Professor Chris Baker reviews Justin Welby’s new book, Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope.
Today sees the publication of Archbishop Justin Welby’s much anticipated contribution to the post-Brexit debate. In it, he calls the country to take this historic moment, long in the making but brutal in its sudden execution, to radically reimagine the sort of society we want Britain to be. Only this re-imagination, he believes, will help us as a nation identify the right sorts of values, and therefore the right sorts of policies, by which we can attain a national rebirth. As a new tone of sober realism begins to sink in, undermining the more stridently jingoistic visions of Brexit, this book is a much-needed source of both intelligent balm, but also a stirring call to moral and policy reimagination.
The book is cleverly and almost seamlessly constructed around a series of triads. The road map to the UK’s spiritual and political rebirth, says Welby, lies in the interaction between three sets of values; community, courage and stability, each of which have three or four ‘sub-values’. So, for example, stability is underpinned by the values of reconciliation, resilience and sustainability.
These interweaving sets of values are then applied to three areas of policy that Welby rightly identifies as key to Britain’s rebirth; namely health, education and housing, whilst also feeding into debates about how these policy areas resource intermediate institutions such as the family, businesses and schools/universities. Foreign policy also needs to be shaped by these values in relation to global challenges such as migration, and climate change.
These values are themselves held in creative tension by a methodological triad of public theology; namely values, virtues and practices. By this, Welby means that values cannot be imposed from above (like British values) but must be discerned in practice. The practice of values in turn develops virtues, which in turn then profoundly shape and motivate our practices. The importance of what the book refers to as ‘spiritual capital’ is reinforced by a clever and recurring motif; the idea of ‘deep magic’, borrowed from C.S.Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and spoken by Aslan the Lion. In such deep values, says Welby, lies ‘the force that drives us forward and corrects our errors. When the deep values are fractured then all hell breaks loose’. He continues, ‘The link between our policies and expressed values and deep magic is what enables us to embrace change without losing continuity with the past or the ability to makes sense of the facts before us’.
This is a fantastically neat and fluid way of getting over the clunky language of concepts like middle axioms, by which William Temple, at the last great re-imagining of the British nation and the role of the church post 1945, linked Christian doctrines such as the incarnation and imago Dei into a set of broad policy objectives that created the post-war universal and comprehensive welfare state. The idea of deep magic really speaks into the search for authenticity and re-enchantment being undertaken by the Millennial generation, and it is tellingly juxtaposed against the ‘false magic’ of financial markets whose promises of a happier life are divorced from any reality other than their own.
Another structural feature that helps give real coherence to the book is that each chapter is firmly rooted within a biblical narrative (such as the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son) and ends with a number of middle range policy recommendations, that are themselves well supported and justified by empirical research.
So, this is a quite subtly structured book that is well written, very well-researched and accessible. Its consistent structure allows it to cover a lot of ground but in a sustained and interesting way, and its ‘triads within triads’ structure allows the complexity of the required debate to be built dialectically, rather than in a linear fashion. There are however one of two lapses of tone. Some biblical passages will be too obscure for a general readership (the succession of King Solomon by King Rehoboam anyone?). The churches’ internal wrangling on issues of human sexuality and equal marriage for example are by no means glossed over but are justified on the grounds that this represents a proper diversity from a so-called secular liberal modernity. At this point, it begins to read more like a General Synod report rather than a bold and confident proclamation to the nation. The chapter on church and faith engagement in society also seems somewhat tired and formulaic. Again, this makes the mistake of looking at this issue from the churches’ viewpoint, rather than seeing the issue from the perspective of the outsiders, who are joining church-curated social projects in droves because they want to be reconnected to each other, and to something deeper than shallow materialism. This chapter would have much more depth if it had talked about how these spaces offer re-imagination for how the church can be in society, rather than just assuming it is a one-way street.
That being said, this book does strike a very well-judged, and one might add, very Anglian balance between the visionary and the pragmatic. Welby never loses sight of the appalling legacy of poverty and inequality that needs to be addressed if we are to be born again as a nation (Ken Loach’s I Daniel Blake is tellingly deployed), but neither is he locked into a powerless sense of guilt and fatalism. What really drives this book is the call back to an ownership of a hope that is distinctively Christian but universally applicable and understood, and is transferrable into policy agendas. This is the hope we all need to claim as part of the collective task of re-imagining Britain.
Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope is published by Bloomsbury and available to order online here.
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