The ‘common good’ and support for current and former soldiers are among the topics to be discussed at the Church of England’s general synod in July 2014. Lack of clarity on these major social issues reflects a sometimes confused approach to faith, as shown in the current approach to baptism, also on the agenda.
It has long been known that seeking, or being in awe of, worldly power and privilege can be morally harmful and that resisting evil in self and society may involve struggle. Closer attention to the Bible, tradition, reason and experience can help churches in modern Britain and beyond to think and act wisely and boldly.
Meeting against the backdrop of deep social and economic divisions
Letting women become bishops will probably be the main focus of general synod, the Church of England’s governing body, when it meets in York from 11-15 July 2014.
This is indeed important. Jesus often chose women as ambassadors of the good news, the gospels suggest, and female as well as male leaders played a key part in the early church. In recent centuries, many have again come to believe that women’s diverse gifts should be valued. It is high time that gender stopped being a bar.
The media may also take an interest in the proposal that clergy should be barred from joining, or campaigning for, the British National Party and National Front, which are explicitly racist.
However there are other important matters which will be debated. These include ‘The Common Good’ and ‘The Armed Forces Covenant and Community Covenants’ and ‘Additional Texts for Holy Baptism’.
Synod is meeting against a background of growing inequality. Austerity measures, including cuts in social security and care, have badly affected some of the most vulnerable. Government tactics include vilifying some of those hit and urging volunteers to help others.
Many unemployed and disabled people have faced harsh treatment. Those whose plight has been reported over the past few months include former soldier Paul Morris, who spent 22 years in the armed forces. According to the Birmingham Mail, he was forced to turn to a foodbank after his benefits were drastically reduced. Despite two heart attacks and a skin condition which required frequent hospital visits, he had been told to find a job. Another disabled man found ‘fit for work’, Mark Wood, starved to death in Oxfordshire.
In June 2014, the Public Accounts Committee warned that “many disabled people have experienced long and unacceptable delays in their Personal Independence Payment being assessed and granted. The process has proved inaccessible and cumbersome for claimants, who are some of the most vulnerable people in society.”
In the same month, the government made £1 million available to expand cadet corps in state schools. Amidst drastic cuts to public services, more than 12,000 armed forces personnel have been made redundant since 2011, while the number of reservists is being increased.
A year ago, the defence secretary wrote, “Above all we seek a new relationship with society. Our Armed Forces, regular and reserve, enjoy considerable public support and admiration, but if they are to continue to flourish they require individuals to volunteer to join and to serve. The Reserves enable the security on which we all depend to be delivered more cost-effectively.”
There has been a “new tide of militarisation”, in the words of a Quaker report in March 2014 (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/20602), partly aimed at overcoming public scepticism about the trustworthiness of those who send soldiers to kill and die, following the unravelling of the rationale for invading Iraq. At the same time “the government is not willing to spend the billions of pounds a year that it would cost to care properly for members of the armed forces whose lives are severely damaged by war.”
Some austerity measures are believed to cost more overall than they save. In addition the state has been channelling money to the rich and large corporations through tax cuts and loopholes. The purpose of these policies is primarily ideological rather than financial, including undermining commitments to social and economic rights which form part of universal human rights.
Church of England leaders, along with those of several other churches, have sometimes been critical of the harshest cuts, while being less clear about underlying principles. Practice has also been variable. For instance, at the end of June, the dean of Westminster Abbey refused to let disabled protestors against the abolition of the Independent Living Fund set up camp opposite the Houses of Parliament.
Local churches sometimes serve impoverished communities. But the Church of England is established, so that the monarch is head of the church as well as the state, and enjoys privileges such as seats for bishops in the House of Lords. As with non-established churches, wealthy and prestigious donors can help financially and in terms of influence.
Death and rebirth in Christ
The revision of the baptismal liturgy to offer a simpler, less wordy alternative was a well-intentioned response to the problems faced by some parishes. One of the criticisms when the Alternative Service Book (ASB) baptismal liturgy was replaced by Common Worship was that the new service was too long.
In addition, often parents and prospective godparents wanting children to be baptised, along with their extended families, have little familiarity with Christian ritual and language. There has also maybe been a cultural shift towards belief in the inherent goodness of humankind, or at least oneself and one’s peers, with a few exceptions. This makes the terminology of ‘sin’ problematic for many people.
The twentieth-century poet WH Auden “placed himself firmly on one side of an argument that pervades the modern intellectual climate but is seldom explicitly stated, an argument about the nature of evil and those who commit it,” wrote Edward Mendelson in an essay.
He continued, “On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, ‘I am a good person,’ who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own.”
Admittedly, even Christians who ritually confess sinfulness are often guilty of denial about acts of cowardice, indifference and cruelty which harm others. What is more, some people with serious emotional or psychological problems may need to be reassured that they are not as bad as they fear. In addition, when a church is competing in a crowded marketplace of competing beliefs, it may seem sensible to project an image that joining is a generally safe and pain-free option.
However there are drawbacks in the shift from recognition of the full implications of human fallibility in self and society. It can leave people ill-equipped in dealing with the more disturbing impulses and tendencies in their own hearts and in their families, communities and nations. It can foster timidity and conformity in the face of oppression. And it can fuel prejudice if evil is projected on to ‘the other’.
A proposed alternative baptism service, piloted in some parishes in early 2014, removed most references to sin and all mention of the devil. The explanation in baptism services that this involved giving allegiance to Christ had already been taken out when the ASB was replaced with Common Worship.
A paper to synod for discussion in July 2014 reports back on the pilot, with recommendations for a slightly revised version to be made available to any parish that wishes to use it. Some of the elements previously removed have been restored. For instance, if synod agrees the recommendations, candidates or their representatives will still be asked to turn away from sin. However all negative references to the world as it is have been removed.
The revised service for baptising infants now begins, “Jesus said, ‘Let the children come to me. Do not stop them’.” This is one of the suggested readings at the ‘Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child’, for which it is wholly appropriate. However there are other dimensions to baptism. Another relevant Gospel quotation is Jesus’ question to James and John as he faces the prospect of betrayal by his friends and suffering and death at the hands of the religious and political authorities: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with?” (Mark 10.38). Unsurprisingly this does not appear in the liturgy.
A ‘Commentary by the Liturgical Commission’ of the Church of England on baptism and confirmation, published a few years ago, states:
Over the last hundred years Christians have been involved in the rediscovery of the meaning of baptism. Before this, baptism was generally treated as a sort of birth rite within a Christian society.
...the Liturgical Commission had before it the following biblical framework, believing that baptism involves:
- separation from this world – that is, the world alienated from God, and
- reception into a universal community centred on God, within which
- his children can grow into the fullness of the pattern of Christ, and
- a community whose mission is to serve God’s Spirit in redeeming the world...
The full and rich biblical imagery surrounding baptism and the comparative ignorance of this richness in many sections of modern society pose a major problem in the drafting of services of Christian initiation...
If the baptismal liturgy of the Church is to do justice to Scripture, it cannot be satisfactory simply to thin down the resonance to what can be absorbed at one sitting by those unfamiliar with the many themes associated with baptism. Part of the solution must lie with new approaches to preparation and more vivid presentation of the service.
This understanding does not seem to be adequately reflected in the synod report on baptism. More broadly, the most subversive aspects of being Christian – having an allegiance which overrides other loyalties, including to any state or business, and being willing to look critically at dominant systems and ideologies – are downplayed in the approach to key social issues in the July 2014 papers.
Whose good? And of what kind?
‘The Common Good - the Church and Politics Today’, a paper from the Mission and Public Affairs Council, sets out to “reaffirm the centrality of the common good in Christian discipleship and the mission of the church, to celebrate and affirm all that our churches and congregations do to build up the common life of the nation, and to consider the place of the common good in contemporary political thinking and how we can help to bring it centre stage in a shared vision of what a good society might be.”
In a deeply divided world, whether there is really a ‘common good’ is an obvious question. For example a business executive may increase his profits by paying his employees less than the living wage, an arms manufacturer by selling weapons to dictators who use these against those they rule.
Christian tradition may suggest that there is a common spiritual good based on justice. The prophets have stern words for an exploitative ruling class (e.g. Isaiah 3.13-15). The wealthy may not be very enthusiastic that in the Magnificat, Mary’s song of joy in Luke’s gospel, God is said to have:
brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1.52-53).
However if “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18.25), losing their excessive wealth is ultimately good for them.
Several influential early Christians had equally strong words about wealth. For instance, in the fourth century, Basil the Great urged the rich to “let your wealth run through many conduits to the homes of the poor.” This was a matter of justice, not simply charity: “having seized what belongs to all, they claim it as their own on the basis of having got there first. Whereas if everyone took for himself enough to meet his immediate needs and released the rest for those in need of it, there would be no rich and no poor.”
Some modern Christian social thinking which makes use of the concept of the ‘common good’ – for instance that of Pope Francis – asks searching questions about how the world is structured. This paper for synod, however, while arguing that gross inequality is undesirable, opts for a sort of communitarianism that bypasses issues of power.
It is suggested that the ‘common good’ “is about our common humanity first, but it is also about maximising the commitment to shared values and a sense of community. Our society has tended to emphasise individual autonomy. This is not in itself wrong, but it should be balanced by valuing also the promotion of the common good in the interests of community, both current and future.”
Supposedly “At the heart of ‘common good’ thinking is a commitment to ‘intermediate institutions’ – structures much smaller than the state but much wider than individuals and their families, which are substantial enough to be part of how people define the values they share.”
This could refer to a friendly village where people are caring towards their neighbours and engage in many shared activities. Or it could describe a socially cohesive ‘nimby’ (‘not in my backyard’) locality where people band together to resist plans for a support centre for mentally ill people, or a close-knit, culturally monolithic white community whose members do not want migrants and refugees in their midst.
Indeed the British National Party’s Northern Ireland Manifesto 2011, ‘Putting local people first’, warns of a society in which “there is little community spirit” and urges that “we must rebuild the bonds that bind society together around shared values and a shared identity.” Obviously the Church of England’s leadership has not the slightest intention of encouraging the BNP, but there are risks in failing to recognise that communal bonding can have a shadow side. Especial care should be exercised because some of the far right claims to be defending a ‘Christian’ heritage.
In addition, as public services are eroded and social security benefits slashed, the Church of England should be careful not to appear to be colluding out of self-interest, for instance the hope that more people will be forced to seek the help of church charities or Christian volunteers. Yet the report praises the Conservative Party’s ‘Big Society’ ideals, which supposedly “expressed David Cameron’s opposition to the concentration of power in an increasingly overweening state”, albeit recognising that these have not always been reflected in policy.
It is rather odd to describe centrist Labour government of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, with programmes such as the private finance initiative and academies, as promoting “an increasingly overweening state”. And the notion of David Cameron, whose Lobbying Act is one of the most repressive laws enacted over the past century, being opposed to the concentration of power in the state, is mystifying.
The paper also applauds “thinkers on the left” who “focus on ways to build up local communities and intermediate institutions which can challenge the dominance of corporate power without expecting the state to carry impossible expectations.” It is unclear which expectations are “impossible” and why, given the track record of statutory institutions such as the NHS (though this has been seriously undermined by cuts and legislative changes), or in what ways poor communities can successfully challenge the power of huge corporations within the current system.
However institutional self-interest and closeness to the powers-that-be seem to influence the paper’s outlook. The ‘Red Toryism’ of Philip Blond and ‘Blue Labour’ ideas of Maurice Glasman are acclaimed because “support for the role of the churches in promoting the common good is at the heart of both their projects... The churches, they argue, must be supported to help build a better social and political settlement.”
In 2013 Greg Smith, an honorary senior research fellow of the William Temple Foundation and social activist in a poverty-stricken multi-cultural city on the north of England, questioned the adequacy of theology based on the ‘common good’.
“It seems to me that the vast majority of those who are talking this way are white, male, powerful academics, church leaders or politicians. The ideas may well resonate widely across society, but I don't think I am hearing many marginalised, ethnic minority, poor, disabled or global south voices articulating this theology. What I detect in their voices when I hear them is a discourse of rights, and a tone of anger and cynicism about politicians of all parties that the little they have is being taken away and that the filthy rich are getting richer. In simple terms it is sheer hypocrisy to say ‘we are all in this together’”, he wrote.
He pointed to the contrasting approach in scripture, questioned “whether it can serve the interests of the marginalised” as well as appealing to those in the middle and warned against “papering over intrinsic conflicts... saying Peace, peace where there is no peace” (Jeremiah 8.11). He also asked, “Is it internationalist enough for the present global crisis?” Willingness to address such questions, and closer attention to the perspective of those who are impoverished, maligned and exploited, would have resulted in a very different report.
The early church was willing to question the very foundations of the prevailing economic and social system. “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you,” warned the Epistle of James. “The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter.”
“Private property is the fruit of iniquity. I know that God has given us the use of goods, but only as far as is necessary; and he has determined that the use shall be common. The use of all things that are found in this world ought to be common to all,” wrote Clement of Alexandria over eighteen centuries ago.
Much modern Christian social teaching seeks to build on this heritage while being rigorous in identifying and analysing the ills of today’s world. Interestingly, despite the Church of England’s active involvement in the World Council of Churches, ‘The Common Good – the Church and Politics Today’ completely ignores the São Paulo Statement: International Financial Transformation for the Economy of Life’, produced in 2012 by the WCC, World Communion of Reformed Churches and Council for World Mission, and subsequent ecumenical work on economic justice.
The São Paulo Statement too, rejects individualistic consumerism but suggests that “The God of the oppressed calls us into an alternative imagination which has to emerge from the margins, from those who have been left out of socio-political and economic decision making but are the first to suffer its consequences... The idea of a Triune God acts as a challenge to individualism, discrimination and exclusivity; it is a doctrine that calls us into a life of equality in community and requires an active response that affects the whole of humanity.” It rejects “complicity with all systems of death, including militarism”.
To a worldly-wise church which has learned to compromise with the powers-that-be while still showing care and concern for the needy up to a point, this level of boldness may seem too shocking even to consider. Yet the recent economic crisis and plight of the poor, globally and in modern Britain, should maybe prompt a deeper look at systems of power and privilege.
The Armed Forces Covenant
‘The Church and the Armed Forces Covenant’ is another report by the Mission and Public Affairs Council. This explains that: “Important changes taking place in the way Britain’s Armed Forces are configured will see members of the Armed Forces more squarely rooted in the local community. This move will mean that the provision of pastoral and spiritual care to the Armed Forces Community becomes a shared responsibility involving both the Chaplains (lay and ordained) to the Armed Forces and the wider Church.”
The report claims to show “how the Armed Forces Covenant scheme offers a helpful opportunity for the Church to respond to the wider reforms affecting the Armed Forces and the welfare and spiritual needs of a new generation of veterans.” It explains that the 2011 Armed Forces Covenant “recognises that the whole Nation has a moral obligation to members of the Armed Forces and their families” and seeks to “build inclusive communities by redressing the disadvantages that members of the Armed Forces Community might face and by recognising the sacrifices that they have made.”
How churches relate to the armed forces raises difficult questions. Early Christians tended to be pacifist, seeking to follow the example of Jesus who taught his followers to love even their enemies and refused to let them fight to protect him from those who sought his death. Later most (though not all) churches adopted the notion of just war as a resort, governing both the circumstances in which wars might be fought and the means used, though in practice the limits set were often not observed.
In the twentieth century, there was renewed ecumenical concern about war. Since 1930, international gatherings of Anglican bishops have repeatedly affirmed “that war as a method of settling international disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ”, though with some qualifications. The stockpiling and use of weapons of mass destruction have been strongly rejected.
For instance in 1958, the Lambeth Conference called on Christians “to press through their governments, as a matter of the utmost urgency, for the abolition by international agreement of nuclear bombs and other weapons of similar indiscriminate destructive power, the use of which is repugnant to the Christian conscience.” In 1998 the Conference again abhorred “the evil of war”, committed those attending to “any active, non-violent means we can employ to end current conflicts and wars” and urged all nations “to agree by treaty to stop the production, testing, stock-piling and usage of nuclear weapons” and “press for an international mandate for all [UN] member states to prohibit nuclear warfare.”
This raises problems for the Church of England, an established church whose head also heads a state which sometimes violates just war principles and international law, for instance in the invasion of Iraq, and expects its soldiers to be willing to engage in nuclear and other types of warfare which can result in mass civilian casualties. In urging support for the Armed Forces Covenant and Community Covenants, the paper to synod fails adequately to address these concerns, failing to draw a clear distinction between showing love to members of the armed forces and their families and promoting militarism.
“Responding faithfully to the spiritual and pastoral needs of the Armed Forces Community... is about drawing out and reaffirming the national narrative of the social and common good and the Church’s role in meeting the needs of those the State cannot adequately reach alone, in this case the Armed Forces Community. It is about acknowledging that even when there is controversy about whether a particular war or conflict is just, those who serve in the Armed Forces and have had no say in the political decision to use military force, need the Church’s spiritual support, pastoral care and moral guidance,” the report argues.
However the war in Iraq, for instance, does not serve the ‘common good’, even if narrowly defined by the interests of people living in England, some of whom are of Iraqi descent and have relatives who have been harmed. Likewise spiritual support, pastoral care and moral guidance could arguably be better administered by calling on members of the armed forces to put love of humankind and compliance with Christian teaching on war above obedience to the state.
Even in the narrowest sense of caring for soldiers physically, opposing war might be a better way of showing love than bolstering morale indiscriminately and trying to sanitise violence. At the same time, it is important to press the state to provide proper care for those whose health has been affected by war.
The report even mentions that local authorities “(and local groups within those authorities) that sign up to the Community Covenant Scheme can bid for grant funding (£100 - £250,000) for projects that deliver tangible results that meet the overall aims of the scheme. The scheme is open to churches and faith groups.” Without denying that some such bids may be for worthwhile activities, this is a moral minefield of which the report does not seem fully aware.
When Christians are baptised, this implies taking on a new outlook in which all humans are recognised as made in the divine image and citizenship of, and loyalty to, a nation that is not geographically bounded, transcending all worldly loyalties. It is important not to be judgmental of those with differing attitudes to state-sanctioned violence while urging that Jesus’ call to “do to others as you would have them do to you” (whether English commuters or Afghan peasants) be kept in mind (Matthew 7).
Churches in Britain are confronting challenges which include worsening poverty and scapegoating of the poor, xenophobia and the threat of massive destruction resulting from environmental destruction and war. Woolly thinking and conformity with the state does little to protect those in danger and advance God’s commonwealth of peace and justice on earth.
It may be worth revisiting a World Council of Churches paper from 1997, ‘Costly Obedience’, which drew on the experience of post-apartheid South Africa and other countries which had faced conflict or a more gradual erosion of the church’s distinctive witness:
The planetary scale of our human struggle presents challenges beyond any the churches have faced before. Moral issues, formerly seen as having to do mainly with personal conduct within stable orders of value, have now become radicalised. They now have to do with the life, or the death, of human beings and of the created order in which we live... As Christians we speak of an oikoumene, or inclusive horizon of human belonging, offered by God in Jesus Christ to the human race. Following the scriptures, we call this a "household of life", a "heavenly city" where justice, peace and care for creation's integrity prevail. But what may it mean to live lives in the here and now which manifest the first fruits of these gifts and act in anticipation of their fulfillment?
...Moral formation in the church seeks to generate communities in touch with the world and all its problems yet shaped in a daily telling and retelling of the Christian story. Such formation makes generation after generation of disciples...
Whether or not the congregation succeeds in creating a significant moral culture for its members, a more general kind of formation is at work in our lives all the time. The world forms us through the shaping influence of its principalities and powers. The growing and ramifying global economic nexus colonises our human life-worlds, reducing human thought to cost-benefit calculations, further impoverishing the poor and the poor in spirit, spreading the virus of consumerism across the earth.
...the world has at times taught us how to be the church. We may learn from movements in the world what it is that the Christian tradition truly stands for. Some of our most significant acts of witness have "been drawn out by moral struggles in society in which the church has had to learn at least as much as it has taught. In this way the efforts of moral formation in society have carried their own ecclesial significance...."
...The memory of past experience, including the experience of moral failure in the face of challenges such as those of nationalism, ethnicity, racism and violence, needs to be taken into our consciousness... A church not positioned where the gospel demands it to be amid social forces and events will mal-form its members, rendering them insensitive to the demands of their faith...
The heart of Christian moral formation lies in worship, through which the story of salvation is re-enacted in the modes of prayer, proclamation and sacrament. Worship together involves certain focal actions intrinsic to the shared life of faith, actions which centre, sustain and order that way of life...
In baptism we either enter upon or celebrate the same basic formation--in Jesus Christ's life, death and resurrection--despite differing eucharistic and theological expressions of it...
A moral community of the baptised, struggling with issues of justice in the life of world, could, for now, be the most visible and tangible lived expression of the unity that is given us in Jesus Christ...
In certain circumstances the action which appears to act out the integrity of our formed identity is one which takes us, and our congregation, into a critical solidarity with some other movement in which we discern the Spirit at work, or the reign of God anticipated.
Those who, in baptism, have joined themselves to Christ crucified have an important part to play not only in caring for those who suffer but also in resisting the death-dealing forces which threaten the very future of humankind.
It is possible that the institutional Church of England in its current form, despite its many merits, is too heavily compromised by its closeness to the “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6.12) to be fully effective in seeking justice and peace. Perhaps it will have to face a death of sorts in order to be renewed in Christ.
Nevertheless in England and beyond, Anglicans – in fellowship with fellow-Christians locally and globally and other people of goodwill – must decide how to respond to the pressing issues of the day. Sidestepping awkward questions, including whether conformity with the state overrides allegiance to Christ, who is found not only in churches but also among the “least of these my brothers and sisters” (Matthew 25.31-46), may have immediate benefits. But ultimately it weakens the church’s discipleship and witness.
July 2014 General Synod papers can be found on http://www.churchofengland.org/about-us/structure/general-synod/agendas-...
© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector