The Most Rev’d and Rt Hon Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, has edited a neat selection of essays on the current moral state of the nation. Entitled On Rock or Sand? (and we soon glean which political philosophy is grey granite and which is white limestone), the compilation draws on the cumulative wisdom of experts from the fields of economics, politics, religion, academia and social thinking, including contributions by Lord Adonis, Sir Philip Mawer, Oliver O’Donovan, Andrew Sentance, Julia Unwin and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. According to John Bingham of the Daily Telegraph, the book constitutes a “pre-election assault on (the) ‘evil’ of inequality in Coalition Britain”, with “‘Entire cities’ being ‘cast aside’ in a nation where ‘rampant consumerism and individualism’ are the new religion..” You get the picture.
But it’s rather a warped one, if not politically one-dimensional and misrepresentative. Indeed, from the Bingham piece we get a sense of a replay of the Faith In The City offensive against the Conservative government of 1985 – so much so that one wonders if the spectre of Margaret Thatcher doesn’t haunt the corridors of Bishopthorpe Palace, or whether The Lady, for some unknown reason, plagues the mind of the Archbishop, who appears to have graced the Telegraph with a few privileged thoughts about his collection:
It advocates a new redistribution of wealth, quoting the slogan popularised by Karl Marx: “From each, according to his resources, to each, according to his need.”
In an interview with The Telegraph, Dr Sentamu acknowledged: “That sounds extremely left wing doesn’t it?
“The truth is it is the theology of where I am coming from.
“If God has created us unique, (and) all of us have got his image and likeness, is it ever right that I should have more when somebody else has nothing?”
“The theology of where I am coming from” is empirically unassailable and epistemologically irrefutable: it is ‘truth’ because it is God dwelling in the comfy home of biographical subjectivity. And who can argue with that? “The theology of where I am coming from” eulogises whoever one admires and endorses whatever one may think. And so the brotherhood endorsements abound: “This is a watershed moment for British society, as more and more people are recognising,” writes Rowan Williams, now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. “These essays, by a range of respected authorities, offer a clear and comprehensive picture of the values and priorities we need to discover or rediscover if we are not to go on slipping into a value-free muddle whose costs are carried by those least able to bear them.”
And that’s the theology of where he is coming from.
But for many Christians – including a good many in the Church of England (not to mention the theology of where they are coming from) – this book is not only theologically disputable; it is politically uncertain and contentious, if not belligerent and controversial. Some might even say that it constitutes the latest in a series of PR gaffes in which the Archbishop of Canterbury has found himself embroiled through no direct fault of his own. Coming on the run-up to the General Election, it is a highly questionable initiative that superficially politicises what are complex and deep-rooted social and economic ills.
Justin Welby’s contribution to the book is not, either in content or intent, an exercise in bashing the Prime Minister, his Government, the Conservative Party, or, indeed, any other party. Nor does it dismiss Conservatism. Much of the focus of his writing is rightly and reasonably concerned with state of the nation, making explicit that: “This is not a question about economics, let alone party politics; it is a question of the moral basis of our prosperity.”
For him, the Church is political; not party political. That’s the theology of where he is coming from.
There is, however, a justifiable concern that he has chosen to associate himself with clearly left-leaning figures during a sensitive and critical campaign period. It is worth noting that his chapter on “Building the common good” was written in May 2014, which dates it by eight long months. Did he know back then (or was he warned) that the book would be launched with a huge media fanfare during the heat of a general election campaign? The Archbishop of York’s timing and willingness to see the book spun by the Daily Telegraph betrays a distinctly partisan view of such issues as poverty and social justice. Did the Archbishop of Canterbury have prior knowledge of that? Was he told that his essay would sit alongside those of prominent figures in the Labour Party, and may be seen to offer spiritual succour if not ecclesiological patronage?
The book is inscribed: “For hard-pressed families on poverty wages”. Since Christ informed us that the poor would always be with us, there is a guaranteed market for reprints and repeat orders. But there are truths to be discovered beyond the Christian Socialist trinity of Temple, Tawney and Beveridge, who are lauded in leitmotifs throughout the book. The ‘Five Giant Evils’ of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness have as many potential solutions from the political right as they do the left, but Canterbury’s insights into conservatism are distinctly subsidiary to York’s socialism.
Archbishop Justin begins his chapter by quoting the parable of Jesus and the workers in the vineyard. For him, the importance of employment is not not limited to earning a salary, but includes also the dignity and sense of social belonging and individual worth which arise from having and doing a good job. He continues:
Stability and hope are linked to purpose and productivity. While they may be found in other ways, for most people the major source of stability and hope is found from engagement in a worthwhile occupation.
Since job creation has been one of the present Government’s biggest achievements – 2 million more private sector jobs created; 2 million new apprentices; 1.2 million more people in work; 760,000 new businesses – this is not an area of Conservative weakness: the Archbishop of Canterbury is not making an open challenge to the Government, as the Telegraph alleges (and, presumably, the Archbishop of York was content to see spun). His central point concerns the problematic relationship between the value of human life and economic models:
(Stability and hope) will only come through a mass conversion of our hearts and minds to a gratuitous and widespread commitment to solidarity – of a society built and lives lived on the principles of the inherent dignity of the person, outside and beyond any economic value, and of the commonality of the human journey.
He accepts that no-one has cracked this, nor does he propose a new model. Talking of economic policies since the 1960s, he is informed and even-handed in his criticism, noting: “One thing all these strategies have in common is that none has experienced the success which was hoped for, or which was predicted. Nothing has really worked so far.”
But his remarks concerning the growth of London and South East, in comparison with slower rates in the regions, are framed unfairly. There has indeed been growth in the regions, with 75 per cent of all jobs created since 2010 being outside of London. If the clergy are to weigh into political debates – as they should – they must at least have possession of the facts and make balanced arguments around the statistics.
The Archbishop of Canterbury also decries the migration of young people from the regions to London, when, in fact, figures published since his writing point to the direct opposite: more young people are leaving London for the regions than ever before. He is right to warn about the values that our society holds dear. On this he says: “Christian solidarity is concerned with how we value people and communities. That is, it values people not according to their economic output or capacity but in and of themselves.” But it is not fair to claim that David Cameron’s government has turned its back on the poor. Of the 2 million private sector jobs created by the Coalition, 85 per cent are full-time and the vast majority outside the South East. The Government has also cut tax for 3 million people, reduced the tax rate for the lowest earners, and raised the stamp duty on expensive houses.
Archbishop Justin does, however, graciously acknowledge the success of apprentice schemes, observing:
The renewed interest and investment in apprenticeships is a welcome step, and it should continue to be a priority to ensure that young people are able to be trained in work that is both economically and socially useful and that will bring purpose, stability and hope to all young people as they begin their adult lives.
Conservatives would also (rightfully) point to the Troubled Families Act of 2012, which set a target of helping 120,000 families out of social ills such as unemployment, truancy, crime and antisocial behavior – seeking to address the root causes of some of those very ‘Five Giant Evils’ that no Labour government has been bold enough to dissect or brave enough to dissolve.
For the left-leaning contributors to this book – from the Blairite peer Lord Adonis to others with less publicised (but highly-suspected) affiliations – it is apparently justifiable to ride on the back of Christianity and use poverty and social justice for political point-scoring. A better approach would be to consider outcomes and facts rather than prejudices and enmities. According to the Archbishop of York, inequality is evil. According to the ONS, the level of income inequality is at its lowest level since 1986, whereas under Labour inequality reached its highest level in modern times. Whence comes the greater evil?
Prominently edited by England’s second most senior Church leader, On Rock or Sand? only reinforces the prevailing perception of episcopal political bias. The Church has an important role to play in politics, and offers a unique voice in speaking out to defend the poor, dispossessed and weak. But that voice is muffled if not muted when it is seen to be partisan.