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Malcolm Brown, Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Church of England, discusses a new book setting out a vision for Anglican Social Theology.
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The Church of England has a long and honorable record of involvement in the wider life of the nation, its people and its communities. Whether engaging with government on issues of moral significance or through small acts of kindness and solidarity with people in the parish – or, indeed, at many intermediate levels – the church seeks to live out its Christian vocation, to demonstrate the love of God for all and to hasten the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth. But the church has never been especially good at articulating a theological rationale for this social engagement. As a result, support for much good work by the church has been weakened by an inability to say why such work is a part of a truly Christian vocation.
The established church’s need for a coherent social theology is, perhaps, a particularly modern problem connected with the rise of the centralised state and the creation of structures for social welfare which are no longer simply aspects of an organic, local and stable community. The shift from a “tribal” society, in which morality was, basically, what you had grown up with and for which alternatives were almost unthinkable, to what Jeremy Bentham celebrated as a “society of strangers” meant that the church’s role in securing the welfare of the community was no longer unique and no longer taken for granted. With the growing assumption that religion belonged essentially in the private sphere, the church was required to explain – not least to itself – why pursuing the welfare of the whole community was an authentic Christian calling. But time and space for this kind of reflection has often been eclipsed by action and deeds – activists and theologians have, it seems, inhabited different worlds within the church.
A new book, Anglican Social Theology: Renewing the Vision Today, argues that the time is ripe for a renewed approach to Anglican Social Theology. Given the capacious nature of Anglicanism, this is unlikely to be a single theological model, strand of thinking or practice. But a number of trends appear to be coming together, in the church and in the academy, which suggest a need for (and perhaps a desire to see) a theological foundation for the church’s social witness formulated in terms that work for the church and society of today.
We have chosen to speak of an Anglican Social Theology with a deliberate intention of echoing the concept of Catholic Social Teaching because we recognise that the latter is much better known as a theological school or tradition which informs practice. Our contention, which unfolds as the book progresses, is that a distinctively Anglican tradition of social engagement can be discerned through most of the 20th century and the 21st century so far, that it has developed, and continues to develop in interesting ways, and that it has periodically fallen out of sight such that a renewed attention to it as a theological tradition becomes an important corrective influence, calling the church back to a vital area of its witness, ministry and mission. From time to time, the church has sensed a renewed vocation to action and witness in wider social and political relationships, not just within its own structures and membership, and the need arises for a deeper enquiry into the theological foundations of that sense of vocation.
The prompt for such theological enquiry has often been economic hardship. Cycles of prosperity and recession are endemic in a market economy and in each downturn, those with fewest resources tend to experience serious hardship or even near destitution. At such moments, the pastoral heart of the church has frequently led to hugely impressive ameliorative actions, sometimes small scale and unsung, sometimes highly organised and business–like.
But the pastoral imperative has never been quite enough to enable these laudable ventures to withstand criticism from within and beyond the church to the effect that the church’s job is to save souls, not to alleviate poverty or seek social changes that would secure the position of the vulnerable. In prolonged recessions, when needs can be deeply entrenched, there can be the well–known phenomenon of “compassion fatigue” – the apparent inability of the church to secure rapid change for the better leading to a sense of fruitlessness. Criticism from without and weariness from within both cry out for a clear theological response – this is why Christians do what they do; this is why such action is the proper responsibility of the church; this, rather than the success criteria of managerial politics, is what we believe we are achieving. And yet, despite the good work done by William Temple and others between the Wars, a serious social theology for the Church of England, in the sense of a living tradition that can evolve with the changing context whilst continuing to be informative, has been elusive.
So the church’s social action has proved fragile. Excellent work and passionate engagement have come to the fore during each economic downturn, only to prove ephemeral and often defensive when critics become vocal. This lack of a sustained theology is, perhaps, not the only factor determining the robustness of Christian social action, but it is an important one.
The book is addressed to the Church of England in particular. We ask: is there such a thing as an authentic Anglican Social Theology for today, and if so, what might it look like? We have not set out to write a handbook on Anglican Social Theology as if it were a clearly delineated school of thought with tight boundaries, but to put on record our belief that it is, in fact, possible to discern a tradition of social theology within 20th and 21st century Anglicanism and, by exploring what it might look like from a variety of positions within the Anglican inheritance, to prompt a continuing and exploratory conversation, amongst theologians, practitioners and church people, which will answer the question of whether the tradition is sufficiently robust to support the demands now being made upon it by the church’s evolving response to society in a period of rapid change.
Malcolm Brown is Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Church of England.
Anglican Social Theology edited by Malcolm Brown, with Jonathan Chaplin, John Hughes, Anna Rowlands and Alan Suggate is published by Church House Publishing.
This blog is adapted from the introduction with permission.
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