“Just because we’re in the middle of a crisis, it doesn’t mean that we can’t have a vision for a future where justice and righteousness are the key stones of our common life”, the Archbishop of Canterbury told the BBC a few days ago. He doesn’t favour another round of ‘austerity’ (ie pay freezes, tax rises and public sector cuts) to pay the estimated £300bn cost of the coronavirus (and that’s just this financial year). No, the Archbishop is of the view that “going for austerity again would be the most terrible mistake”, which is good, because that’s precisely what the Prime Minister thinks. He has made it clear that there is “no question” of freezing public sector pay or moving to austerity under his premiership.
How good and pleasant it is when an archbishop of Canterbury and a Conservative prime minister dwell together in harmony.
Setting aside quibbles over how we define ‘austerity’, and eschewing the tired old arguments around the origins and causes of the structural deficit and the chronic national debt, we can all agree that the path to justice for the poor isn’t to heap foodbanks upon single-parenting; or NHS pay-freezes upon weekly applause. Archbishop Justin is unequivocal that there is a better way: “We don’t do it with austerity. We don’t do it with class fighting. We do it with community and the common good. And we’re not afraid of spending money that will produce a better society.”
Some will dismiss this as typical Anglican unreality, of bypassing economic and social reality, for it pushes all concern with the fallout of the present crisis into a future age. What money? Whose money? Spending money might mean greater justice for today’s poor, but only by creating generational injustice: we may eat today only because our children will be lean and our grandchildren leaner.
But perhaps this is a myopic apprehension of the Archbishop’s “vision for a future where justice and righteousness are the key stones of our common life”. There are, of course, models of market and capitalism which alleviate today’s suffering without burdening tomorrow’s backs (too much), but the problem the Archbishop has (indeed, the Church of England has) is the absence of a social theology which interrogates them constructively. Any essay you might read on these economic systems only ever seems to pitch them against the biblical themes of body, humanity and kingdom, as though structural injustice will be sustained and augmented by free-market capitalism because it actively militates against social concern.
And so articles abound of how we might end poverty by ending capitalism, and they are disseminated (or expounded in pulpits) faithfully by priests and bishops without any interrogation of the social and cultural assumptions which underpin this flawed thesis: if you wrap your anti-market philosophy in a shroud of socialist pietism, and then inject a few bits of radical vocabulary, you arrive at what passes for the Church of England’s prophetic voice to the nation at this time.
But there is no social theology; no public theology; no exposition of how koinonia – being church – might effectively usher in this vision of justice and righteousness; not simply with diakonia – service – but with charisma, the experience of the Holy Spirit. That is to say, a church which establishes a foodbank does a good work, but a church which establishes a foodbank and preaches the gospel incarnates a whole new order.
It is one thing for the Archbishop and Prime Minister to agree that there shall be no ‘austerity’ to deal with the financial shock of the coronavirus, and to broadcast this accord to the BBC and the Telegraph. But how does this essentially political statement find its theological basis? Who is working on it? Who is writing it? Where is the biblical exposition which grounds it and sustains it? There is no such thing as an uninvolved Christian theology: God is very much embroiled in the world, and yet doctrines of God are seemingly only expounded in theologies of socialism, classlessness and equality.
But the Church – the Body of Christ – isn’t a socialist, classless or unequal organism. Nor would it be made so with more spiritual reflection on Das Kapital or exposition of “the theology of where I am coming from“. If Archbishop Justin’s vision for post-coronavirus recovery coheres with that of Boris Johnson, let us read of this positive theology of conservatism; let us study how private property and free-market capitalism engender peace and justice; of how they might renew the social order. And let us learn of how liberty flows through the veins and charity flows from the hearts of many of our wealthiest citizens: it isn’t all greed, selfishness, individualism and exploitation, is it?
“Let’s have a society that follows God’s call for justice,” the Archbishop said, “and don’t kid me that economics and spirituality don’t go together. It is God’s economy, and God is the one who brings the spirit that makes economics work and makes it just.”
This is true, as far as it goes. But we don’t hear very much from the Church of England about the Bible’s view of the acquisition of private wealth and the freedom of the individual to employ his or her possessions as he or she chooses – unless, that is, the talk is of excess wealth and greed rather than of wealth as blessing and spending as virtue. Which bishop is expounding the theological foundations of a political commitment to wealth creation? Who understands that a competitive market and not more state intervention is the solution to the looming recession? Which brave bishop will publicly entertain that socialism is not necessarily an expression of superior compassion?
A future “where justice and righteousness are the key stones of our common life” is contingent on economic freedom and limited government. Perhaps the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister agree on that. We don’t know, because there is no coronavirus theology; no exposition of how the scar may be healed; no ‘God-talk’ beyond a few superficial sentences on the BBC website. “Whatever lip-service collectivist bishops pay to the necessity of wealth creation, there is little dispute that their dominant obsession is with the redistribution of existing wealth,” observed the late great Ralph (Lord) Harris in 1990. Plus ça change. Who will bring God into the economic coronavirus solution: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it..‘?