John Gladwin was Bishop of Guildford (1994-2004) and Bishop of Chelmsford (2004-2009). Previously he had been Provost of Sheffield Cathedral and Secretary of the Church of England Board for Social Responsibility. In this article he considers the challenge facing the Christian community to respond to our current politics of division and inequality.
In 2005, towards the end of the General Election campaign of that year, I drove through a typical 1950’s council estate for a Deanery meeting. I did not see any sign of any interest in the election. I thought to myself these people feel forgotten and left behind. Since then, Brexit has become the presenting issue. What it has opened up are some deep and disturbing questions about the state of our life together in the UK. A comment made to me on the Brexit dilemma and impact suggested that we should see this less as a crisis and more as a moment when we are facing a new era.
Not all that far from my deanery meeting in the council estate is another parish which has all the signs of long term deprivation. I am told the life expectancy of its parishioners is approximately 19 years less than a well off community less than 4 miles away. This is the 5th most prosperous nation in the world!
Whatever happens, it is clear we are not going to return to the past. So we face the difficult question as to how we will construct our common life for the future. The manner in which the Christian community participates in wrestling with this challenge will determine how people see the relevance of the Christian Gospel for their personal lives and for our society.
Interestingly, two authors coming from very different starting points have arrived at a similar conclusion. The conclusion is that Christian thought and culture have laid the foundations of our commitment to the equality of all people and so to the rights and integrity of the individual. Larry Siedentorp who lectures in political thought at Oxford and writes from a Christian perspective in his book “Inventing the Individual – the origins of Western Liberalism” (1) makes a powerful case, in examining the history of Christian thought and its impact on the development of both law and governance, that the spread of Christianity laid the principled foundations of our liberal culture. John Gray, in his latest book “Seven Types of Atheism” (2) writing as an atheist, demonstrates how much the Enlightenment had its roots in Christian values and thought. He does so to dismiss them both!
The possibility, nevertheless, is there that people of contrasting views on faith might share in a common task of considering how the values that underlie both the Christian faith and the secular search for human rights might collaborate in providing the value base for the new era that is opening up in front of us all. There is a growing body of opinion that sees the British experience of the Enlightenment as being focused more on moral virtue and the development of an open society than a movement opposed to our Christian inheritance.
What is the agenda?
There are many faces to the answer to this question. I will refer only to one: inequality and its destructive impact on social cohesion. There have been some important studies of the way economic inequality has grown at a significant rate over the last half a century. There is plenty of evidence that growing inequalities and social exclusion deepens division and conflict in the community. The less we have in common the more social cohesion is at risk.
2014 saw the publication of Thomas Picketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (4). The book was a best seller and carefully and remorselessly demonstrates how the economic system has and continues to increase the division between the wealthiest and the poorest in both capital, wealth and income. Hard on its heals came Anthony Atkinson’s “Inequality” (5) which not only set out a similar story but began the task of looking at how this might be reversed and a more equal society recovered – particularly in the UK.
In the heart of the 20th century, in the face of the Depression and its impact on working class communities and also of the effect of two world wars, significant Christian leaders sought to think through and propose a fresh way of shaping our common life which they believed was rooted in Christian faith and values. Archbishop William Temple was a key figure and although his death in 1944 robbed the nation of someone with the insight and skills to provide the themes needed for a new way of being a society after the end of the Second World War, his thinking clearly gave support to the post 1945 development of the welfare state designed to remove the burden of worry from our citizens about the cost of health, the need for good housing, old age, education and employment.
Social research and theory – represented by William Beveridge – economic theory as evidenced by Keynes – political thinking seen in the work of R.H.Tawney – alongside the Christian theological and ethical work of Temple and others, laid the foundations of a new era in British history. Secular liberal people and Christian leaders worked at the same agenda. The same partnership between secular voices and Christian thinkers will be vital to the development of new social models that are inclusive and egalitarian.
This work will require a more contemporary and democratic approach. Not least, the voice and experience of those who are the losers in the struggle for a more equal and inclusive society must form the basis for the work. The work must itself model its values.
The danger in not addressing the challenge in this way is that less savoury voices will take centre of stage. We are already seeing a rise in nationalism and racist opinion. Exclusion of those whose faces do not fit the model people hold in their hearts and minds leads to abuse and to the undermining of our democratic values. This is where church and secular movements need to work together to build a bulwark of defence against the outcome of fear.
The church has an honourable history in it thinking and values. The history of its practice has not always evidenced its faith. Now is the time for that to be remedied. Nice words about us all getting on with each other and finding a new unity will not be enough. A fresh vision facing the harsh reality of our age is the need. Will the Christian community take up the challenge?
1. Larry Siedentop. “Inventing the Individual – the Origins of Western Liberalism” Penguin 2014
2. John Gray. “Seven Types of Atheism” Penguin 2018
3. See, for example, Gertrude Himmelfarb. “The Roads to Modernity” Alfredf 2004
4. Thomas Piketty. “Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard University Press 2014
5. Anthony B Atkinson. “Inequality – What can be done?” Harvard 2015