Archbishops should stick to theology

It is not uncommon for religious leaders to come under criticism when they decide to venture into contentious areas of political dispute. There have been many headlines recently about Archbishop Justin Welby, who has been recommending certain changes to our economic arrangements. My politics and those of the Archbishop are distinct but, to channel the remark often attributed to Voltaire, I disagree with what he says but would defend to the death his right to say it.

The desire to silence religious voices on political questions has many aspects, one of which is distinct to our own society. In general, those in power do not wish to be criticised so, when those in positions of religious leadership offer up criticism, they will undoubtedly be attacked for doing so by those who are either in positions of power themselves or who benefit from the status quo in other ways.

This flags up the most common form of political engagement by religious leaders in the Jewish and Christian traditions, which is that undertaken by the religious prophets. Prophecy in Scripture is often misunderstood as being centrally about predictions of a dire future. Such predictions do exist – even Jesus employs them – but they are always secondary to the principal task of the prophet which is two-fold: to call the people of Israel (and the Church) back to the right worship of God, and to call them to establish social justice, and ensure that nobody is excluded from sharing in the life of the wider community.

When this doesn’t happen, the prophet points out that terrible things follow in consequence. To put that in different terms, the prophet points out that if the people are not obedient to God, then they cannot flourish. The most pointed and political form that this takes in the Bible comes when the prophet Jeremiah is criticising the Royal court and says that the army of Babylon will destroy Jerusalem – which duly happened in 586 BC.

So there is a general truth that those in positions of political power do not like to be criticised, as it might threaten their hold upon that power. Yet there is also something distinctly English about a desire to have apolitical clergy, and it goes back to the experience of the Civil War, and the way in which religious enthusiasm took definite political form in the shape of the New Model Army and Cromwell’s abuses.

After that point, any form of religious enthusiasm was inherently suspect. The Church of England accepted a role in society which was essentially that of a neutered house pet. It received lots of grace and favour and a position of privilege, but it was prevented from the most central form of authenticity available to it, and has been unable to reproduce.

This is the legacy with which contemporary religious leaders – most especially Anglican leaders – have to deal. It isn’t simply a straightforward clash with those in power who wish to hold on to their power, and their various cheerleaders in the media and wider society. No, there is a perception still current that for an Anglican to express political opinions is simply not the done thing.

That pattern of life is slowly breaking down, as part and parcel of the way in which the whole notion of what it is to be English or British, or Christian or secular, is breaking down more broadly.

So does this mean that the Church of England needs to identify itself with one particular political party or stance? I would argue not, but with a very significant caveat. The principal reason why not is simply that faithful Christians can be found across the whole political spectrum, and what marks out the Christian point of view is not so much being left or right as recognising that their political perspectives are less important than their religious ones. Which means, to go back to the example of the prophets, not letting any ideology get in the way of submission to God – for that would be what the Bible calls idolatry. It also means being on guard, over against oneself as much as others, not to deceive ourselves about our motives, and to always seek to have a motivation which expresses love for neighbour rather than simply being a cover for our own needs, whether those be naked financial self-interest or the temptation to indulge in nationalistic or even internationalistic fantasy.

The caveat is that I don’t believe it is open to Christians to sit upon the fence when there are issues of immense political importance being decided upon. My model for this is the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, in the 1930s, spent much time with friends in England, including the great Anglican Bishop George Bell, and who could easily have sat out the Second World War in safety in England or the United States. Instead, he chose to return to Germany in order to take part in the struggle against Hitler, eventually being executed by the Nazis for his part in the assassination plot. Shortly after returning to Germany he wrote to a friend in the United States saying, “I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”

Whenever there is a great question of public life to be decided, each Christian must resolve within their own heart and soul what it is that is God’s will. It will almost certainly not be an easy discernment, for political questions in this life by their very nature do not commonly admit to simple, coherent and complete solutions – indeed, the idea that there are such is something of an indicator that an ideology is being deployed, rather than a properly prayerful discernment.

Yet in all the discussions, as much as any political decision debated, decided and argued for, perhaps the real hallmark of a Christian perspective is the grace with which that position is held, and the capacity to listen to alternatives and find common ground with opponents. Christians are called to speak, and must not accept being excluded from the conversation, yet must also bear themselves as those who are dependent upon the virtues of another. We are the ones who do not scapegoat, who do not victimise, who do not project – for it is only through the merits of the one who received all those things from the world that we at all acceptable.

Brexit, the Church, and God’s bias to the poor

In 1983 the then Bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard (once of the England cricket team) published a book entitled ‘Bias to the poor’. In it he argued that Scripture shows that God has a consistent preference for looking after the poor and weak of society, and that, to use the modern expression, God was a God of social justice.

This seems incontrovertible to me; that is, I do not think it possible for a person to be a Christian and not be concerned for those who are poor or marginalised or excluded from engaging with the wider society. The message of Scripture, perhaps best exemplified in the marvellous words of the Magnificat in Luke’s gospel, are clear and consistent on this point.

The ‘bias to the poor’ is something that is deeply embedded in the Church of England’s self-understanding, and is something of a commonplace amongst clergy. However, I want to bring out one way in which I think the church has gone astray in its understanding of what this means. Put simply, I think the Church has confused the imperative of caring for the poor with one particular form that such caring might take and, moreover, missed elements of caring for the poor – of integrating them with wider society – which is of huge contemporary relevance.

To explain that point, I want to tell a story about King David – the story about how he was chosen. The prophet Samuel had previously chosen Saul to be the King of Israel – Saul was a fine, handsome, tall and muscular man, accomplished and acclaimed. He led Israel to disaster. When Samuel asked God to lead him to the new King, that he might anoint the King, Samuel was led to the sons of Jesse. Each one paraded before him, but God did not give his consent. Finally, Samuel asked Jesse – do you not have any other sons? And Jesse said, ‘there is still my youngest’ – and this was David. God said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected [Saul]. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16)

Poverty in scripture is never simply about material wealth, but also about status in society. When Jesus hears the disciples arguing about who will be the greatest, he brings a little child into their midst and says that unless they become like a little child they will not enter the Kingdom – and the point of this is that a little child has absolutely no status in society. This principle was embedded in many Christian practices down the centuries. In the Rule of St Benedict, for example, the monks are told that “the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger”.

In other words, God doesn’t simply love the poor and seek for them to be given material relief. He also ‘often reveals’ his will through what is said by the poor. This is because those who have little stake in existing systems can often see those systems more clearly – as opposed to those who have a great stake in the existing systems (the High Priests) who lack such a perspective.

Which brings me to the Church of England. So far as I can tell, there isn’t a single member of the House of Bishops who is in favour of Brexit. Which means that, if we look at who tends to be against Brexit, and who tends to be for it, the Bishops are lining up with most of the rest of the establishment – and on the other side are the poor and excluded of British society.

The researcher Matthew Goodwin, of the University of Kent, recently published a paper describing the attitudes and approaches of those who supported Brexit. He finds that such voters are not generally motivated by racism or cultural insularity (which are the usual, reflexive brickbats offered by those opposed to Brexit in order to reinforce a sense of moral superiority) but rather a combination of two things: a sense that, for decades, whole communities had been cut off from the increasing prosperity of wider British society; and, secondly, a sense that those who were making the decisions affecting those communities were more and more distant from the communities themselves. Hence the success of the slogan ‘take back control’.

So here we have large sections of British society who are poor and excluded – exactly the sort of people for whom the Bible expresses an especial concern – but who are entirely unrepresented in the hierarchy of the national church.

Something has gone very wrong.

In Ancient Israel, the role of prophet was one that had a particular place within the Royal Court. There is a fascinating story in the book of Jeremiah which details the conflict between the ’employed’ prophets in the Court – notably Hananiah – and the prophet from the North, Jeremiah himself. Jeremiah was foretelling disaster at the hands of the Babylonians, whereas Hananiah proclaimed that the Babylonians would be defeated. Hananiah, put simply, was telling the Royal Court what they wanted to hear, and preserving the Court in what we would today call a ‘bubble’, where they were unaware of what was happening in the wider political context. Jeremiah, on the other hand, was persecuted for his teaching – and he was proved correct.

The trouble with the Church of England is that it has allowed the bias to the poor to be restricted to the safe, middle-class and soft-socialist nostrums that constitute acceptable discourse for the mainstream centre-left of this country. In doing so, it has failed to recognise that God doesn’t simply care for the poor, he also speaks directly through them, most especially when they cry out for justice and liberty.

If the Church of England is serious about being a Church for the whole nation, especially its mission to the poor, it might do well to start listening to what God is saying through the poor of this country – or, if that is too much, perhaps even listen to the ‘consensus of the faithful’ on the subject of Brexit. After all, Anglicans were significantly more likely to vote for Brexit than the average. The Bishops don’t just represent the more affluent minority of the country, they also represent a much smaller minority of their own church. I just hope that God doesn’t have the same fate in mind for us that he did for Israel under Babylon.

How do you defend a nation?

Consider this statement from a leading US politician: “We’ve got to send a clear message that just because your child gets across the border that doesn’t mean your child gets to stay. We don’t want to send a message that is contrary to our laws and encourages them to make the dangerous journey.” No, not Trump, that was Hillary Clinton when she was campaigning to be President. Personally I can’t fathom any moral justification for separating children from parents – and I’m glad the policy seems to be changing – but there is an issue here that needs to be addressed openly.

That issue is, simply, ‘how do you defend a nation?’

Some might say that there is no such thing as a ‘nation’ – just an agglomeration of individuals who happen to coincide by location. Such a viewpoint is useful to big business and bureaucracies for it makes their lives so much easier – there is less grit in the wheels of industry – and it is also why such perspectives tend towards support for the EU. There is an equal and opposite error which makes the nation the source of all value and meaning. One of the principal lessons of the twentieth century relates to the terror that can be unleashed when such a perspective is put into power – and the catastrophe consequent to this latter perspective goes a long way to explaining the attraction of the former.

I would want to argue against both these perspectives. I believe that there is such a thing as a healthy pride in national identity, one which avoids the Syclla of deracination and the Charybdis of fascism.

Nations are real things: there is such a thing as ‘England’ or ‘France, moreover, such things as nations can be born and thrive, they can also die. Which is why I think it does make sense to talk of ‘defending’ a nation. A nation is a group of people who (originally) share a particular territory, and in living upon that territory develop a cultural complex of language, law, morality and behaviour which is distinct from other such complexes in different parts of the world.

I believe that nations are not just real things, but that they are precious things. They are part of the glory of the human being – that we have the capacity to thrive in such diverse and multiform fashion. (This is, of course, on great display at the moment in Russia, not just in the teams playing football but even more so in the groups of fans who follow each team. This is why it makes sense to feel shame when we see England supporters behaving like Philistines in their journeys abroad – so far so good in this World Cup!)

It makes sense to identify with a nation – to say, for example, ‘I am English’ or ‘I am French’ – and to know what this means. Some, however – who tend to live in one of the major ‘world cities’ like London, and to have received at least a university level education – do not know what this sort of identification means, and they do not recognise any deficiency in their lives associated with it. The writer David Goodhart describes this contrast as being between the ‘somewheres’ and the ‘anywheres’. The somewheres know where they are from and they draw value and strength from that identification. The anywheres do not identify with a particular location and do not feel any particular need to do so. Much of the dispute in our present political culture can be traced to this division between the somewheres – who will be concerned about national identity and so more resistant to immigration – and the anywheres – who are relaxed about national identity and so more open to immigration.

This debate tends to be reduced to one about racism, yet as I have argued before, the question here is not about race but about culture. After all, a significant element – possibly the overwhelming element – of national identity is the cultural expression of it. English culture, in common with other Western cultures, places a very great weight upon the notion of human rights, which is the modern term for a much more ancient notion emphasising the respect for the individual.

This respect is derived from Christianity and cannot properly be sustained without that religious foundation, the idea that all human beings are made in the image of God and are therefore inherently worthy of respect, irrespective of any achievements or wealth or family connections that might otherwise be considered relevant. No, Western culture is built around the idea that there is something sacred about the particular human being.

Our mistake, however, is to think that the glory of an individual human being can be understood apart from the culture in which they came to birth. It is rather like admiring a flower without paying any attention to the ground into which it has planted its roots. In other words, an insistence on the sacredness of the individual does not have to blend with a disregard for the community, the culture, the nation of which they are a part. That is the mistake which our modern West has made, with such terrible consequences.

So, to return to my original question, how do we defend the nation? We defend it by living out the values and virtues that animate that nation, by recognising that, to take our own nation as an example, some things simply ‘aren’t English’, some things simply wouldn’t be done by someone who shares our values and perspectives upon life. We take steps to ensure that people who live within the nation are taught how to operate appropriately within it, learning the language, the laws, the customs that enable a free and easy inter-relationship between all who are sharing the same space. It also means being very clear when actions are taken which ‘aren’t English’ – and ensuring appropriate, vivid and clarificatory punishments for such things.

We need to hold our leaders to the same standard. When English politicians act in such a way as to nurture a sense of Englishness, all well and good. When they do something to undermine it, they too need to be brought up short and rebuked. Most of all, when something is pursued by the nation that brings shame upon us, it needs to be seen as detrimental to the national interest and renounced. What might do such a thing? Something like separating children from their parents in service of some bureaucratic edict. I think that would qualify.

Freedom needs authority and accountability

As a fairly classic introvert, when I have to go on a long train journey I like to book ahead and make use of the ‘quiet carriage’ – the one where people are asked not to use mobile phones (that is, not to have public conversations) or make any other excessive noise. Bliss for introverts!

On my most recent journey, coming back from Cornwall, I was sat opposite a mature couple, both of them teachers – and very quiet they were too. However, the same could not be said for many of the other occupants of the carriage. In particular there was a group of youths who were rather boisterous and a young mum whose progeny was well behaved, but who delighted in telling all and sundry about that progeny, and much else besides, on her mobile phone.

The teachers across from me became increasingly exasperated. When the ticket inspector came along, they asked him if he would be able to do anything. He demurred, clearly feeling rather awkward, and then commented ‘it’s alright, they’re getting off at the next stop’. Which they did, and the remainder of the journey was suitably restful.

However, am I alone in thinking that something has gone wrong with our society? This is in so many ways a trivial example, yet it is one that can give a clear insight into the issues. The train company had set up a carriage for the purpose of being quiet, and this was very clearly advertised within the carriage itself, and by announcements from the driver. That purpose was thwarted by two groups of people, either because they were unaware of the purpose of the carriage or because they didn’t care (I rather suspect the latter).

Those who had the responsibility for ensuring that the purpose of the quiet carriage was upheld were clearly uncomfortable at the thought of trying to ensure that this happened. I don’t blame the conductor for not wanting to make a scene. We are all too familiar with stories where someone tries to uphold civilised standards of behaviour and is then berated with a deluge of foul-mouthed invective (at best) from the transgressor. The teachers, I am sure, were also fully aware of the malign consequences that might have come their way from seeking to exercise any authority.

Our culture worships individual choice, and exalts it as one of the highest of human virtues. The notion that authority is something that is needed for human flourishing is not a comfortable one for us, we would much rather tell stories of heroic individualism, where the single will triumphs over the system.

In doing this we are rather like flowers that despise the soil in which they are nurtured, and on which they depend.

Where there is no recognised authority, those who are able to exercise their will the most clearly will be those who are strong in some way, either force of personality or simple physical strength. Physical intimidation has become a much more commonplace form of negotiation in our modern society, and this is not a sign of health. Without authority the weakest are pushed to the edge, for there is nothing to restrain the vicious.

Where there is a recognised authority, however, and where such authority is generally respected and followed, then a much safer general environment is established, and those fruits of civilisation that require a certain amount of gentility are enabled to flourish. Put differently, without a due regard for authority, we succumb to the dictatorship of morons.

Yet authority is not a single value that can be asserted on its own. How, after all, might we distinguish between competing claims for authority, between the different institutions of civic society, or between different individuals and groups within them? Any form of authority must eventually rest upon a social consensus around what has most authority – that which, when fully appealed to, is allowed to over-ride other claims. In other words, every form of social authority must ultimately rest on some form of religion.

This does not necessarily mean one particular religion – it need not even necessitate any general belief in a God or gods. What it means is that there is something which that society values and holds to be most important within its common life, and which acts as the keystone in the overall arch of shared values, and therefore the shared enforcement of those values.

Crucially, what it means is that those who are in a position to exercise authority are themselves able to be held accountable for what they do. Just as respect for authority would have enabled my train conductor to uphold the purpose of the quiet carriage, so too does a proper system of authority allow those who might be abused by a corrupt conductor (give me money to keep talking loudly) recourse to something higher.

Without this ‘something higher’ – what religious people call the transcendent – human relationships resolve down to something less than fully human, something far more fully explicable by biological processes or comparisons with the animal kingdom. Such a flawed civilisation cannot last, and will be replaced by one that is still able to draw upon spiritual nourishment.

If we wish to live in a society that has recognisable continuity with the very best that our civilisation has enabled in previous centuries – if we wish to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors and build sustainably upon their achievements – I rather think we need to pay due care and attention to the role that religion played in their culture. It is as if our forebears had paid in regular amounts of capital into a bank account, which we have now been drawing upon for quite some time – indeed, I would say we are now overdrawn.

To preserve what is excellent requires some account of what is excellent that is independent of our personal choices or whims. It needs an understanding of the transcendent; it needs a religion.

The only question that matters for us in this country is which religion shall be followed.

We need to sift the sixties

We are so caught up in the arguments following from our cultural fragmentation that we miss opportunities to step back and ask ‘how did we get here?’ Most historical explanations can go back as far as patience can take us, certainly I think the agricultural revolution is an oft-overlooked factor in our contemporary gender politics, yet it is surely the 1960s that are worth pondering as the background to our present malaise.

After all it was in the 1960s that ‘everything changed’. Traditional defence was pushed aside (as with the Lady Chatterley trial and the consequences of the Profumo affair); progressive laws were introduced with regard to abortion, sexual rights, divorce law and the abolition of capital punishment; popular (youth) culture transformed itself with new musical styles and the consequences of the ready availability of the contraceptive pill; changing patterns of work and home life leading to the equal pay act and so on.

So much of this seems unarguably good, yet I do believe that certain social currents were established in the 1960s that we now need to pay much closer attention to, and these seem to be coming into a focus around gender relations.

All right thinking people believe in equality of treatment for the sexes before the law. That, perhaps, is a weaselly phrase (who counts as ‘right thinking’, and who decides who counts?) yet it is only in the darkest corners of the internet that arguments against a full equality of treatment for one sex – or another – can be found.

Yet what this insistence upon equality of treatment seems to have set in train is the notion that men and women are functionally equivalent. This leads to some absurdities, as when a military force lowers the standards for entry (the US Marine Corps) in order to enable more women to enter. The ideal of an elite fighting force is being sacrificed upon the altar of political correctness. This is an ultimately self-destructive path.

We need to learn once again that an acknowledgement of differences in the aggregate between different groups – as between men and women – does not necessitate the unequal treatment of any one individual man or woman. If there is a particular standard that needs to be reached in order to be a marine, let that standard be maintained. Some women will be able to achieve it. Of what worth is the achievement if it is known that the standards were lowered? Isn’t that in itself a deeply patronising and insulting stance to adopt?

There is now so much research indicating the profound differences between the typical man and the typical woman, in terms not simply of obvious biological externals but internal brain architecture and hormonal equilibriums. Remarkably, some of the most eloquent testimony comes from women who are transitioning to a male identity, and taking testosterone supplementation for that purpose – and who are profoundly shocked and chastened to discover the different ways in which male sexuality informs the psychology as a result of that extra testosterone.

What has often seemed to happen as a result of the liberation let loose by the 1960s is that women have been encouraged to be men, that women can do anything that a man can do. This seems to me to be such a profoundly mistaken approach; not only is it the case that making women into not-quite-good-enough men doesn’t help either sex, it also radically underestimates and undervalues the distinctively feminine strengths that women have always been able to bring to bear. The culture of feminism that so denounces patriarchy seems to have no conception of just how strongly men wish to please the women in their lives, and the impact that this has upon the power balance between the sexes.

What is worse, this mistaken evaluation of female strength has gone hand in hand with a vilification of male strength, and this has a current form in discussions of ‘toxic masculinity’. In a culture that has claimed that men are superfluous, and that has pushed that notion to its logical conclusion through the divorce courts, we have ended up with generations of young men that have been deprived, not just of contact with their fathers, but of contact with any truly virile examples of what a noble man might look like. Men need competition; boys need proper ‘rough and tumble’ if they are to learn both their own power and the importance of boundaries. What we now have are so many examples of rootless and hollow men causing chaos in ways large and small. The natural counter to this is not to continue taking away responsibility and authority from all men but rather to ensure that those men who bear authority are well equipped to do so. Which means we need to talk about virility and virtue – both words with distinctly masculine (vir) roots.

What seems to have happened is that an embrace of radical individualism has been allowed to undermine all the blessings that come from community cohesion. We need to strike a new balance between those two necessary elements of a healthy common life: not a return to some mythical bygone era in which everyone knew their place and stuck to it, nor an environment in which every single solitary person is allowed to follow their own desires irrespective of the harms that might follow from their choices, but rather a place in which the community can serve the individual and the individual in turn can serve the community. The truth is that neither can flourish without the other – the present emphasis on individual freedom and personal choice seems to have as its most salient feature a radical rise in personal misery and depression.

These things are all connected. As we see the consequences of choices made fifty years ago we need to sift them to work out what was good and what was bad, restoring a healthy discrimination and judgement that will enable all of us to flourish.

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.

A church for England

So here is the trailer for a new series on Netflix that I am planning to watch and hoping to enjoy:

One of the key elements in the story is that a person can ‘upload’ their identity so that it can be stored and then be ‘downloaded’ into another body, thus granting a certain sort of immortality.

This is one manifestation of the ancient gnostic heresy, which sees bodies as barriers to enlightenment.

Christianity, in contrast, proclaims the Word made flesh – and thus sees flesh as inherently capable of bearing divinity, thus, worthy of respect and affirmation. If you really want to protect the bodies of human beings in the world today it doesn’t help to consider them metaphysically dispensable…

Interestingly, contemporary philosophy of mind and neuroscience would concur that the idea (of disembodied intellects being the essence of who we are) is inadequate to describe our shared humanity. We do not exist apart from our bodies, and cannot exclude our bodies from our sense of self, not even of our concept of mind. No, the Biblical witness that we are embodied souls (to be resurrected one day in the body DV!) is proving remarkably robust.

So far, so uncontroversial to an informed theologian. Now for my radical turn.

Jesus was the Word made flesh, and the scandal of the incarnation is about particularity – how odd that God should choose the Jews. Jesus was a particular man who lived in a particular time and place; so far as we can tell he was very typical of a man of his time, for all of his untypical aspects are otherwise remarked upon – his teaching, his demeanour, his morally and religiously radical behaviour.

In other words, all those aspects of humanity that are tied in with a particular time and space – to be a Jew in the first century in Palestine – these also become bearers of the divine.

Which means that all our own particularities share in that potentiality; and they can only do so if they are real.

By which I mean: ontologically real. Most especially, a nation, or national identity, is a real thing. It meant something for Jesus to be a Judean. The nation is a principality, a creation of God, fallen and in need of redemption, yet also granted a place in God’s economy.

Which brings me to the Church of England, which is dying if not yet quite dead. I rather wonder whether part of the affliction from which it suffers has its root in a metaphysical blindness about the true spiritual nature of the nation which it claims to serve. That is, it would appear that, unlike the laity, almost all of the leadership has no interest or care in the salvation of England as a nation, as opposed to the individuals who live within that nation.

Might it not be the case that, if the Church of England is not to die out from lack of use, a part of the solution would be a recognition that the Church has to be for England as such?

At the moment this is just a seed of an idea. Yet it ties together so much.

Film, TV, novels of 2017

Last year my New Year’s Resolution was to keep a list of all the popular culture I consumed. It has been a very interesting exercise and one that I plan to continue. It is a good prompt to me to read more and watch less! Here is a list of some of my cultural highlights of the year:

Novels:
I re-read Lord of the Rings, and all of the Game of Thrones books, and CS Lewis’ space trilogy. All good.
I read some more horror again, after much time away – Clive Barker, James Herbert, now re-reading Stephen King (which may take some time!)
Best books read: Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; Xenocide by Orson Scott Card; Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
I read about 25 novels – so one a fortnight.

Movies (at home)
I watched more than 60 – so more than one a week. Some favourites: John Wick (1&2); Ex Machina; I, Daniel Blake; Nymphomaniac (both parts)
Worst film watched: The Circle

TV
Probably watch a bit more TV than movies now – influence of Netflix!
Kept up with Game of Thrones, Walking Dead and all the Marvel series – though I have now given up on that (Inhumans! erk).
Enjoyed the first few series of Downton. Loved Westworld, American Gods, Wolf Hall, Star Trek Discovery and The Crown.
Also: Strictly! for the first time.

Cinema – roughly one a month, they were all good. Basically I’ll see the main popcorn movies on a big screen. Best of these was probably Blade Runner, closely followed by Dunkirk

Lego Batman
Logan
Lion
Guardians of the Galaxy 2
Spiderman: Homecoming
Baby Driver
Dunkirk
Kingsman: Golden Circle
Blade Runner 2049
Thor Ragnarok
Justice League
Star Wars: The Last Jedi

For next year? I just can’t wait for Infinity War…

On hoping that the Conservatives might become more conservative

I_Daniel_Blake_Photo
I recently watched, and greatly enjoyed, the Ken Loach film ‘I, Daniel Blake’. This is a deeply moving portrait of a good man crushed by an inhumane and incomprehensible system. It might seem strange that a conservative is so sympathetic to such a classically socialist visionary as Loach – but that is because conservatism is generally greatly misunderstood, not least by the Conservative party itself!

To be a conservative is to be concerned above all with the husbanding of resources. I prefer that phrase to one that means something very similar – ‘the preservation of capital’ – because it is not only a more traditional expression, it is also one that is less likely to trigger premature associations with the word capitalism, with all the things that go with it.

The resources that need to be husbanded fall into four principal areas.

The first is economic, that is, all the various forms of financial wealth and property that our society values. This form is most easily associated with a conservative point of view, and runs alongside a respect for the rule of law and a high regard for private property and the rights associated with it. This approach, when taken to an extreme, shades into forms of libertarianism, whereby the state is only deployed in order to ensure the rule of law and such other elements as are essential to the continuity of the rule of law (such as the police and the armed forces). Libertarianism and conservatism are not the same, principally because conservatism also values three more forms of resource.

The second resource which conservatives seek to husband is ecological. Under this heading would come all the shared physical goods that a community enjoys that aren’t owned privately (or that only have private consequences). Much that comes under the heading of ‘green concerns’ has a natural connection with this area of conservatism, that is, everything which seeks to conserve our natural environment and preserve it in good repair. So a bias against pollution, a recognition of the need to preserve clean air and water, the preservation of species and biodiversity, all of this and more is conservative.

A third resource is social, and my favourite way to think of this form of resource is to think of Edmund Burke’s ‘little platoons’. These are all the ways in which human beings gather in order to seek mutual enrichment, and together these make up the very real and important human good which is called society. Under this heading would come things like the MICA centre, or the Lions, or Blindspot – activities and organisations and institutions which bind people together with mutual support. Much of what makes human life worth living falls into this section.

The last resource is human; that is, individual human beings, in all their glory and potential. Things like health care and education are important not principally because it keeps the economic wheels turning but rather because they enable individual human beings to thrive.

In the conservative vision, all of these forms of resource can be husbanded harmoniously together – so the preservation of our natural environment enables human beings to thrive and contribute to the social organisations which strengthen mutual trust and thereby ease the commercial endeavours that enable our prosperity – which then helps to pay for better care of the natural environment and so on. In a healthy society these things all work together in a virtuous circle, each one reinforcing the other.

Given this, how has Conservatism come to be seen as ‘nasty’ and uncaring? In many ways – as portrayed in the Loach film – the consequences of Conservative policies have indeed been despicable, but that is because they have been deeply anti-conservative, and have manifestly failed to husband the sorts of resources that I have described above.

I understand this through the use of my estate agent metaphor. I mean no offence to estate agents in using this (the estate agents I have had to deal with have always been very civilised people) but merely to bring home a clear distinction. If you sell your home then you are also letting go of a place which contains all sorts of sentimental attachments, memories and meanings. None of these are relevant to the price that an estate agent will place upon the property, for they are not relevant to the person who will be purchasing it.

In the same way, the problem with so much Conservative policy in the last few decades has been an over-emphasis upon the first form of resource described – financial – at the expense of all the others. The Conservative party was taken over by cynics who knew the price of everything but the value of nothing – or at least, not the value of the other three forms of resource described above. One tragedy of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership was that ‘One nation’ conservatism became identified with a ‘wet’ economic perspective. I rather suspect that if the Conservative party is to regain its strength and morale that it will need a strong voice that is both deeply ‘dry’ and strongly ‘one nation’.

At the heart of a properly conservative outlook, then, is a particular vision of what it means for human beings to flourish – human beings that are situated in a particular place at a particular time within a particular society – and a recognition that such flourishing can only take place when all the resources that enable that flourishing are husbanded properly.

The tragedy of Daniel Blake was that he was caught up in a system that did not recognise the human and social resource that he was; he was not valued and the rejection killed him. A naturally conservative response to such a situation would be to call for a universal basic income – in order to properly value, nurture and affirm all the human beings in our society. To not do so is to conduct our common life in the manner of a transactional estate agent – such an approach might be Conservative, but it is a long way from being conservative. It doesn’t simply fail, it deserves to fail.

Men are made of flesh

men womenIf you take the food bowl away from your dog once it has started eating, it will probably resist. It might even bite. Sane dog owners recognise that to do such a thing is not just stupid, it’s cruel.

Imagine a conscientious vegetarian – someone who has always enjoyed red meat but who has become convinced by the moral arguments that killing animals for sustenance cannot be right. Now imagine someone that knows this person well sitting down in front of them with a perfectly prepared steak. I would imagine the vegetarian would not bite, but it would still be a potentially cruel and insensitive thing to do.

So what of men, who have distinct bodily appetites, and in the best of whom there is a wrestling with those appetites in order to function well in society and generally be a blessing to women not a curse?

In a perfect world all men would be in such control of their appetites and drives that women could say or do whatever they wished without risk of any adverse consequences of the relevant sort. That especially applies to what is worn.

However, we do not live in such a perfect world. We men are simple creatures of flesh and blood, and will therefore tend to react in certain very obvious and understandable ways when our buttons are pressed.

As with the dog food and the vegetarian, this can sometimes be manipulated for cruel purposes.

For my part, I actually think that Mike Pence has a good point. In the context of an increased awareness of safeguarding issues, this sort of chaperoning is clearly the way forward. More than this, I suspect that the medium-term answer – that is, for so long as men struggle with their own sinful desires – is to segregate sinful men from all possible temptations. We need a return to male-only spaces, within which men can do their work without any risks to women.