Theos

Home / Comment / Reviews

How Anglicans think about society

How Anglicans think about society

Nick Spencer reviews ‘Theology Reforming Society’, a volume of essays originating in the Scott Holland Memorial lectures.

Interested by this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e–newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Supporter Programme to find out how you can help our work.


Any newspaper worth its salt has two stories about the Church of England on ‘autoprint’. One of them begins “the Church of England may split after…” The button has been looking rather worn of late. The other begins “the Church of England has challenged the government on…” It was well used during Rowan Williams’ tenure and pressed almost to destruction during the Thatcher years, but it has been gathering dust a bit recently.

These two stories capture the pain and the potential of what has come to be known as Anglican Social Theology (AST). Awareness of such a thing has been growing over recent years, aided significantly by Malcolm Brown’s 2014 edited volume on the topic (reviewed here), which began to scope out the tradition, making it clear in the process that the obvious comparison was the wrong comparison.

Whatever else AST may be, it’s not an Anglican version of CST, Catholic Social Teaching. The clue is in the name. With no equivalence in hierarchy and magisterium, Anglicans can theologise about social affairs, but are less inclined to be taught about them. Hence the first story: the Church of England (let alone the Anglican Church) is too broad and diverse to generate a coherent, let alone authoritative, body of social thought.

And yet – Story 2 – it is and long has been socially and politically involved. Indeed, it is hard to think of any sustained period in its history when the Church of England has eschewed social concerns. True, evangelicals have periodically steered clear of such grubby affairs. “Politics are Satan’s most tempting and alluring baits,” the Revd Thomas Jones one opined. However, evangelicals are equally well known for the political engagement (I’ll resist the obvious namecheck).

It’s true, also, that there have been periods in which that Anglican political ‘engagement’ has been resolutely anti–political, in the sense of denying the state any meaningful role to play in the betterment of society, and leaving everything to the market and to charity. Nevertheless, this, in itself, is a significant ‘political’ position.

Perhaps most fundamentally, the very facts of the parish system and establishment have made full a–politicisation impossible. Anglican theology is by definition Anglican Social Theology.

This volume of essays, Theology Reforming Society: Revisiting Anglican Social Theology, originating in the Scott Holland Memorial lectures and ably edited by Stephen Spencer (no relation) adds to this growing tradition by means of clarification and contribution.

Jeremy Morris opens with an able introduction to F.D. Maurice who recovered and baptised ideas of co–operation, fellowship, mutuality, and unity for the public realm, through his idiosyncratic Christian Socialism, and has best claim to be the “founding father” of AST. Diane Ryan and Paul Avis then explore the figures that inherited Maurice’s thinking – Octavia Hill, Brooke Foss Westcott, Charles Gore, and Henry Scott Holland himself – before Spencer looks at the high point of the tradition in the guise of William Temple, and the tradition that bears his name.

Thereafter, the contributions are interested less in outlining the contours of the AST tradition than in exploring where it might go now that it inhabits a rather unfamiliar landscape. Susan Lucas looks “beyond neoliberalism”, while Malcolm Brown revisits his 2014 essay by assessing how a “coalition church” like the Church of England can productively navigate the plural, post–truth waters of the 21st century. In the concluding, essay, Matthew Bullimore addresses (and critiques) the question of whether the Church’s social theology should now be “public” or “ecclesial”, either speaking accessibly to the general audience of whole country or being more self–consciously and awkwardly ‘Christian’ in its presence and pronouncements.

Parallel themes run through the collection, almost – but not – cohering into a delimited body of thought. Theologically, since Maurice’s time, Incarnation has been the central motif, God living and suffering with those in the way his followers (and the State they craft) should. Anthropologically, the idea that humans are made for, and carrying on making, one another has been foundational. Practically, AST has been action–oriented (underlined by the valuable contribution on Octavia Hill) if not activist, and, as Peter Scott says in his Afterword, pastoral.

More tensions arise, naturally, on ecclesial and political questions – whether the established Church can (or should) speak on behalf of or to the nation; whether it can (or should) speak the lingua franca of public reason (whatever that is); whether it can (or should) seek to change and reorder the structures of society through centralised endeavours or local initiatives. Different Anglican theologians have responded differently to these questions in different circumstances and even though the direction of travel seems clear (as John Hughes’ fine essay in Malcolm Brown’s original collection made clear) this remains a contentious issue.

Theology Reforming Society manages to avoid the sin of unevenness that besets many such collections, with all contributions being readable and thoughtful. It starts filling in gaps but also reminds the reader how many more there are to be filled in. To take one example, the quarterly journal of the Christian Social Union, which ran from 1891 to 1914 was, tellingly, called The Economic Review. It is mentioned in passing in a couple of these essays, described by Paul Avis as “a substantial, serious, mainly scholarly journal”, which went as far as to it include reports of legislation. Avis is clear that the journal was no technical publication, adopting a more ethical and historical approach to economics. Nevertheless, given how theologians have often (and often rightly) been accused of being economically illiterate or naïve, the success or otherwise of this journal would make a good case study on how AST has, can and should engage with serious political and economic issues. There is a valuable PhD to be done here.

Similarly, one key figure of the time, conspicuous by his flitting presence, is the historian, political theorist and member of the Community of the Resurrection, John Neville Figgis, whose ideas on pluralism, and how the state was best understood as the arena for “a community of communities” were of minor significance at the time but look ever more prescient and important today. Figgis is much admired by Rowan Williams, who quoted his ideas several time in his archiepiscopal speeches. Williams has obviously made an enormously productive and thought–through contribution to AST and is another figure who demands careful attention for the evolving tradition (something that I am attempting in my own research at the moment).

Closer to home, a study of the Scott Holland lectures themselves – ranging from R.H. Tawney’s inaugural lectures in 1922, which found publication as Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, and Temple’s 1928 offering in which he coined the phrase “Welfare–State”, through important contributions from M.B. Reckitt, V.A. Demant, Michael Ramsey, Ronald Preston, Raymond Plant, Rowan Williams, David Martin, Neil MacGregor and Frank Field – would offer a fascinating tracking of AST through the 20th century.

In short, therefore, Theology Reforming Society does an admirable job of reminding us that there is a valuable tradition here that merits attention, appropriation and criticism, much needed as the Church of England faces social and political pressures that will require as much wisdom as they do faith.


Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos.

He is delivering the Bishop of Winchester’s Lent Lectures, 2018 on Anglican Social Theology and the Common Good. See details here.

Theology Reforming Society: Revisiting Anglican Social Theology (2018) is published by SCM.

 Image from wikimedia available in the public domain.

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). Outside of Theos, Nick is Visiting Research Fellow at the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London and a Fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion

Posted 25 January 2018

Britain, Church, Future of Churches

Get regular email updates on our latest research and events.

Please confirm your subscription in the email we have sent you.

Want to keep up to date with the latest news, reports, blogs and events from Theos? Get updates direct to your inbox once or twice a month.

Thank you for signing up.