Unacknowledged Materialism and the decline of the Church of England

I have been a little unwell, and postponed various meetings, which has left me, unusually these days, with the time to think and thus to blog. I find my thoughts coming back to what it is that the Church of England has really got so wrong, that has led to its not-quite-terminal-yet long decline.

If I had to put my finger on one thing, I would say that most members of the hierarchy of the church are philosophical materialists. That is, they might pay lip service to spiritual realities but in practice no real choices are made on the basis of those spiritual realities. They would almost certainly all demur from such a description – at least, those who knew what it meant would demur – but the demurral would not achieve much in practice. Which is my point.

Philosophical materialism is, roughly, the dogma that the only things that are real derive from mass and from motion, and stems from the thought of Francis Bacon. He excluded two of Aristotle’s four causes from reasonable (ie scientific) consideration, that to do with formal cause (a determining pattern) and final cause (the purpose for which something exists).

This materialism became culturally dominant in England quite some time ago, to the extent that it is now simply a matter of common sense. To reject such a materialism is socially not respectable; at least, not until extremely recently. It is why all language of miracles is rejected (miracles are, most of all, to do with the final cause of events). It is what lies behind the notion of ‘hard’ sciences – because Bacon’s two causes are the ones that are most tangible.

To take just one example with regard to the hierarchy, this – possibly unconscious – materialist bias is shown when the language of spiritual warfare is used in their presence, and the squirming and unease is palpable. Mostly I think this is a caution relating to charismatic forms of devotion – very unEnglish – but there is often something wider too. I diagnose it as a cowering before the mighty edifice of science. In opposing science the Church of England came off worst, it lost, and anything which smacks of reviving that fight is to be shunned for fear of more pain.

However, where materialism is accepted, the work of the church becomes less about a knowledge that leads to salvation than about those things which can be clearly understood in materialist terms: hence the emphasis upon the palliative care of the suffering and the embrace of a managerialist ethos.

It is, put simply, not a spiritually serious position to hold. Which is rather disappointing given the nature of the job, and it is why, in my view, the Church has been a long time a-dying. It cannot give spiritual sustenance when deep down it doesn’t believe that such a thing is real. Where the flock are not fed, they die or they leave.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that the decline of the Church of England stems from an intellectual surrender to the doctrine of secular materialism. The Church has surrendered to science, and forgotten its own genius.

We need to rediscover the magic of our faith. In every sense.

I’m doing my own part to chip away at this through my own research, looking at one area in particular where this has happened (psychiatric diagnosis) yet I am very conscious of being in a distinct minority within the church community: odd, and therefore lonely. (I seek to avoid the vainglorious notion of being the only one left, I’m sure there are at least 7000 more that have not bowed the knee to Baal.)

I don’t know what to do about this, or even if God wants something to be done about it. It may be that God wants the Church of England to enter into glory. I just can’t help but believe that we need to see our situation clearly before we will be enabled to hear God clearly – and this is my contribution. I will start to believe that we are healing – and therefore open to growth once again – when the language of spiritual warfare, of idolatry, principalities and powers, angels and demons are once again comfortably and normatively used by those in spiritual authority over the church.

The fragility of civility

I wonder how many of you have seen the Channel 4 interview that took place between the journalist Cathy Newman and the Canadian academic psychologist Jordan Peterson. I thoroughly recommend seeking it out on YouTube if you haven’t seen it, as Peterson is a stimulating and lucid thinker. Yet what most struck me when I watched it was the remarkable lack of civility displayed by Ms Newman.

Repeatedly – and by ‘repeatedly’ I mean on at least two dozen occasions – Ms Newman appeared to listen to Peterson before then stating “What you’re saying is X”, where X is a remarkably dishonest and misleading construal of Peterson’s remarks. This is an example:

Peterson: …if you leave men and women to make their own choices you will not get equal outcome.
Newman: Right, so you’re saying that anyone who believes in equality, whether you call them feminists, call them whatever you want to call them, should basically give up, because it ain’t gonna happen.
Peterson: Only if they’re aiming at equality of outcome.
Newman: So you’re saying give people equality of opportunity, that’s fine?
Peterson: Not only fine, it’s eminently desirable for everyone, for individuals and for society.
Newman: But still women aren’t gonna make it. That’s what you’re really saying.
Peterson: It depends on your measurement techniques. They’re doing just fine in medicine…

newman bacon

What I want to bring out here is the remarkable lack of civility that Newman brings to the discourse, compared with the abundance of civility that Peterson displays. Just imagine how the conversation would develop if, instead of Newman saying “What you’re saying is X” she simply asked “are you saying X?”

We might call this the John Humphrys-isation of our journalistic traditions, whereby the task of the journalist is no longer to dispassionately seek the truth and share that truth with their audience or readership – so, in Newman’s case, to ensure that those watching Channel 4 at that point were given a clear understanding of Peterson’s ideas – but rather the journalist believes that their task is to be an advocate for one partisan tradition over against another. When a guest is perceived to be advancing a cause antagonistic to the journalist’s own tradition then they are traduced and mis-represented, as has become so wonderfully clear in the Newman-Peterson interview. Still, at least Peterson was allowed on to the television programme in the first place. The views of the majority of the British population tend not to be given any air-time at all.

I wonder whether this is one aspect behind the popularity of costume dramas like The Crown, Downton Abbey or Howard’s End, which show the country – people like us – operating in a vastly more civilised manner. I am not simply referring to the possibilities of grace and ease that are afforded by being stupendously rich. Rather, I refer to a shared culture of acceptable behaviour that had at its core a distinctly Christian ethos of shared mutual respect – distinctively Christian as it rests upon the idea that all human beings are made in the image of God, which is one of the elements of Christianity that marks it out as different to other world-views. If a person is made in the image of God then it becomes a form of blasphemy to treat that person without respect. In Downton Abbey, this could be seen very clearly with the servants, under the benign stewardship of the Butler Mr Carson. There was a clear standard of correct behaviour which all were required to adhere to.

Is this just a form of curmudgeonly conservatism? A pining for a long-gone age of deference and a refusal to acknowledge the huge advances in human welfare of the last hundred years? I would argue not. It isn’t simply about the possibilities of polite discourse, undertaken in a shared spirit of enquiry and humility before the truth. It is rather one aspect of an overall coarsening and vulgarisation of our national character and culture which has some very stark and chastening consequences.

One that particularly alarms me relates to the welfare of our children, especially our daughters. If we consider the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, amongst the victims of that particular terrorist atrocity were young teenage girls dressed up in ways that exaggerated their age and such secondary sexual characteristics that they might have possessed. There is a link between such display and the way in which the white girls of Rotherham were preyed upon by abusive gangs. In other words, a culture of civilisation protects the vulnerable and the innocent, whereas in the culture that we have now – which is all about assertion and aggression from both men and women – it is the vulnerable and the innocent that suffer the most. Am I the only person who thinks that something like Nickelodeon is designed to stimulate a paedophiliac culture, in Hollywood and then more widely? I worry for the stars of Stranger Things like Millie Bobby Brown, who at the age of 13 is being taken up into the Hollywood publicity machine and made-over to look much older. This is not healthy. This is not right.

I would not wish for one moment to say that there has been a previous golden age to which we must return – that’s a delusional and destructive path to choose. Yet surely there are creative ways in which we can revive the best of what has gone before, alongside all the gains that have been accrued since? A way of restoring a sense of truth, beauty and goodness to guide our common choices around ways of behaving and relating to one another?

What we have without such a shared sense is a disintegrating culture in which all civility is removed in favour of the naked struggle for power. We see the consequences every day, not least in all the arguments that continue to rattle on about Brexit. No longer are different people with different abilities united around a common aim; rather, those differences are exalted and exploited in order to service the media gods of drama and conflict.

Civility is both fragile and marvellous. We neglect its cultivation at our own peril.

So that was 2017

Didn’t achieve most of my resolutions from last year – in fact, I have pretty much got the same ones again this year!

Was Dame in the panto again…

…and had a small role in the May play too.

Bought a lovely boat!

And sailed as far as Ipswich…

Another wonderful Greenbelt

Saw a lovely colleague ordained to the diaconate

Continued to struggle with the CofE, especially with regard to workload and institutional priorities – whilst being more and more enthused with the gospel itself

Got stuck in to my doctorate

Got on a motorbike again

Lost Ollie

Missed my kids

(There would have been images to go with all this but WordPress is not co-operating!)

Previous years: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016.

Brexit thoughts

brexit image
Much of the discussion about Brexit is fixated on the economics of the change. This is undoubtedly important, especially if there is no agreement at all – latest estimates reckon half a million job losses under that scenario, although that compares to some four million jobs created in the UK since 2010. I also wonder how many jobs are at risk through things like automation and robotics, in other words, what is the ‘churn’ of jobs and how significant an impact will Brexit have upon that. Then there are the questions of how far we can re-orient our economy to different patterns of investment and working and I end up thinking that this is simply a moderate shock to the economy, which will not mean very much over the next ten and twenty years.

In any case, all these discussions ignore the question of sovereignty, which remains the most important issue for most Brexiters. On that point it would seem that the relationship between the EU and the UK can now be seen in all its naked glory, or lack of such. This, I believe, will help Brexit in the long run, as I can see public opinion solidifying against the EU if they remain recalcitrant on things like opening discussions on a Free Trade Agreement. I would still expect there to be an agreement – it’s the closest to the maintenance of the status quo – but I’m not as confident as I was.

What I am most struck by, however, watching these negotiations, is the assumption that the EU will continue to exist in something like its present form for those next ten and twenty years. I am rather sceptical of that. I think the EU is facing some deeply unsettling and existential questions, and I do not see any sign of those problems being addressed.

Just today there are striking images of the crisis in Catalonia. The situation in Greece continues to destroy any claim for moral credibility on the part of the EU. The visegrad group continue to defy Brussels, in accordance with popular democracy but against the Commission’s wishes. Most fundamentally the Euro continues to destroy southern european economies in order to give Germany a helping hand as they break the law on economic surpluses. I believe it to be true that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation – and there is obviously a great deal of ruin in the EU – but I am pretty sure that the future for the UK, even without a free trade agreement, is much brighter than for the EU. I think there is a very real possibility that the EU in its present form will have ceased to exist within five years. If it has antagonised the UK in these negotiations, to the extent that opinion in the UK tends towards letting the Europeans look after their own defense, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see an EU that is mired in internal violent conflict and economic dislocation, vulnerable to power-supply diplomacy from the East and lacking any means to integrate or solidify their own internal political cohesion.

If I was Theresa May I would say rather explicitly – given the cool reaction to her Florence speech – that if discussion hasn’t started on the potential free trade agreement by Christmas then we shall proceed to trading on a WTO basis immediately on our exit in March 2019 – and we won’t pay a single penny after that. Germany will have to meet the bill, but for how long?

Living with illusions

juncker maySo Juncker has said of May that she is living within an illusion.

He may be right. It may well be that the British government has not yet fully appreciated the sheer technical difficulties involved in trying to remove ourselves from the EU whilst simultaneously trying to form a decent trade deal (decent for both sides).

And yet… I rather think that there are illusions on the EU side too, the largest being the very idea that a nation can flourish outside of the EU, that such a nation might be, not just politically and spiritually but materially better off – this cuts at the very heart of the EU’s raison d’etre.

What was it Mark Twain said about not being able to convince a man of something if he is paid not to believe it? And who pays Juncker?

Torture

Torture is wrong.
It’s also blasphemous (defacing the image of God).
It doesn’t work – indeed it is deeply counter-productive for strategic purposes.
Real-life is not an episode of 24.
Close Guantanomo.
Support Amnesty International.

I thought that needed saying, as I do like Trump in many ways, including ways that are deeply politically incorrect – but I vehemently and emphatically disagree with him on this.

So that was 2016

Well that was a fun year.

Highlight has to be the trip to Cuba with friends which was fascinating and restorative.

cuba-pic

Came back to the Brexit result – yay.
Also in politics this year, Trump won – yay again.

Married life seems to be treating me well – I have managed to be simultaneously better fed and much fitter than I have been for ages (have lost a stone and half in weight) – much further to go in every sense.

victoria-yorkshire

Work has been immensely good in very many ways, lots and lots of positive developments, with a few strange curve-balls along the way. 2017 will see a new start in many senses (one step back, two steps forward). Helped not a little by my starting some doctoral research – I’m exploring a theological critique of psychiatric diagnoses. There will be more about that on the blog next year.

Family has had fun moments, but overall is a source of sadness, as all my children are now in Wales, and I see them for half-terms and holidays. My faith in the system is not what it was – but my faith in Exodus 14.14 abides.

be-still

Did hardly any sailing this year, but a) we’re very close to buying our own boat at last and b) we’re half way through our next sailing qualifications (even passed the ColRegs exam the other day!).

Had a smaller role in the panto this year – and there wasn’t a May play – but I’m dame again in a couple of weeks, and taking great pleasure in it all.

I am going to take the unusual step of posting some resolutions. My intentions are – to lose weight and get properly healthy again; to write much more, especially on the blog – I am hoping to get back to my first rhythms; and – to sail to Amsterdam in the summer. There is a lot to be done – and I am very much looking forward to doing it!

Previous years: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015.

Muhammad is the most popular boy’s name in England

The Telegraph has an article with the seemingly innocuous headline “Oliver and Amelia the most popular baby names for the third year running”. Oliver was chosen as a boys name by 6,941 parents.

This is only capable of being the truth because, hidden in the text itself, there is a po-faced admission from the Office of National Statistics: the statistics are “based on the exact spelling of the name given on the birth certificate; grouping names with similar pronunciation would change the rankings”.

Ah, there’s the thing.

If you put together the three variant spellings of Muhammad (Muhammed and Mohammed) then suddenly what is effectively the same name is chosen by 7038 parents.

Why doesn’t the Telegraph lead with that description? I would think it rather more news-worthy.