Sunday, 23 May 2021


Church, Politics and the Common Good


One of the consequences of the pandemic has been that many people have reflected more deeply about what is really important in life. What is it that we truly value? Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England, has recently written about value and values. He makes the point that not everything that is important and that we value can be measured in terms of the market value or GDP. This was clear during the first lockdown, as people in the local community (and throughout the nation) mobilised themselves to care for others. We all valued and were heartened by the ways people reached out to help others and it revealed that many value mutual care and neighbourliness. We also realised that in terms of the market economy none of this could be measured; it had no fiscal value but was immensely valuable. Personally, I was deeply affected by the staff at local grocery shops whose contribution to the community far exceeded what they were paid in monetary terms. Not everything that has value has a market value. So, the pandemic raised questions about what we really value and what values we want to live by. As a society we have shifted in recent decades from a society with a market economy to one which could be described as a ‘market society’ – one where everything has a price. It seems, in light of the past year, that we are now beginning to ask, ‘what have we lost in the process?’ What values - like courage or compassion - are eroded in a market society?

This theme of value and values is explored by Mark Carney in his recent book, Value(s): Building a Better World for All. He picks up on questions that many are asking. How can we build a better world for all? What do we really value? Who do we value? It has become clear in the past months that such questions may be a matter of life and death for some. Covid 19 has more negatively impacted some groups in society than others. Statistics have revealed that some groups in our society have been at much greater risk than other. Certain groups of people were always going to be more at risk. Even in the middle of 2020, the Institute for Fiscal Studies saw that workers whose livelihoods looked most at risk ‘already tended to have relatively low incomes, and were relatively likely to be in poverty’.

As we emerge from a third lockdown we are all aware that nearly all people’s wellbeing has been affected by Covid 19 and that the poorest people and most vulnerable groups in the UK have been more severely affected than others. As we look towards the future, many are wondering what kind of society we want to live in. Covid 19 has given us a chance to pause and really think about what we value, who we value, and what values we want to live by. Many economists and political thinkers are beginning to argue that unequal societies are less hardy, less healthy, less able to meet the demands of challenges like pandemics and climate change. Again, Mark Carney, in his book Value(s) writes ‘There is growing evidence that relative equality is good for growth. More equal societies are more resilient, they are more likely to invest for the many not the few, and to have robust political institutions and consistent policies. And few would disagree that a society that provides opportunity for all its citizens is more likely to thrive than one that favours an elite, however defined’.

In January of this year the Office for National Statistics published a report called ‘Household Income Inequality in the UK’. The statistics related to the financial year ending March 2020 and show that income inequality is at its greatest in ten years, and the gap between the richest in society and the rest of the population has widened in that ten year period. These figures were ‘pre-Covid’ but they reflect a pattern of inequality that has increased dramatically in the UK over a period of 40 years. Many in our society feel left behind and undervalued. How can we build a more equal society where different skills are appreciated and remunerated accordingly? How can we invest in training and opportunities for all people? How can we build a more equal society that is more resilient?

As Christians we need to be fully engaged with these questions. As has been said, politics is too important to be left to politicians! Inequality affects people’s personal wellbeing and health, ultimately it is a moral question which relates to if/how we love our neighbour. In a recent book called Reimagining Britain, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, writes that our faith in God leads to our being drawn into the political sphere, to engage with the big questions and challenges of the day: ‘times of change require contributions from every part of society’ he writes. He also argues that ‘there is today a lack of common values, owing to what was once a shared narrative of virtue in the Christian tradition’. With this in mind, we can see that the Church has a distinctive voice that can recall us to our best inclinations. As many wonder and worry what the future will look like, it’s important that people of faith speak up for values like the common good. It is vital that we argue for a society that is more equal, protects the most vulnerable, and in the process may well become more resilient.

It is a positive sign that the language of the common good seems to be reappearing. The pandemic may have shown us that materialism and rugged individualism are a diminishment of our shared humanity, and that love of neighbour and mutuality help us all to live well. We all have a part to play in promoting the common good and the ways it makes societies and economies stronger. As Christians, we have a distinctive voice that is grounded in our faith in God’s goodness and God’s love for all. Jim Wallis, a theologian working in the US, wrote in The (Un)common Good, ‘We people of faith, at our best, may be the ultimate independents, engaged in politics only because of the people and issues that command our moral attention, and willing to challenge all political sides on behalf of them. Fighting for biblical justice and the common good, not partisan political goals, will be the core of faithful politics…responding to the call for the common good is always a very personal decision. My hope and prayer is that we will all decide for the common good in our personal and public lives and that we will teach our children to do likewise.’ I also hope that we will decide to work for and promote the common good. Our faith gives us perspectives and insights that bring light and healing to conversations in the wider society. As people of faith we can champion the values that reflect our faith in Christ. The demands and the opportunities of the present and the future are too important to be left to others, we all need to engage with the challenges ahead and be confident that as people of faith we have perspectives that deserve to be heard and can make a real difference in the way we all think and act.

Wednesday, 10 March 2021

 Listening and adapting

The past year has been a year of great upheaval for people all over the world. We are passing through a dark period that has affected nearly everyone in some way, and we are conscious that for some it has been a complete nightmare. The writer, Daniel Kahneman coined the phrase “What you see is all there is” (WYSIATI) to highlight the human bias which imagines that what we readily see or know is an accurate summary of the bigger picture. For all of us, our experience of the past year has been very personal to us but it would be a mistake to imagine that our personal experience will in any way be representative of other people’s experiences. As we emerge from this time of lockdown we need to take time to listen to others, to learn from them, and to broaden our understanding of the many challenges we face as a society.

The Bishop of Tonbridge, Simon Burton-Jones, recently likened the past twelve months as being like an earthquake, and that many people are still reeling from the effects of the quake. Indeed, many people are still trapped under the rubble. Bishop Simon wants the Church (me and you) to take time listening out for the voices under the rubble, to ‘hit the ground listening’, so that our actions may be wise and informed. Again, we’re back to that sense of broadening our perspective and questioning the easy assumptions we make.

So, listening is key, and listening and talking is part of the process of recovering and helping one another to recover. We will all need some time to process and recover from the effects of the pandemic – all of us have been challenged (and possibly changed) by the past year in ways that we find hard to articulate. It will take time to process all that has happened. People seem to be tired at the moment, and so we need to help each other to take time to regain our strength and look towards the future with both realism and hope.

The tendency after great upheaval is to try to rush back to the way things were before the upheaval. It’s easy to imagine that all was well in 2019, and so we want to rush back to the ‘good old days’. But we all know that that picture is not accurate either. The wider society (and the Church) faced challenges in 2019 that haven’t gone away but have probably been speeded up or exacerbated by the pandemic. One of the questions that everyone has to face in different spheres of life is how we learn from the past year and how we adapt in the face of new realities.

One of the things that struck me through the pandemic is that although many people connected with the Church through online services, and although many Christians and others of goodwill were so generous in their care for others, we live now in a post-Christendom context. Although Western society as a whole is still massively influenced by its Christian heritage, it has become largely secular or post-Christian (certainly in the UK).

The challenge for the Church is that we still tend to run on the old Christendom model where the Church was a central part of society and played a significant role in the life of the nation. Of course, the Church still does that in many ways but it seems that the mission and ministry of the Church now has to adapt to a new context. How do we do this? Do we have the energy? Where is God in all of this? None of us has the answers, and it would be easy to be overwhelmed, but at the same time it is a challenge that we are called to respond to both imaginatively, creatively and joyfully. It would be easy to fall into anxiety about these questions, but our basic vocation is to live out and share with others the good news of Jesus’s glorious resurrection from the dead, his victory over sin and the new life that he brings to the world. In some ways, the Church has more in common now with the early Church, with those first witnesses and apostles who lived out their faith in the first centuries after Jesus’s death and resurrection. Our context may, in fact, help us to see that Jesus’s call to follow him has always has been counter-cultural move. It’s not so much about turning away from the world, rather a fresh turn towards God which will then speak a fresh word to the world.

The Church will need to adapt to a new landscape, and as we adapt it will be important to listen well: to listen to God in the scriptures and in prayer; to listen to others, especially those we do not usually listen to; and to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Church in a changing context.

At the Last Supper, Jesus’s disciples are a bit downcast and disheartened that Jesus is going away from them, but in John’s gospel Jesus looks them squarely in the eye and says to them: ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.’ As we look to Easter we too know that our Lord has called us to trust him, to trust in his provision and guidance, to know that a new day has dawned for the world through his death and resurrection, and that we are called to live our lives in the light of the resurrection. May our Lord’s peace, hope and joy be yours this coming Easter and in the year ahead as we seek to be faithful witnesses to the one who calls us to follow him.

  Church, Politics and the Common Good   One of the consequences of the pandemic has been that many people have reflected more deeply ab...