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How the Malvern Conference of 1941 Set the Scene for Malvern 2017

10/05/2017 10:38

Barbara Ridpath reflects on some of the concerns addressed in the original Malvern conference of 1941, and their relevance today ahead of  Malvern 2017: Faith, Belief and Nation-building.

You can be forgiven if you do not know much about the 1941 Malvern Conference. In spite of the inclusion of papers from the likes of TS Eliot and Dorothy Sayers in addition to notable theologians and politicians of the time, it is actually quite difficult to get one’s hands on a copy of the papers or proceedings. I found mine by spending a lovely day of reading and reflection in the Society of Friends Library at Euston, for which I am very grateful.

While I expected to travel back in time, what was most surprising about the papers prepared for the conference is just how relevant they remain, more than 75 years on. Many of the writers expressed concerns which could have been written today. They remain valid, even more so! Here are a few examples, together with some commentary about the subject today and some hints at where we may want to take the upcoming discussion:

“The economic activity of man, of which the product is the means to the good life rather than the good life itself, has become predominant, as though to produce material wealth were man’s true end.”
How many of us have become slaves to money and our possessions, instead of the other way around? The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lenten study book Dethroning Mammon, tackles this subject. We tend to look back on the past as ‘the good old days’ where material goods mattered less than they do today. Reading contemporary works suggests this was not the case at all.

“A bad economic order makes political freedom impossible; bad politics stultified cultural and spiritual freedom in society.”
It is as if the author could have been talking about the Brexit debates, the Trump election, or the recent European political debacles in France, Holland, Austria Hungary and Italy. The roots of political dissatisfaction warrant more exploration, but are not unrelated to the next point made in the conference papers:

“Upsetting of healthy balance between town and country.”
The Brexit vote divisions between rural and urban Britain show how much further divided town and country have become since 1941. How we can heal that divide or at a minimum listen respectfully to a point of view with which we disagree will be critical for the future of this nation and others.

“The Christian ethic is primarily an ethic of personal relations; and this modern society is essentially a society in which human relations are depersonalised.”
Reinhold Niebuhr wrote Moral Man, Immoral Society in 1932, and the influence of Niebuhr is evident throughout the original Malvern conference. Nonetheless, issues of isolation, anonymity and an atomized society where people ‘speak’ on social media but not face to face; where we bank with machines and apps, and shop on apps not in stores, have all increased issues of depersonalisation exponentially since 1941. Finding a way to consider our relations in this brave new world is one of the most significant challenges we face in the 21st century.

“National sovereignty is the problem.”
Somehow we have leapfrogged over sixty years where globalisation was the preventative for future conflict, to return to an era where some believe retreating back to the nation state is the panacea for all our ills. The risk of nationalism and populism suggests that national sovereignty may become the problem again very soon.

“The Church lacks the courage to speak out. The Church should be ‘disinterested’ in the state not uninterested, so as to be able to criticise as appropriate.”
It is virtually impossible to get ‘the Church’ to speak with one voice on anything. And yet, the clearest way to a future role for the Church in this country is to begin to own the debate on issues closest to its heart: community, hospitality, inequality, stewardship and the common good.

“Respect for the earth.”
If the authors were worried in 1941, imagine what they would think today! To the great credit of Christians and other religious leaders around the world, this is one clear place where voices have been raised in unison and harmony, notably at the Paris Convention on Climate Change in 2015.

“The degradation of work.”
Technology enables some of us to work 24/7 and yet many others find themselves at the mercy of the ‘gig’ economy on zero hours contracts. The semi-skilled struggle to hold onto their jobs and artificial intelligence puts many professional jobs at risk. Will this cause us to lose the sense of self that comes from vocation, or will it free us from the tyranny of work to enjoy study and leisure? How do we put meaning back into work for everyone?

“The sin of man is to put himself at the centre where God ought to be.”
No commentary necessary.

This reckoning is enough to convince the reader that history is circular, not linear. We can either take comfort or challenge from the fact that our problems have not changed so very much from 1941. I look forward to the conference and hope that we can be even a fraction as wise and as prescient as those who preceded us.

Barbara Ridpath is Director of St Paul’s Institute; you can read a pre-Malvern Q&A with Barbara here.


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