I’ve deliberately avoided commenting on this weekend’s Church of England General Synod and the latest state of play on women bishops, as despite my best efforts I’ve struggled to follow the intricacies of the debate. The level of complexity for the non-initiated is overwhelming as a read through of this Church Times article will demonstrate. Though there has been plenty of talk and negotiation, sadly there is still a good chance that the process could be derailed again when the next vote is held in 2015.
However, I did manage to find something of value from the weekend that I have enjoyed getting my teeth. The Children’s Society, which works in close partnership with the Church of England (the Archbishops of Canterbury and York are both presidents of the Society), released a new book jointly with the Contextual Theology Centre on Saturday at the General Synod. The book is free to download as a PDF and is entitled The Heart of the Kingdom: Christian theology and children who live in poverty. It sets out to be an invitation to the Church to theologically reflect on the challenge of child poverty in the UK and consider what responses might be appropriate. Even though the book approaches child poverty from a theological perspective, it is essentially works towards looking at how such an understanding can be put into practice. It is only 52 pages long and yet its different contributors have managed to provide plenty of food for thought for individuals, churches, and also those in government.
The Heart of the Kingdom is divided into three chapters. The first analyses the various ways that poverty impacts the lives of children. The second provides a number of theological reflections from several authors including Krish Kandiah of the Evangelical Alliance, considering aspects such as the relationship between poverty, the Gospel, family and government. In the last chapter, which is well worth reading, Andy Walton and Adam Atkinson tell the hugely encouraging story of the way their church in Bethnal Green, London has approached the poverty that is all too evident on its doorstep.
I’ve picked out a part of the book to share that I’ve found challenging and has caused me to pause and think. It is the final section of the essay, ‘What a Christian view of society says about poverty’ by John Milbank who is Research Professor of Politics, Religion and Ethics at the University of Nottingham and Director of its Centre of Theology and Philosophy:
Given the centrality of parents and community rather than primarily the state in the upbringing of children, one can also question
the common emphasis in recent years on specifically child poverty. This derives from a questionable focus on equality of opportunity, which the state is supposed to try to secure.
The main problem with this objective is that it’s not radical enough. It suggests that what we mainly need is the same fair chances in the game of life. That’s fine, but what if you fail? Do we simply shrug and accept the ensuing stigma, and now you don’t matter so much?
The Christian attitude stands against this by holding that all people matter equally in the community. This entails that all matter equally in the economy too. We just as much need people to sweep the floors and man the tills as we do to be professors and business managers. All these people need to be treated in terms of dignity of labour. The Christian priority cannot therefore be equality of opportunity. It is not even equality of outcome, except in the terms of equality of human flourishing. There is never going to be absolute equality: even Marx denounced such a goal as a liberal delusion. Instead, we should all be flourishing and contributing and receiving rewards in terms of our ability, capacity and virtue.
The weight of Christian tradition over centuries supports that kind of view. It sounds somewhat conservative, but in reality it is radical, because when you have no notion of justifiable inequality then you get unjustifiable inequality. That leads to the rule of the talentless, the virtue-less, the shallow, the ruthless, the swaggeringly rich and ultimately the criminal. And if one thing characterises the world today, it is the effective criminalisation of both business and politics.
Focusing on child poverty might just about rescue a few individuals from desperate circumstances, but it won’t stop those circumstances arising for future children. Doing that requires a holistic approach in which we both challenge and assist whole families and whole communities. It’s a matter of Christian care for all children, along with their often unfortunate parents, not plucking a few out of poverty.
The current fashion for correcting an overall dire situation through public education and child-targeted policies is unlikely to get very far. For they capture none of the potential of working through free associations, which bear the weight of social life. At the moment we have the wrong form of paternalism; it’s all top-down, impersonal economic and technical tinkering. We need instead the right kind of patrician legacy, which promotes the growth of virtue and encourages a debate about what the good life is. Poverty alone isn’t the problem. Simply giving more money to the poor – even if this is indeed often required – won’t resolve the issues facing our communities. For we need to face the fact that people’s capacity to endure and survive poverty has declined as part of a general ‘crisis of agency’ which ensures that people are unable to organise in the face of distress the way they did in the past. This is because – as the great Catholic social thinker Ivan Illich argued before his death – people increasingly see themselves as objective units in a system and no longer genuinely as ‘subjects’ at all.
As part of this phenomenon, the unmeasured decline in working class education is a cause for real concern. Literacy was higher when people did these things for themselves. For example, consider the importance of children being able to read. The child that can’t has a thin chance in life to survive poverty, let alone escape it. Quite modest things like classes for parents to teach them to read to their children can make a real difference without needing to immediately transform their whole economic situation, even though that remains important. We can’t deal with the children without dealing with the parents. The connections between child and parent, family and the community, are integral to any serious approach to tackling poverty. The Christian view of society holds these relationships central to our vision, and our solutions.
If you realise that the Church itself provides a way for the social dimension to subsume and transcend politics and economics, that implies a much more collaborative approach to the whole issue of poverty. Above all it means, as far as the Church is concerned, a shift in direction away from the Temple* legacy of long reports telling the government what to do and being admired by the liberal press while the laity is secretly and wisely sceptical. We need a move instead to a much greater and more genuine radicalism in which the Church gets involved in all kinds of processes of welfare, medicine, banking, education, business, and more. The social dimension needs again to be the defining consideration of our common life. The Church, when it is being truest to itself, is capable of embedding this concern beyond the reach of mere economics and politics. More than ever this is what the Church now needs to do in this country – as an aspect of its own mission – if it is to save both itself and the legacy of the United Kingdom.
* William Temple was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 until his death in 1944. A renowned teacher and preacher, Temple is perhaps best known for his 1942 book Christianity and Social Order, which set out an Anglican social theology and a vision for what would constitute a just post-war society.