I mention four lacunae that leave it vulnerable to criticism.
First, while it rightly asserts that ‘we need a richer justification for the state, a better account of the purposes of government’ (§27), it does little to provide these. That would have involved at least a brief theological excursus on the purpose of the state, under God, to serve justice and the common good. Here it could have done worse than to take a leaf out of the still eminently worthwhile report, Living thankfully before God: Living fairly before each other, which the House of Bishops ‘commended’ in 2010 but then promptly forgot about.
Second, while concern for the environment is addressed in passing, there is no dedicated section on the seriousness of the ecological crisis. In the year of the all-important Paris summit on climate change, that is a regrettable absence. It risks playing into the attempt by the main political parties to push this momentous, but not electorally advantageous, issue to the margins of the election campaign.
Third, while there are positive-sounding noises made about markets and the business sector, the letter’s economic analysis suffers from at least two defects. One is that it lacks an explicit, ungrudging and unqualified affirmation that the vocation of enterprise itself makes a distinctive and indispensable contribution to the common good. The risky, demanding task of entrepreneurship (both commercial and social) is absolutely vital in meeting essential material needs, creating wealth and jobs, building vibrant work communities and contributing to economically flourishing neighbourhoods and regions. This needs to be stated in so many words. Another defect is that, while the letter reasserts General Synod’s previous advice about the criteria for a defensible austerity programme (i.e., fairness, generosity and sustainability) (§108-110), it does not adequately confront the question whether it was economically and morally irresponsible for previous (mostly Labour) governments to incur such enormous deficits and debts. That is a troubling evasion which will be jumped on by those wishing to claim that the letter displays a tacit ‘left-wing’ bias.
Fourth, the letter says almost nothing about the hugely controversial questions of how to legally regulate disputed questions of sexual ethics or bio-ethics, on some of which (e.g., marriage, abortion, assisted dying) the Church has clear and well-established official positions. These are just as revealing examples of the deep cultural pathologies of individualism and consumerism that the letter so searchingly analyses in other areas. One suspects that it was the impossibility of getting all the bishops to sign on to those positions that killed that option off from the start.
Whatever its limitations, Who is my neighbour? significantly raises the bar for official church statements on politics. It shows how theological truth can speak effectively and illuminatingly to the political health of the nation at a moment of crisis and opportunity. It thus plausibly carries a claim to prophecy – which in Scripture is, in the first instance, addressed to the people of God themselves. Let it now be received, tested, critiqued and improved upon, in the first place by those to whom it is primarily addressed – not only as they make their choices in May but also as they continue to discern and discharge their political callings long after the votes have been counted. It will be the sustained, faithful deeds of Christian citizens, much more than even the most eloquent of statements from church leaders, that will actually contribute to forming the common good in our cynical, fragmented and disoriented society.
This article appears as the February 2015 KLICE Election Comment. We are grateful to Jonathan Chaplin and KLICE for permission to republish it on Fulcrum. KLICE also has many excellent resources on its May 2015 Election page
Dr Jonathan Chaplin is a Fellow of Wesley House, Cambridge where he contributes to the Centre for Faith in Public Life. An Anglican, he is author of Beyond Establishment: Resetting Church-State Relations in England (SCM 2022). He writes here in a personal capacity.