Saturday, 5 April 2008

Archbishop's Lent Lecture 2

According to Rowan Williams, in his second Lent Lecture at Westminster Abbey, 18 March 2008, politics should be the science of living together. I was told it was the art of dealing with predicament, and the organising of this. Politics is, of course, broader and nobler and positive if it is about living together.

The problem identified early on is how vision, or mystique, ends up in the grubbier business of politics:

Yes, everything begins in mystique, begins in vision, and needs to be translated into the science of human living together; and in that sense also, politics is inescapable for anyone in or out of the Church or any other religious community. And the Christian Church is itself a political community: it's about living together in justice.

It's just that Churches also throw up predicaments. After all, one Church decides to be progressive, and some others then lay on the pressure; a predicament exists and Church leaders are forced to become politicians. Nevertheless, a Church has a higher vision, or it is supposed to have. The problem appears when a Church that has a higher vision appears to be unethical and anti-humanist regarding some of its and society's minorities. That higher vision is of another city:

The city you belong to is something other than the community you think you belong to here on earth. You are still social beings who have to make choices about living together, but the community to which you belong is greater than any limited human society.

The politeia, the citizenship of the Church is to do - like other kinds of citizenship - with how people take responsibility for the management of power, how they cooperate, how they become responsible to each other.

I think too much here is being loaded on to a Church. Even the whole Church is not the Kingdom of God, it is rather a holding operation. Often filled up with dogma, or intended restrictive ways of reading its scriptures, it ceases to be anything like that vision. It's the old 'Law verses Messiah' problem, all over again, but with the problem that the Church, because it identifies itself with Christ, cannot see its own transient limitations. The Church should do better, and should rise to the ethical challenge, but its theology is confused between that of being 'the body of Christ' by which its theology determines the ethical, and the holding operation, by which there is a gap between the ethical and the institution and where the highest ethical might determine theology.

So we have a positive view of politics from the Archbishop, and an over-positive view of the Church. He derives his positive view of both - a vision - from the notion of transparency to the divine:

God deals with the world by bringing into existence a community living by law, aspiring to justice, and in its dealings within itself, the dealings between people, somehow showing transparency to God.

This would, also, equate with the view of the Church as holding operation, as being prior to the eschatological end, but with the end in sight. Yet that transparent openness to holiness means that there is this view of a Church citizen, one under Jesus Christ, being also an inputting citizen of wider society. This is not just some pluralistic setting, but is meant to extend itself more organically:

the very word for Church in Greek, ekklesia, meant 'a citizen's assembly' in the ancient world. And so in the earliest Christian period, to become an adopted child of God in Jesus Christ, was simultaneously to become a political being, in a new way: to become a citizen of a larger society.

Then the body metaphor is used by St Paul to show not just that we are one part of the greater whole but in a dynamic and organised sense.

What happens now is the style of the Archbishop: he sees the problem, which is that this ideal transparent to God community is far from ideal. Having pushed his argument in one direction, he now has to do some practical reversing.

'Here' says the Church 'is a pattern of social life which we believe to be transparent to God.' How do the practices of this particular society measure up to that transparency? What do they hide about God and about humanity? Buried in that, of course, is a very ambitious and unlikely claim indeed, that the Church is the ideal society.

You only have to inhabit a local church "city" or a collection of parishes to see the personalities at play, the predicaments thrown up that need handling, the problems of organising that need additional pastoral handling and not a few required pro-active management skills (which, when not employed, lead to a sense of drift, which leads on to more going wrong).

The continuing issue for the Archbishop is the right of that divine society to make an input into civil society, even when the divine society is increasingly socially marginal for wider civic society. He tackles this on two fronts. Later on he talks about the right to visibility, and confuses this with upholding faith schools. Faith schools are highly contentious, even amongst the faithful, and the desiring to be visible, and there is a strong civic argument that they can divide communities that should be mixing. Of course private provision should take place - as an act of conscience (see below) but the state has a right to exercise greater social priorities. The other front of visibility though is a deeper one about the Church's right to provide an ethical vision based on its own beliefs in relation to its understanding of the divine:

the relation between faith and politics therefore comes to be tightly connected with the question of how such a group of people manage their relationship with a dominant cultural environment which doesn't have that doctrine of human nature, and perhaps doesn't have any doctrine of human nature.

The problem is still the same and unsolved: the Church is not exactly that ethical community to begin with. Nevertheless:

Despite thinking otherwise:

the sorts of responsibility, the sorts of priority, and the sorts of mutuality that exist in this body are what God purposes for the human race.

Imperfect as it is, then, it demands a right to be heard. It realises that it must be done from a powerless position (fine being said when it is so, not so fine when it was not, or if it exercises lobbying power or parliamentary privilege).

as the Church has very, very, slowly persuaded itself on some subjects like freedom of conscience, it has come to realize rather more sharply that if it is itself the body of those who freely consent to a common allegiance, it can't commit itself to coercive institutional forms, whether visible hierarchy with absolute powers or any particular form of state administration.

From its position of (I'm adding) relative powerlessness and only persuasion, it has developed a view of service rather than power. This would be consistent with a Christ who serves - of course it is but had long been forgotten amidst all the glory and power and social position. Now it just a case of, as with Status Quo, what you're proposin':

It proposes to the society around that these forms of mutual care and service and accountability are the forms transparent to the most fundamental reality of all: that is to God.

And so if follows:

For the Church, as for other faith communities, belief about humanity is absolutely bound up with belief about God and vice versa. So within a variety of human societies there exists a body of people whose view of what humanity is about is shaped radically by belief in God – an 'inviting' God, to whom response is required – whose view of humanity is formed by the supposed attitudes of God to us, the promise of restoration – a new beginning, of mercy and new creation.

Well the politics of this includes all that to do with science and such as the use of embryos in research. He assumes that there is a society unclear about what it believes when there is a divine-accountable society within that does:

So, what happens when we find ourselves as a believing community in the middle of a wider society that doesn't quite know what it believes about human nature or human distinctiveness?

This won't do, of course, because the divine-accountable society within the wider civic one manifests that accountability in a variety of views (unless it retains a power model of hierarchy). A society that has different views on scientific advance may actually be quite ethically centred - it is just that this, too, leads to a variety of views. There is no fix to this predicament of diversity from both: that is why both Church and wider society have politics.

Rowan Williams solution (to press this further) is that of a difference between dignity and will/ choice, so that the divine-accountable society possesses a view of human dignity whereas wider society promotes the will and choice:

very often the doctrine that emerges is a doctrine about human will and human choice, a doctrine which assumes that human will and human choice can, in certain circumstances, override any sense of the givenness of a human nature, an embodied human nature.

The theology of this claimed difference is, of course, the incarnational, the material and the body: and these are affirmed, as in Christian tradition. Yet does it actually promote any difference of outcome, if there are those who also value the body and our consciousness within the body wish to continue to find means to the end of health and well-being? The outcome of those who pursue human dignity as embodied is likely to be as diverse as those who have a science based, say, on human rights. Both might find considerable agreement.

On which point he states:

it is crucial that the Church should be positive about human rights. The culture of human rights has made it harder to see human dignity as negotiable; harder to see human dignity as the possession of some rather than others. There is a thoroughly welcome universalism about this approach.

So his criticism is that human rights are less secure, but in pursuing this line he makes an argument that undermines the whole basis of doing politics - the subject of the talk itself:

Those remaining uneven areas of our rights culture should at least make us wonder whether the foundations on which it was laid were sufficiently secure. What's more, the human rights culture as it has developed in a competitive, increasingly globalized, boundary-free environment where historic communities are fragmenting is a culture that has rather encouraged the sense that the most important thing about any human individual is that he or she has claims which somebody is able to enforce. And that, while an essential part of a human rights culture within a law-governed society, is of itself a rather slender basis for the understanding of human dignity.

Yet this is the point of politics: politics is precisely about enforcement. Having arrived at a predicament, there has to be a process of input into the argument, but also a process of resolution, after which follows enforcement. On this basis, the rights approach may be best suited for the application of liberal democracy: that is a legal approach of rights, which then (still) go on to have losers as well as winners and the necessity of the winners' decision being upheld.

One gets the impression that there is an unstated argument here; that the Church and its view of human dignity has been found less applicable in secular society and more limited than the broad sweep of human rights. Of course the big issue here is the homosexual one. The Church's view of dignity includes that of reproduction and relationship, which is restrictive, whereas the secular view of rights has a broader and extended ethic of love and partnership - even one that has, dare one say it, evolved. Indeed, even ethics evolve, and this powerful culture or ideology out of science here does apply.

He seems to think that the argument of rights is as if legalistic and constructed from ideology, whereas the Church provides something more lived:

our moral perspectives as human beings, when they are clear and coherent, derive from what some anthropologists like to call the 'thick' textures of common life - that's to say from a common life that is many-layered, culturally alive and creative. Our moral perspectives don't just derive from abstract civic principles.

And after this he goes on to say:

A society that is only about individual rights and publicly enforceable contracts is going to be a thin phenomenon.

And so:

That's why it is very hard to legislate a neighbourhood into existence; why it's hard to create a corporate identity out of nothing; why it's extremely difficult to define and legislate for what we might mean by 'Britishness'; why it's very difficult to sustain commercial life without a solid background of practices of mutual trust, and so on.

In fact the whole business of rights has come about through various struggles for economic, social and political equality and by pressure through the political process as well as through economic resistance. There is a false contrast here: rights are due to thick experience and well rooted. We have a historical memory and this is as narrative based as anything within Christianity. Society and Church both grew by experience, and if anything it is the Church that is now the more rule-bound.

Again he makes another false contrast between everything going into politics and if politics is everything: the latter being equally thin. It is by these false contrasts that he sets up the Church as if it is, with other faiths, a highly select provider of understanding human dignity:

It may or may not be accepted, but healthy society accepts the need for a critical friend, able to stimulate and sustain debate about human dignity, its reality and its limits. Without that, our politics and politicians are in danger of becoming bloodless.

No they don't become bloodless: the history of struggle, and of gaining rights has been, itself, at times, bloody, and of course one aim of liberal-democratic politics is to solve predicaments in peace. Previously, with the involvement of the Church, war and violence was all too common, just as it has been with other rule-bound ideological set-ups.

In this more flexible ans secular sphere, the Church can only add its voice - but for many it seems to be an inferior voice:

the Church has no right to block the freedom of others and no right to dictate its philosophy, but it has a right to attempt to persuade a voting public, whether in the general public or in the slightly more rarefied atmosphere of the House of Lords.

Well this is debatable: the House of Lords represents not persuasion but privilege. It still legislates. Bishops should put themselves up for election, in order to legislate.

Having passed laws, to enforce outcomes, we then have the issue of conscience. The importance of conscience is not just about the right not to do what is disagreed with, but the personal or group inability to do what is profoundly disagreed with (in the end it must come down to individuals). A mature and tolerant society should attempt to make space for this, just as those who conscientiously object realise that there may be a price to pay for such disagreement - after all conscience is not convenience.

Conscience though has another important role, which is that of continued persuasion after the event. A costly road of saying no, and why, and paying a price for this, may be the start of turning something around. Again a liberal-democratic society has this ethic about conscience and profoundly disobeying, as does the Church:

That is a liberty the Church has always recognized, and a liberty which most liberal states likewise recognize because of their valuation of conscience.

And so Rowan Williams states:

I believe the Church along with other religious communities has a distinctive place in shaping how a society thinks about itself, its health, the right and wrong ways of change.

They may well do, but it may have to understand that it is but one contribution, and may not be a particularly unique contribution; it is not the only embedded, life-experienced contribution; it is as theoretical and rule-bound as any secular theorist (say of liberalism); and having a view of human dignity does not mean it has one view of how to observe human dignity, just as having a positive view of universal human rights does not lead to one outcome when those predicaments arise that need policy outcomes.

My fundamental problem with all of this is the ethical base of the Church itself, and that it is becoming in need of its own evolution, its own cleansing, and that its marginality has other causes but the ethical position it gives is increasingly not the one that equates to the "narrative" that is now in the driving seat. Ethically the Church has turned in on itself (homosexuality), and sounds like special pleading (House of Lords; faith schools), and makes bizarre comments (the Bishop of Durham) and often does not stand up to reasoning (as in dealing with undifferentiated, womb-unsupported, completely unconscious, embryos).

Commentary is also given: Lecture 1 and Lecture 3.

Comment refers to Joseph S. O'Leary's thoughts on Governance and Freedom in Church and State, another reflection as a result of Rowan Williams's thoughts around pluralism and law (including Sharia Law and all that).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A very perspicacious commentary, it seems to me. We must recognize the autonomous moral wisdom and rich reflexive texture of the modern State based on a democratic culture of consultation and discussion. I made some similar comments in a piece on "Governance and Freedom in Church and State" at
Joe O'Leary