Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Moral, No Compass?

The Church of England has just published a 180 page report on the relation between the Government, the Church and the status of the welfare state in the UK. There have been numerous articles on this reacting on the Church's complaints that local authorities are both neglecting the civic values that the Church has contributed to this country and focusing, instead, on supprting , in particular Muslim groups - to avoid further radicalization of Muslim youths.

The Report
Please bear in mind I am not prepared to buy the report - it is not free, although still cheap at £9.95 if anyone is interested nor want to waste time reading it, so I can only elicit information from various public sources, each of which might have their own biases and axes to grind. So, in this post, lets first analyze the press release to see what the key conclusions that the Church itself thinks it is making

In the heyday of Thatcherism the Church of England and the Conservative government of the day locked horns over the principles, policies, and strategic direction of the welfare state. The ensuing public debate, fraught with emotion, led to fundamental shifts in the political climate, not least with regard to the poorest members of UK society.
Well times, they are achanging. Certainly the Thatcher government did set about dismantling various parts of the welfare state but nowadays it seems that the strongest support for the Church of England is now coming from the Conservatives. Then one has to wonder how much of the welfare state was due to the Church versus previous socialist Labour party policies - such as the creation of the National Health Service (NHS) and Universal Education after World War 2.
There is no question that prior to the Labour party's rise to influence in the 20th century, the Church was a major provider and initiator of welfare to the poor - at least Anglican ones, not Catholics or Jews - but anyone who has read Dickens will know that, in the Victorian era, compassion was often singularly lacking in certain Church supported initiatives. His work might have been fiction, but it was inspired by facts and part of the power of his work was as a social commentary of the times. Still we are now in the 21st century and lets not hold the sins of the past against the present Church authorities.

Government Discrimination
This new major study for the Church of England, drawing on hundreds of interviews and survey questionnaires, describes the modern setting in which the Labour Party’s welfare and related voluntary sector policies often are experienced as “discriminatory”, inadequately rooted in evidence and at risk of failing the faith communities.
Well I certainly agree as far as discriminatory issues are concerned, and as for "evidence" just see my post from yesterday - oh it was a Christian charity that was being discriminatory! Sadly I have no doubt that there are discriminatory practices in local government that do favour Muslim communities over Christian ones - a topic much discussed in the national papers which I will analyze tomorrow. Let us not forget that this Church is an established Church with 26 Members of the House of Lords that can vote on any and every policy, their influence and control of many publicly funded schools with discriminatory entrance practices, state funded chaplains in the NHS and so on. Our society is replete with double standards that have favored Anglicans over others and still do. A re-balance of these double standards to incorporate - informally for now - other religious groups, undeniably and specifically Muslim faith community, has been occurring for a while and with the full support of the Labour government - at least till recently - is it cynical to say these communities have historically been more likely to be Labour voters than Conservative ones? And is looking at communities in terms of faith the right way to go integrating them within our society? It is a legitimate perspective but not the only one and on what justification should this be preferred over any other? The threat of terrorism? Does this not justify terrorism?

Government is moral with no compass
The government is “moral, with no compass” and needs to recover a principled approach to public service reform grounded in gift, covenant, advocacy and justice.
I have no disagreement with the Church's criticism of the Labour government. I am non partisan with regards to who is in power, focusing on who I think is best able to benefit all the citizens of the UK, that certainly is not the incredibly incompetent Blair/Brown Labour government. What I question here is whether the Church has itself a moral compass. This report looks like a carefully planned response to the dismantling of the Blasphemy Laws and the first salo in a PR exercise to deal with this.

The Civic Value of the Church?
Such an approach also demands a richer appreciation of the “civic value” added to the life, identity and health of the nation by Christian institutions in partnership with the whole realm of civil society.
Civic value as opposed to religious value? The resistance of the some Conservative MPs to the removal of the blasphemy laws - even as, at least some, Anglican leaders publicly supported their removal - along with this report scathing of Labour policies, suggests two things. The first is a re-alignment of the Church backing the Conservatives in the next election and second is yet further evidence that such ideas as blasphemy laws is the antithesis of modern civic values. But maybe the Church realizes this:

The Church must adapt to changing times
The Church too must adapt to the changing times, overcoming its (mistaken) perception that it is well understood by society. If the crisis of evidence and conversation can be repaired, the Church is in a position, should it so wish, to engage in even more extensive social entrepreneurship, community activism and public advocacy.
Well attendance and so direct support for the Church is at an all time low and there seem little likelihood of this changing. The citizens of the UK might be nominally 70% Anglican, but the real evidence is that a majority do not care about religion and the largest majority are de facto atheist. The BHA is trying to ensure that new questions in the next Census will capture and clearly identify this fact. The Church is already in power, its strategy makes - worryingly - good sense if it were disestablished - compare the activism of churchs in the USA to here. If the Church wants even more public funds to go its way, it better get its own house in order and set a real moral standard such as condemning the abuse of employment laws to discriminate in favor of employing Christians. I searched and failed to find any response from the Church on the result of the Christian charity Prospect's discriminatory practices. (That charity might not have been Anglican, I do not know, but whether it was or was not, surely should the Church should condemn such practices?)


The national papers have picked up, either positively and negatively the "Muslim bashing" implications of this report. This seems like a good mis-direction to cover that current problems and privileges of the Church. I will investigate this in a follow up post. What I think is occurring is an alignment of the Church of England with the Conservative party - drawing on Middle England voters - who are mostly lapsed Anglicans and, using arguments over discrimination in favour of Muslims, as coded means of dealing with fears over immigrants and changing demographics of this country. This drawing of religion into the forthcoming election is quite unlike in the USA, making it more that Labour for Muslims and immigrants communities and the Conservatives for the larger traditional Anglican community. Whatever one's opinion of Thatchers Conservatives, it was not a typical reactionary Conservative Government, but rather had radical and progressive policies competently executed (until Nigel Lawson resigned anyway). The policies of the Labour government have been disastrous for this country but it does not look likely that the Conservatives, to the degree they play this game initiated by the Church of England here, are going to do much better.