The leaders of Britain, politicians, intellectuals and churches, invariably focus on what’s gone wrong with life, whether it’s the economy, the NHS, education, inequality or foodbanks. Yet that’s to start with the carts of life. There are some useful lessons we might draw from economics, offering a message on Lent and sin. Without the horse, the cart is pretty useless, so let’s rather begin with the horse. And, by that, I mean I’m grateful that I’m neither dead nor am I dirt poor. And that’s astonishing progress, because only 100 years ago my uncle John Robert Atherton (after whom I was probably named), was born and died in 1900, one of the 20% who tragically died in childhood of incurable infectious diseases. The remainder often suffered from great undernourishment, and from lack of education. In contrast, I’m 76, highly educated, have a modest pension, and therefore the freedom to be and to do. And these great and historic achievements have beneficially affected more and more people increasingly across the whole world in terms of incomes, life expectancy and education.
Of course, these are not as yet a universal achievement. A very significant but diminishing minority do not share in the benefits obtained by the Industrial and then the Mortality Revolutions. A billion still live in absolute poverty, and, in rich economies like Britain and the USA, a significant minority still suffer from relative deprivation. These deeply disturbing situations reflect what is called the paradox of development; the great achievements in wellbeing in the last 200 years have also been accompanied by deeply negative forces, including grave inequalities (throughout history, and including today, these paradoxes of development, or ‘horsemen of the apocalypse’, traditionally included famines, epidemic, climate changes, migrations and state failures).
So this analysis is therefore about putting the horse back where it belongs: before the cart. Don’t begin, as our leaders in academia, politics and churches do, with the downsides of life, with the paradoxes of development. No. Begin with the ongoing historic achievements in income, health and education in only the last 200 years. Then, and only then, also address the paradoxes of development.
What on earth has Lent and sin got to do with this? Well, for most of its history Christianity has regularly put the cart before the horse, and especially in the season of Lent, and especially with its focus on sin. And that’s again putting things the wrong way round. Let’s think a bit more about this.
So much of the church’s historic views on sin are pathological, and are now also profoundly inaccurate and unhelpful. Let me give you a few examples:
In medieval churches, the walls were often covered with paintings regularly featuring vivid pictures of hell as the punishment for sin if the parishioners didn’t confess to a priest. The fear this inevitably injected was also a powerful way of controlling the population.
If a newborn baby died before it was baptised, it was, until relatively recently, buried in unconsecrated ground outside the consecrated church yard – because its original sin, addressed only through baptism, therefore ostracised it beyond the pale.
When I was a young Rector of Hulme Church in inner city Manchester in the late 1960s, I was frequently asked to ‘church’ a young mother who had just given birth to a child. Now, this old ‘churching’ service wasn’t a ‘thanksgiving for childbirth’ as it later became. It was a (grandmothers won’t let the daughter out till she’d been churched), going back to the Christian doctrine that original sin was transmitted to new generations through the sexual act, through the woman’s birth of a child.
Why on earth did Christianity and the churches have such views often well into the twentieth century? My ongoing research in economics and religious studies indicates that for all human history, until the 19th century, the vast majority of people lived lives, as the great 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it, which were ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short’. They died at best by middle age, they lived in poverty and squalor, and they often suffered violent deaths. Reflecting and deepening such experiences, no wonder such views of sin, of the self-inflicted darkness of life, so pervaded Christian thinking and preaching. But now life is quite different. For most people life is long, peaceful and relatively prosperous, with increasing healthcare and educational opportunities for a growing majority.
So I now begin with the lovely and accurate Anglican collect or prayer for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent: ‘Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made…’ That’s where I begin, with the fundamental goodness of the created order. Then, and only then, do I address what’s also gone wrong in terms of sin and finitude (don’t confuse them, and do recognise both as severe, distinct and different constraints on our social development – including as the paradoxes of development). And that’s certainly not to therefore acknowledge my ‘wretchedness’, as the collect for Ash Wednesday goes on to declare! Whatever I now feel and understand as my sin and finitude, I would thankfully, not normally refer to it as wretchedness.
How then, to define sin today, post-1800? Well, I go to the New Testament’s interpretation of it as ‘missing the mark’. In other words, we aim for, in Paul’s words, ‘what is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable’ (Philippians 4.8). And then, and only then, do we recognise and face up to where we get it wrong personally and collectively (the latter including what we call structural sin in terms of defective or bad institutions, markets or nations). Now this is called ‘putting the horse before the cart in Christianity, church life and history’. It’s about Christian beliefs, urgently updated in the life of the most historic changes in human life, continuing to give greater depth and greater meaning to our ordinary human experiences.
William Temple helped to found the modern welfare state, but what would he make of it today? If we re-examine his seminal Christianity and Social Order in the light of the development of the modern welfare state, it seems clear that Temple would be deeply disturbed and disappointed. Not disappointed with the idea of the welfare state, but disappointed with what we’ve done to that idea.
Temple took his readers back to the very heart of the Christian tradition, and explored the kind of society that Christians should help build. His vision for the welfare state is a Christian vision, but it is also a vision that welcomes others; he claims no special place for the Church or for Christians. Instead, at its heart is love – love in the form of justice. Temple recognised that justice gives us rights and duties, but that we must also work to fulfil them in a spirit of equal citizenship. Our deeper purpose must be to ensure that we each have the freedom to develop to our full potential and this means creating communities with the necessary securities and opportunities to enable that development.
But, while Temple’s vision certainly helped inspire the creation of the welfare state, it is often difficult to see the relationship between that vision and the reality of today’s system. The early achievements of the welfare state are too often taken for granted, and we have moved into an era of ‘welfare reform’ when the word ‘reform’ has become code for ‘attack’. Politicians, journalists and the general public now accept without question a whole series of falsehoods or distortions:
“Welfare spending is unsustainable”
“Too many people are on benefits”
“Welfare fraud is a major problem”
“Public services need to be more efficient”
The welfare state has become an object of scorn and there are few prepared to provide it with a robust defence. How has this happened? How has such an important achievement become so problematic?
One culprit may be the resurgence of liberalism: the philosophy of individualism, consumerism and the growing power of business or ‘the market’. Yet, while there is some truth in this, there is a danger that blaming liberalism is too simplistic. If we are not careful we simply rehearse the hollow debates, from both the left-wing and right-wing, which have left us in this situation. We need to think more deeply about the kind of welfare state which is needed.
This is a problem that goes right back to the birth of the welfare state. For, while Temple’s vision certainly inspired its formation, the welfare state was rarely informed by that vision. The systems that were put in place in the 1940s, and in the following years were well intentioned, but they were also deeply paternalistic, meritocratic and bureaucratic. The design of the welfare state was somewhat blind to citizenship, to rights, to the value of diversity in our communities or to the full potential of every human being.
Keynesian economics helped to assure people work; but this was work as defined by the state and big business. The benefits system provided people with a minimum income, but it stigmatised those who needed it. The value of out-of-work benefits is now so low that the UK has become the third most unequal developed country in the world. Even those institutions, like schools and the NHS, which were designed to promote equality, are organised to put Whitehall in power. The UK has the world’s most centralised welfare state. One symptom of this extreme centralisation is the constant reorganisation of public services, each according to the latest political fad, yet each without any demonstrable benefits.
At a deeper level many of these problems may be constitutional. Today, as the country wrestles with ‘austerity’ we find that cuts in spending are actually targeted at the poor and disabled people. For instance, there are now 25% fewer people receiving social care (support for disabled and older people) than there were five years ago. Mortgage rates (which affect the wealthiest) have been slashed, but the poor are forced to rely on the likes of Wonga. The most likely explanation for this is not the wickedness of politicians, but the fact that the votes of the poor are much less important than the votes of those on middle incomes. The political rhetoric of the ‘squeezed middle’ is an inversion of the truth – politicians pander to the middle, because this is where elections are won or lost. We live in a “medianocracy” – a land where the median earner is king.
We are in grave danger of seeing much of what Temple and the Church worked to achieve being undermined and lost. There is very little sign that modern politicians or voters understand the need for equal citizenship; instead it is increasingly acceptable to buy your way to the front of the queue. We have forgotten that human beings are wonderfully diverse, and that all of us have a God-given potential to develop; instead we meekly accept the Government’s presumption that it can dictate the purpose and methodology of our children’s education. Instead of building welcoming and diverse communities together, we have subsidised the development of institutional services, like residential care.
But this is why there has never been a better time for the Church to act. When party political structures have evolved so that they can no longer protect minorities or the vulnerable, then the Church must speak out. When thinking is dominated by out-of-date and bankrupt concepts, then the Church must speak afresh the language of love and truth. When communities have lost heart and have begun to accept the fate handed down to them by the powerful, then the Church must help people to find renewed strength.
If William Temple came back today to examine the welfare state I am sure he would challenge the Church to remind people why we need the welfare state, and he would encourage us once again to imagine what kind of welfare state would really be true to the Christian vision of love, truth and justice.
A Victorian Gothic barn of a church, with most of the pews still anchored in place, on a cold wet Saturday afternoon in February. The parish in a multicultural inner city in the North of England has struggled to survive, but remains committed to evangelical mission and community engagement. Twice a term now we put on a Messy Church session, advertised mainly through the majority Asian Church primary school that stands next door. The vicar’s wife, a retired teacher does most of the work of planning and preparation. The vicar himself does most of the platform presentation, and the team of a dozen or so volunteer helpers are predominantly aged over 60, white and English.
From 3pm the church fills with parents and children, mostly families who attend the school, and maybe two or three who regularly come to worship on Sunday mornings. It’s mostly women and children, though there are a handful of dads. There is a group of white working-class mums, some of them lone parents, who obviously know each other and spend a lot of time chatting and letting the kids get on with the activities. But as the number of people in the building rises to 90 we realise this is the most popular Messy Church since we started 18 months ago – and that over half of those attending are Muslims. One of the women is dressed in a black abaya, worn with a niqab – though she does remove the face covering when she has become comfortable with the social setting inside the church. Several other women and girls are wearing hijab (headscarf) and are in modest Asian dress.
One of the Muslim women who had encouraged friends to come is a single parent who first came along to a Messy Church a few months ago. We got to know her better through the midweek job club in the church hall. She had been unemployed, and destitute because she had been sanctioned for some trivial breach of benefit conditions by the job centre. We had helped her with food parcels, friendship and eventually to find a job in child care, and though she does not say she is a follower of Jesus or attend Sunday worship, she clearly feels herself to be part of the church family.
As usual Messy Church is a mixture of games, child-friendly Jesus songs, craft activities, a story and eating together. The vicar tells the story of Joseph, bringing out the importance of family and forgiveness. The crafts features coats of many colours, camels and silver cups. People are invited to write their prayers for forgiveness on coloured paper cut in the shape and size of their hands and to stick these to a board at the front of the church. We then share in food which church people have brought along – sandwiches, cakes, biscuits and some fruit (up North this is known as a Jacob’s join). Probably we should have thought more clearly about making sure there were halal options, but vegetarian items mean everyone found something they were happy to eat. By five o’ clock the helpers were anxious to start clearing up but several people just wanted to stop and chat, so it took a long time before we could all go home, tired but encouraged.
How do we reflect on what was happening here? The situation has all the characteristics of what William Temple Foundation’s Chris Baker and John Reader have labelled a “blurred encounter”. There were a wide range of expectations and motives in the room. Christians were there with the hope of sharing the gospel. Children from a variety of backgrounds were just happy to be together and to have fun. Parents of various faith backgrounds and none were pleased to have something for the family to do on a cold February afternoon, that didn’t cost anything, and had some free food thrown in.
Sociologically speaking it seems that the parish church, though its close involvement with the school next door, is able to offer a safe social space for the banal everyday encounters on which social cohesion can be built. The school and the relaxed informality of Messy Church, linked with other community involvements such as the job club offer a milieu for building bridging social capital, crossing boundaries of communities which some commentators suggest are trapped in parallel lives. Religion is not in itself a barrier, but rather seems to offer common ground where trust can be built. It is significant too that Messy Church is an environment where women and children go first – perhaps typical male approaches to faith would be more dogmatic and divisive. There can be everyday good neighbourliness, friendship and trust across faith communities at this level. However it is also the case that in the local community there are examples of barriers and racisms directed against Muslims, while we also know of painful and hostile experiences when someone from a Muslim background “comes out” publicly as a follower of Jesus Christ.
Theologically one can also ask what is going on in this situation and how is God at work? A classic evangelical answer would be that to some degree at least, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is being preached, if only implicitly, or at least proclaimed by deeds and attitudes. A more liberal approach would be to stress that the values of acceptance, friendship, trust, love and forgiveness are signs of the Kingdom of God, and of the Holy Spirit at work. Whether or not anyone discerns or names the name of Christ in this situation, God alone knows what is happening in people’s hearts, and He alone is the final judge of us all.
It might be worthwhile to reflect on NT Wright’s recent perspectives on Pauline theologywhere the emphasis is placed not so much on individual justification before God as on incorporation into the multicultural community of those who are “in the Messiah”. However, this raises many questions about how in such blurred encounters and ambiguous social and religious spaces, people may or may not find “salvation” — amidst all the competing definitions of that term one may come across in our theologically diverse environment.