“Welby Wealth Tax Storm”, the Daily Mail headline, indicates that the Archbishop of Canterbury has gained public attention. Justin Welby in a BBC Today interview placed tax firmly within the Christian concept of a moral economy and the pursuit of justice for the poor. He was promoting a Commission report on economic justice from the IPPR, the Institute for Public Policy Research, of which he was a member.
Earlier this year, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope was published. The reviews were largely descriptive, respectful, positive, but hardly effusive. Most pointed out how Justin Welby had drawn on Catholic Social Teaching. But he had done more: applied it.
In 1942 Archbishop William Temple’s Christianity and the Social Order was read with enthusiasm; some 140,000 copies were quickly sold. It has often been seen as a foundational document for the Welfare State. A reprint with a preface from former Prime Minister, Ted Heath, followed in 1976 showing continuing interest. The comparison says a lot about changes in Britain in the last 75 years.
William Temple was writing in a time of social change. Following the fall of Singapore in February 1942, Britain’s pre-war class structure and the assumptions that went with it, were challenged, leading to a post-war Labour government. The war years proved a social as well as an economic turning point. William Temple, nurtured in an Anglican Christian Socialist tradition and the Labour Party, academic and first president of the Workers’ Educational Association, was in tune politically with popular sentiment.
Archbishop Justin Welby, a former corporate executive with financial experience in the oil industry, leads a Church of England in a very different Britain. Beyond escaping the quicksands of BREXIT, public opinion is only dimly aware of the urgency of social and economic change. As late as 1985, Faith in the City, the report of the 1985 Anglican Commission on inequality and poverty, provoked Tory anger and annoyance from the Methodist-reared Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Reimagining Britain in our contemporary social and political context could not be expected to raise a comparable stir. Nor did it. That is a pity.
Britain needs inspiration and a new vision. It is in the midst of the biggest crisis since 1940-1942. And this crisis is far deeper than the danger of the country’s future being determined by Tory back benchers, the DUP and Momentum. “When changes are especially dramatic”, Archbishop Welby writes, “they call for reimagining on a grand scale, for an interpretation of our ancient meta-narrative that is faithful to the past, that is adapted to the present and that guards the hopes of those to come in the future”. Now is a moment that comes rarely, where great national danger meets great opportunity.
The importance of Reimagining Britain lies in this prophetic insight but also in Justin Welby’s capacity to infuse insight with evidence based on his considerable experience of how things work. He affirms the humility of a bishop friend from the ill-named Democratic Republic of the Congo: “We do what we can, what God enables us to”. What Justin Welby himself has been able to do was to target Wonga, the pay-day lender which recently went into receivership, and to more than hold his own on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards where he argued powerfully but unsuccessfully for a review of the costs and benefits of Britain’s overweening financial sector since 1945. Experience matters.
In the mid-1980s I took Rev. Frank Chikane, General-Secretary of the South African Council of Churches from 1987-1994, to meet the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. Frank was on the run, and staying with me in London. He lived in fear. One evening he asked us to close the living room curtains; being visible from the street made him nervous. He later nearly died from poisoning in Madison, Wisconsin, in an apartheid regime assassination. He and Archbishop Runcie bonded immediately. Danger, fear and sin made visible were a shared experience. Runcie had been a tank commander surviving the long road from the Normandy beaches to being one of the first to enter Bergen-Belsen. In contrast when Frank Chikane met Cardinal Basil Hume, the warmth, kindness, and sympathy of the monk were manifest but something was missing: the deep empathy of shared personal experience.
Justin Welby is courageous; he risks moving from values and general principles which most people can endorse to proposing practical applications of Catholic Social Teaching to education, housing, health and finance. He proposes that the State should sustain the Common Good during rapid economic change by withholding contracts to corporations unless they pay for university places and apprenticeships in highly skilled jobs; he floats the idea of contact orders enabling grandparents to spend time with grandchildren of divorced families; Housing Associations with performance indicators committed to building community as much as building houses. A less detailed suggestion is the creation of Community Transformation Boards with a responsibility for developing social value. From his experience at Coventry Cathedral he underlines the importance of systems and structures for reconciliation in society. His is an eclectic approach not a grand strategy or a political manifesto.
Reimagining Britain reworks other ideas shared with Catholicism. “Values guide practices and practices build virtue” he writes; “virtues also reinforce practices, and guide our understanding of values”. Archbishop Welby would be as one with Cardinal Vincent Nichols in his 2016 Benedict XVI lecture in wanting these elements at the heart of education. These are the prerequisites for achieving Society’s best aspirations and concerns: democracy, the rule of law, tolerance and equality, what are claimed as British values.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols’ lecture was entitled “Living as a creative minority in the UK”. He was talking about the Catholic experience. Despite losses from the pews, it is a little more complex for the Church of England, an established Church, to describe itself in this way even if this is the sense of Reimagining Britain. But Archbishop Welby speaks openly of the “barely acknowledged hypocrisy” of what are claimed as British values, and seeks something better.
British values should draw on Catholic Social Teaching and continue to be a joint conversation between the different faiths as should, whenever possible, advocacy of the type of creative actions Justin Welby suggests. Catholic Social Teaching is not some magic bullet for the UK and world’s ills. But, as the Archbishop of Canterbury demonstrates, as an elaborated set of ethical guide lines it looks increasingly like an essential compass providing direction in a time of crisis and political confusion.
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