Rev Dr Malcolm Brown is Director of Mission and Public Affairs of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Council.
In his forthright criticisms of the Archbishop of Canterbury on these pages, Tim Montgomerie says it is a "tragedy" that the Archbishop does not put more effort into celebrating the plans of the Coalition to tackle some of the country’s most deep-seated social problems. He contrasts this, mystifyingly, with the Archbishop’s supposed ‘silence’ throughout the previous Government’s time in office.
Long before the first politician’s foot trod the ground of the now iconic Easterhouse estate, the churches have had a physical, human, presence in every community of the country. Our clergy and laity encounter the problems of poverty – yes, and dependency – every day. In many cases, church people experience the problems personally. And when our archbishops speak with the backing of that direct, long-term experience, struggling communities are encouraged to strive harder to make their communities better places. It is, incidentally, how the poor responded to Jesus.
Jesus also said something about motes and beams. As the Evening Standard’s current campaign shows, there is a real literacy problem in this country. But whilst the Archbishop’s critics can string the words together on the page, too many of them seem to have had some difficulty reading the text of his New Statesman article. Read his words carefully: he is asking you to think beyond the neurotic defensiveness which mars our political life because it can only hear its own voice. People who actually believe in the Big Society know that the tapestry of dissenting voices is key to its flourishing. That tapestry of voices is a core Conservative concept, by the way, as those who have read Burke know.
Look at the track record of the Archbishop – and the Church of England more widely – in supporting David Cameron’s Big Society agenda. After the election, who sponsored the first debate in Parliament to press the Big Society forward? The Lords Spiritual. Who has consistently stressed the crucial congruence between the Big Society philosophy and the Christian understanding of people in community? The Archbishop of Canterbury . Who is actually mobilising people on the ground to build better neighbourhoods? The parishes and people of the churches.
I think that qualifies the Archbishop to speak as a critical friend. So when your critical friend brings you a report from the front line which suggests that the good ideas you both share are running into trouble, you shoot the messenger? Gee thanks….
I must also correct the assertion that the Archbishop’s manners were at fault. 10 Downing Street and others were sent advance copies of the Archbishop’s article before publication.
The Archbishop is writing about how politics impacts on people. The article is a strong challenge to all parties – and says clearly that Labour too has a lot of work to do to meet the challenges of the “shifting tectonic plates”. Ask Tony Blair whether he got a smooth ride from the Archbishop during his term in office, and he’ll have some stories to tell about the scars on his back. Commenting on politics is the birthright of every citizen – and a duty of a public office-holder like the Archbishop who leads a church with roots among the people that many politicians would envy.
The Archbishop accepted an invitation to guest-edit this week’s New Statesman. If the Spectator offered a similar invitation, I suspect he would accept, since it is a bishop’s vocation to encourage reflection among as wide a cross-section of people as possible. But is the Spectator "frit" (to quote a well-know authority)?
But the crucial point is this. The Archbishop’s comments are grounded on real research which any policy maker ought to heed. The Church Urban Fund and Church Action on Poverty recently tried to get behind the headlines and asked voluntary groups across the country how the spending cuts were impacting on the most vulnerable. The findings, which were published in March, can be seen here.
The stories that emerged show how the poverty traps are deepening, not easing. For example:
“We are working with a single mum at the moment whose children were taken into care. They will not be allowed back until significant things are done in the house to make it habitable but the spending cuts mean that the council will not carry out many of these necessary jobs. Fortunately some of the church folk are helping, but there are many tasks we simply do not have the skills to do.”
"The church folk are helping". That is the Archbishop’s authority to speak. It is sad that when the experiences of those trying to help are given voice, it can only be interpreted as an “attack” on the government.
The fear which he (accurately) reports among ordinary people is in large part about the lack of a convincing narrative from government about why current policies are necessary and how ordinary people will fare in the medium and longer terms. So when the Archbishop reports that blaming it on the last Government is not cutting the mustard with the people, a response that blames the last Government again is pretty inadequate. Such reports from the front should be taken as spurring government to communicate better.
A year ago the Church of England set out to work hopefully with a new government that promised to bring fresh thinking and energy to the intractable problems of the country. The election result was not what any party wanted, but it was what we got. The Church of England is itself a coalition of traditions and groups, so we have a lot of sympathy with the constraints facing Ministers. (Incidentally, you’d understand our internal squabble better if you read us as a coalition and not as a single party!) The Archbishop mixes with politicians of all hues and has frequently empathised with the impossible expectations they face. He’s been there himself; he’s not speaking from some remote ivory tower.
But if this is how critical friends get treated, it might be that the Archbishop is more of a lone voice than we thought. His call is ultimately for a more grown up politics that listens attentively to real life, rather than talking to itself all the time. If we can’t have that, we all lose.