THE STATE WE’RE IN AND THE CHURCH WE NEED
Little did we know when we celebrated last New Year’s Eve what kind of a year we were ushering in. The warning signs came early enough. On January 1st, China admitted it had a public health problem in Wuhan province. The very first day of the new decade set the tone for the rest of the decade. It’s a fight that will continue for many months to come, until we have a viable vaccine. And it will shape our shared life for much longer. Global crises do that. But there are some pre-existing, deeper currents. Covid-19 impacts upon each, but these trends were already established, and would have deepened without a virus burning its way across the world.
What follows is a partial assessment. If I asked you to choose five issues we need to be aware of today, the chances are you may pick five completely different ones. But these are the ones I have chosen. They may feel abstract at first, but they are deeply serious, because ideas, beliefs and attitudes matter.
It’s not a word we heard much about even a decade ago, but it has come to describe a process by which we are being sorted into opposing camps. Let’s put in a good word for polarisation to start with. Sometimes it’s a sign of a healthy, working democracy. When a consensus is in place that ensures issues of justice are not addressed, we need some polarisation to shake us out of inertia. The Civil Rights movements of the 1960s are an example of this.
But today, the US shows us just how polarised a country can become. In 1960, only 5% of Republicans and 4% of Democrats said they would be upset if their child married a member of the other political party. By 2010, this had jumped to 49% of Republicans and 33% of Democrats. And that’s well before the heavily polarising current President. There is now hardly any overlap between the two parties on any policy issues.
It’s easy for us to debate these developments in the US, but what about the UK? We have long lived with a division between left and right. However big those tensions can be at times, we have learned to live with them and see them as a necessary expression of difference. What we didn’t anticipate is the way new issues would divide us so acutely. Brexit and Scottish independence are two, which may point to the polarising nature of referenda. But the virus has done it also, in our attitudes to face masks and social distancing. A recent poll commissioned by a UK think tank suggests coronavirus has become more polarising than Brexit. It’s as if we’ve developed a taste for stand-offs.
We are being ‘sorted’ into tribes. It’s not just over our view on the EU, tax levels and refugees, but on a range of issues that for some reason have gelled together to create opposing camps. Our political identities have been joined by traits, interests and hobbies. Once sorted into these tribes, we are expected to conform to the group’s views on everything. In the US, it’s assumed that to be pro-life is to be pro-gun. In the UK, to be a Brexiteer means you must be anti-immigration. To be an anti-masker means you have to be an anti-vaxxer. If you’re a vegan, you can’t be on the right. If you’re anti-abortion, you can’t possibly be on the left.
This makes life awkward for people who have eclectic views. They are not playing by the new rules. Though Jesus himself was a deeply polarising figure – in his own words, you were either with him or against him – this should not mean his people must be sorted into specific world-views in order to find salvation. And neither should the Church expect this of them.
In the end, polarising trends mean we understand one another less well, as we surround ourselves with people who think the same on a big range of issues. If we’re serious about a shared community, we have work to do.
Diversity and cohesion
If the word ‘community’ is banded around without much reflection, there is a risk that diversity could go the same way. The UK is a much more diverse country than when I was growing up in the 1970s. There is greater ethnic mix on the streets, better gender balance in the workplace, clearer presentation of LGBT+ issues on TV. There is still much work to be done to ensure the level playing field in public life, but the term ‘diversity’ has become one of those ‘sorting’ words I’ve just spoken about. Some love it, others don’t.
Our public life should represent the actual make-up of the UK, otherwise how could we talk about the importance of the level playing field? So where it does not exist, we need more diversity. But for diversity to flourish securely and for people to feel able to express their different identities, we need something to cohere around as well, that gives us a strong and generous sense of ourselves. That’s why I think diversity and cohesion should be spoken of as partners, rather than opponents.
And here lies the issue. We may be at a point in our shared life between leaving the EU and Scotland voting for independence. If true, then we will need to recover what it means to be English. There are hardly any political institutions that are singularly English, and in our lifetime, Englishness has often been claimed by the far right as ‘their thing.’ If we need to shape a new political sense of Englishness, I hope it would be marked by generosity, mercy and hospitability, among other merits. But it’s a work we’ve hardly thought about until now. Interestingly, one of the few truly English institutions is the Church of England. How, then, might we help to shape the character of England in the years ahead?
Trust in institutions
Related to that question of national identity is our view of its institutions. We largely describe ourselves by them: the Monarchy, Parliament, the police, the law courts, BBC, NHS, armed services – the Church, still – just. There are many others – our banks and building societies, the National Trust, national football leagues, Women’s Institutes, west end theatre, a host of local associations across the country. Some of these institutions are found in other countries, some are not. Some still have standing within the nation, but more of them do not. The former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has said the loss of trust in the UK’s institutions is the most dangerous aspect of modern life.
Institutions sound boring - it’s not the most exciting word - but they serve us, glue us together and give us a sense of pride when they are working well. It has become fashionable to run them down at every opportunity. I realise there is a fine line. If we don’t say anything critical about public bodies or figures, we’ll end up sounding like a North Korean. But remorseless attacks, often for the sake of it, on the things we created to protect and bless us, can become a form of self-harm. How is trust built back up when it has been lost?
That latter question, however, is stinging the Church of England in the face as a public enquiry into child sexual abuse has shown us to be a Church at odds with its ideals, willing to protect the institution at the expense of truth, shielding criminals at the expense of victims. It is inexcusable and leaves us with much work to do to help victims and to repair our standing. I fully understand if this makes it hard for you to read what I am saying about wider issues today.
The valuing of truth
I doubt there has ever been a golden age of telling the truth, but it feels like truth today is as easy to hold on to as a bar of soap under a powerful showerhead. For a nation built on a compound of Christian and enlightenment thinking, we have arrived at a strange point where people unashamedly state; ‘it’s my truth’. Gone has the humility of saying ‘it’s my story’, implicitly recognising others may take a different view. My truth tells you that you have to accept it even if you don’t believe it. But for truth to be valid, it must be true for all.
Victor Klemperer was one of the deepest thinkers about Nazi Germany and its duplicity. He said that truth dies when:
1.Lies are presented as facts.
2. Phrases are endlessly repeated until they become believable.
3. Contradiction is openly embraced. If you’re wondering what that means, think of the slogans from Orwell’s 1984: War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.
4. Self-deifying claims are made. That is, leaders make out they have all the answers and that the people and institutions around them are a waste of space.
Around us, and perhaps even within us, we see evidence of these trends.
When truth is dethroned, it opens up a world where the strongest and most shameless get their way and the most vulnerable are trodden under foot. It’s like when we dispense with queueing and the bullies push to the front.
The shape of politics
If there’s one thing we didn’t expect in 1989 as the countries of eastern Europe were liberated from the yoke of Soviet communism, it’s that several of these emerging nations would develop a taste within two decades for full-on authoritarianism. And not just there, either. Across the world, the strong man is back in vogue. One who has no need for the advice or the bodies around him. Who brings the courts and the media under his control, lies routinely and stigmatises minorities as a way of binding the majority together.
We have arrived at the dizzying point where the authoritarian play-acts democracy and the democrat flirts with authoritarianism. This blurring of the lines is corrosive and will cause lasting damage if it is not addressed. The indications are that it is going to be with us for some time yet.
In authoritarian countries with a Christian heritage, the Church is under pressure to endorse hard line rule and in some cases willingly offers its support. The faith is also being co-opted by extremists with no grasp of its heart and a desire to enforce ethnic nationalism. We are part of one, holy, catholic Church. So how do we relate to those parts of the body we have grown uncomfortable with?
These are five challenges around us: the polarisation of people who once were not; the search for a durable balance between being diverse and yet cohering; regaining trust in the institutions we created to defend us; holding to the existence of objective truth; choosing sides in an unexpected fight for precedence between democratic and authoritarian systems.
So, what about the Church, specifically in our case, the Church of England?
In a country where over 98% of people do not attend a Church of England church, perceptions are vital. We live with a legacy of mistrust and a sense that the Church is out of touch and irrelevant, but the institution of the Church is frequently distinguished from its local iteration. A parish church doing its mission and pastoral care well soon develops a good reputation and an individual Christian showing kindness to colleagues will be noticed for the right reasons. The Church has suffered during the pandemic because its people are also a part of the local community, and in many places it is doing its level best to meet community need. Local expressions of faith are critically important.
There are three things, among others, that I hope we can lay claim to in our witness to the nation. The first is a renewed capacity to listen. There are some old caricatures of Christian people. One is that they will come in hard with their message given half a chance, not listening to others because they think they have all the answers. If social media has done one thing, it’s to show that no-one really listens anymore and everyone wants to be heard because we all think we have the answer. If that was ever true of Christians, we now know it’s true of many.
But it shouldn’t be a mark of a Christian. The duty to love a neighbour is shown by our willingness to listen to what they have to say and to respond to it. Not to use what they say as a springboard to say something we think is more interesting, but to stick with their train of thought. In doing so, we show empathy. We also open ourselves up to how God may be working in their lives. Helping others to identify this will resonate with them. There’s a case for saying so much of our polarisation stems from not listening properly to others. You could say the same for our failings in sharing our faith.
The second thing I long to see in me and others in the Church is a renewed boldness. Someone in a recent focus group on how the Church is perceived said: why do the Bishops never seem to speak about God in public? If we don’t, then we need to. The historian Tom Holland in his latest book Dominion has said that Christianity has been so successful in shaping the western mind that people don’t even realise they owe the way they think to it. So we sometimes speak up about stuff because we believe it reflects the character of God but other people don’t see it. That calls for greater clarity and it is right for individual Christians to expect church leaders, locally and nationally, to name God with confidence.
Somewhere along the way, under pressure from secularisation, embarrassment and uncertainty, some of us have become buttoned up. This should not be. A boldness rooted in a listening spirit won’t come across as arrogant or inattentive. It should be attractive, inspiring curiosity in people.
We know that words come cheaply now. We promise things and don’t deliver; we craft words for social media that make us look nicer than we are; we use and manipulate people by what we say. The only sure vaccine against such deceit is to show practical care to back up what we say. This authenticates the message. It points to God. And it comes closest to the beating heart of the early Church, which preached the resurrection of Jesus with boldness and healed people’s bodies.
A listening spirit, a bold heart, practical hands. We can’t solve everything at once in life, but the next step is always the most important. Not just because it’s the only one we can make, but because there and then, we can show a new creation breaking through the old.
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