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A case of ecclesial over-optimism? A response to Milbank’s return to Christendom’s social vision

John Milbank’s recent Church Times’ article (16th December, 2011), The Church is the site for the true society, contains interesting perspectives from classic Christendom’s distinctively Christian sociology (following Figgis, Chesterton and Belloc) that chime well with David Cameron’s Big Society. It contains rhetorical evocations of civil and virtue economies, and an ‘authentic radicalism’ in which the church gets involved ‘in all kinds of processes of welfare, medicine, banking, education, the arts, technology, ecology and more and seeks to transform them in the joint name of reciprocity and virtue’. This analysis is seductive but vague, and out of touch with the real world where many Anglican churches struggle to pay diocesan quotas and recruit church wardens.

The article has other shortcomings. First is its inaccurate reading of the William Temple tradition. Whilst early Temple was an Hegelian idealist, the Temple of the 1930s and 1940s was profoundly influenced by Natural Law traditions, where in Christianity and Social Order, he equates the ideal social order with God’s purposes. Thus his middle axioms, addressing major ‘wants’, like poverty, lack of education, unemployment, are derived from operationalizing primary and derivative Christian principles. We can’t create a perfect social order, but we do have a clear moral and practical sense of what it might look like, and the role of the state, along with that of intermediate associations like churches, trade unions and universities, is to help facilitate conditions by which human flourishing may be brought into closer approximation with it.

Second, despite a strong belief in the church as vehicle for radical social change, Milbank’s article is thin on hard content and strategic prioritising. Addressing child poverty as his chosen case study, he has no answer to overlapping sets of structural issues that solidify child poverty (stigmatised communities, lack of hope and employment prospects, poor educational expectations, multiple mental health issues) except to wildly and quite inaccurately characterise the state as having no goals ‘save its economic power and no interest in the person save as an atomised cog in a well-oiled machine’. The British government will still spend 40% of its GDP on public expenditure even after proposed cuts, an essential contribution to wellbeing which church and voluntary bodies are incapable of satisfying. Milbank’s response to child poverty (in his original article) states churches should ‘refuse to be terrorised by regulatory fears of leaving children under lone adult supervision’ because Christian justice has nothing to do with ‘liberal formalist fairness’.

A number of questions flow from this assertion. Is he blaming inexorable declines in children attending church since the 1960s on child protection legislation? How is the church going to assume responsibility for children neglected by parents ‘unwilling or unable to care for children appropriately’ as he suggests?

In contrast to this ecclesial postcode lottery of social care (depending on where a few ‘strong’ churches happen to be based), at the end of Christianity and the New Social Order, we update Temple’s original middle axioms by recommending the flourishing of every child as cornerstone of social policy: ‘As the supreme litmus test of a good society, this involves the nurturing of children in the material and the immaterial, including spiritual, experience of life.’

Given his indictment of apparently feckless parents, Milbank would endorse policy approaches supporting this opening statement: ‘It entails support for strong, loving and secure family lives, with a high priority given to marriage, but not to the exclusion of other family forms which also provide support.’ However, we embed local and family support for the flourishing of children within wider views of the social order; that instead of demonising liberal democratic states per se, we see them playing active, necessary and supportive roles in relation to the primary obligation of the family towards its members. ‘But other child support mechanisms are also required, such as accessible high quality childcare provision, including the preferential option to most disadvantaged mothers through mentoring support, adequate family incomes, and a supportive work/life balance.’

Rather than seeing the roles of intermediate organisations and state as mutually antithetical as Milbank implies, a more realist approach sees them as potentially mutually enriching and necessary. Churches and faith communities are increasingly and properly recognised as having distinctively different roles to play in promoting wellbeing for all (and Milbank is right to assert this spiritual capital as a potentially transformative part of the civil society mix), but in partnership with the state and market. This was the genius of Temple’s social vision: the state is, in his memorable phrase, constituent of a ‘community made up of communities’. We need to continue to hold the over-bureaucratic state to account and find new forms of democratic accountability and representation. But Milbank’s uncritical localism, and the ideological structural dualism of community = good, state = bad that underpins it, is inadequate.

The Big Society will always need, for an increasingly complex, urban world of approaching 9 billion in the next generation, an activist state and market economy to nurture, support and develop it. Working out how the three can really work together in genuine reciprocity is the hard but necessary task that lies ahead.

Chris Baker, John Atherton and John Reader

3 thoughts on “A case of ecclesial over-optimism? A response to Milbank’s return to Christendom’s social vision

  1. It’s Chris Baker and co who live in yesterday’s reality where a ‘balance’ between state, market and civil society was thinkable. Today we live in an era of increasingly criminalised economic monopoly, aided and abetted by political oligarchy. The idea of a ‘social democratic’ challenge to this has become laughable, while Marixists continue to provide fine analyses but no viable visions of alternative futures. Instead these are coming from ‘associationists’ like Maurice Glasman, fusing the insights of Paul Hirst and Karl Polanyi. For this vision it is mutualist control that holds out the prospect of combining democracy with a true opursuit of social virtue. Through such a means political sovereignty could be dispersed and the current slanted market pursuing profit become a genuine social market that contracts and competes also in social value and hon our. What is truly shocking about the response to my piece is the way the authors insinuate that I am somehow a conservative anti-statist (omitting all reference to my anti ‘free market’ remarks in the piece and my strong affirmations of a continued role for the state in the regulation of the market and welfare)while cheerfully admitting their own admiration for the megalithinc and technocratic modern state apparatus and its alliance with capitalist market forces. Far from my ideas being fantastic, they are in tune with the most radical new thining about economics (Zamagni in particular) and the thinking most likely to shift things away from neo-liberal hegemony. Similarly my call for church involvement in all aspects of society is exactly what both the UK civil service and the C of E are now actively envisaging, while several sociologists have argued that the US remains churchgoing precisely because of its higher levels of social involvement, its provable ‘relevance’ to people’s lives. If you don’t have this of course you won’t be able to pay the churchwarden! In any case, ‘the church’ does not just means the clergy, but the self-organisation of the laity in business guilds etc. In Italy for example this is happening to a large degree. Really you Mancunian liberal Anglican types need to travel a bit more it would seem………And the representation of my remarks on child poverty was disgraceful, for what I mainly said here was that targeting children rather than whole families and communities was too liberal-individualist an approach and too much confining of equality to opportunity of opportunity. Your whole dated outlook simply demonstrates the utter poverty of Temple’s ‘middle axioms’ approach according to which Christianity only contributes vague ideal platitudes and not very specific suggestions about social orgnaisation — ‘free assocaition’ ‘economic adaptive rule’, ‘personalism’ are the three crucial overarching examples, all partially but inadequately grasped by Temple. The middle axioms procedure tends to divorce goal from means and thus be content to achieve an abstract end in an impersonal, utilitarian way as if the interpersonal means were not for Christian part of the goal. Thus to be sure we will still have state, society and market, but my point is that the radical alternative is to subordinate state and market to ‘social’, interpersonal ways of doing things. Unless we do this then we are heading for ‘Asiatic’ totalitarian capitalism everywhere. Only a revived Christendom can possibly resist this, because it is only in that structure that genuien western principles of constitutuiona liberty and equity have been forged — and atheism has inevtiably eroded them. The Church itself as the body of Christ IS the supreme social project, the supreme instigator of ‘free associaiton beyond the law, and not a gathering of few pious souls with banally high-sounding ideasl. Look chaps, ‘Christendom’ came back and won this argument over twenty years ago n 1990, as you must really know. Why don’t you just surrender and join the real Christian struggle?

    1. As this is Ash Wednesday and therefore a day of Obligation, I feel “obliged” to respond to John Milbank’s reply. In a moment or two I will be reminding my small but faithful rural congregation of their need to be penitent and reflective over the coming season, especislly as I impose the ashes and remind us of the contingency and vulnerability of continuing to be church and to maintain the Christian struggle in difficult circumstances. Hence I feel a certain amusement and frustration at some of JM’s comments and I would welcome him to come and join our local struggle where even recruiting churchwardens, let alone knowing how we are to avoid bankrupcty within a few years, are immediate challenges. So just a few initial comments and corrections.
      As this message will make clear, although I am a Senior Research Fellow with the William Temple Foundation, I am NOT based in Manchester, and neither is WTF any longer! (Take the “man” out of Manchester and you might find the right place John!) I am also a full-time parish priest who is fascinated by the reference to paying churchwardens. Am I so out of touch here that I have failed to notice that this professionalisation of voluntary activity is now standard practice in the CofE? Maybe it would be a good idea as I could then find the extra 6 I need to have a full compliment for my 8 churches! Where is the money to come from by the way?
      To more theological matters though. I would love to be able to engage my people in the sort of local activity – protesting over the proposals for HS2, discussing quarrying in the locality and the proposal for a windfarm – and indeed establish locally-based initiatives. Sadly, we don’t have the capacity for this, plus we know that most of the critical decisions to be made that affect our area are taken elsewhere, and that all the talk about a new localism comes across as an ideological blind to the realities of power within our current system. We have to start from where we are, not from where we would like to be. My other quick comment is that, if John were to read my chapter, and indeed the rest of “Christianity and the New Social Order”, rather than simply assuming that he knows what we are arguing, he might see that my concern is that we DO engage in the detail of public policy debates and their implications. I draw on certain sources that I find helpful in this process and that I am happy to share (as I did with some students at a certain theological college on Saturday) when it comes to the discussion of individual instances such as those noted above.
      In other words, I would argue that I am fully engaged in all sorts of Christian struggles and I would welcome engagement both practical and theological from any members of Radical Orthodoxy who feel they might have a positive contribution to make to my “local assemblages”!

  2. As a long-time industrial missioner, when I preach I often look for an example from contemporary life to begin what I say. Sometimes this can be quite extended before I reach for the connection with the biblical text of the day and perhaps stems from my experience of doing inductive theology in my day-to-day work. However, I’m also aware of sometimes preaching from a text almost in isolation to any practical application. I also feel (and this may be my perception rather than people’s true response) that often those listening are more comfortable when I speak about interior and individual aspects of faith rather than acting upon it, particularly if that were to be connected to some kind of engagement with complex issues in contemporary society.

    I’m also aware that most of us don’t have a clearly articulated system of beliefs, partly because we don’t have the time or wherewithal to do the thinking that professors of theology like Milbank have, and partly because most of us find the world to be confusing and evolving, but to which on a good day we can respond creatively. What we hopefully have is a grasp of some of the key themes of the Gospel that we try to apply in response to life as it comes at us (and sometimes we fail and it might be called sin).

    Perhaps I can apply some of this to a church project which I am involved in that might be an example of the Big Society in a place where it’s pretty difficult to do Big Society. I don’t think, having talked to one of the main architects there is a Radical Orthodoxy type vision, but there is an attempt to take a problematic situation and look for solutions that reflect some of those key strands in the gospel in the conviction that not only might we be doing some good, but that if the Gospel (probably really, gospel values) is truly seen by people in the community it could transform lives.

    This is a place where conventional church has failed and no more resources in the form of another vicar would be forthcoming. Instead the intention is to ‘do church’ in the community. If the small number of people on a Sunday morning grow into something more, then well and good, but the intention is to create something other than that. This will come about through the setting up and growing of a small missional community drawing on the examples of new monasticism, allied with engaging with the local area through an employed community minister linking with and building on the existing, largely state-funded, agencies; e.g. schools, community centres/workers and others, such as they are in times of financial cut-backs.

    There is a vision for this that speaks of love, care, radical hospitality, modelling of good relationships and of transformation of lives that come into contact with this and are affected, and possibly of the neighbourhood too. The vision is genuinely believed, but is also necessary in order to draw others from outside to join the task and to attract the necessary funding. Most of the energy for the project has come from ministers and lay professional people associated with the linked church in the parish and from the network of people linked to new missional communities and similar para-church organisations. The aim is to respond to the needs of the community (area) through loving service rather than to impose a model upon what emerges. It most definitely isn’t intended to be a conventional church as might be recognised in other buildings with pointy roofs nearby. Indeed one source of real tension at present is the adaptation of the normal Sunday morning liturgy as in Common Worship into something briefer, though still recognisable, because quite unexpectedly, a substantial number of children who arrived with no conception of how to behave conventionally in church, started coming because the door was open and not closed to them physically or metaphorically when they did come in.

    What is striking is that those who have responded so far are children and young people. There is support from professional adults from the various agencies who work in the area but little explicit response from local people apart from permission from parents for their children to join in church activities and perhaps to come at Christmas to the nativity play the children were involved in. So are we speaking explicitly enough of God? Are actions enough? Our evangelical, lay community minister wants church members to be on the youth bus when it comes and to be involved in other activities with young people so we can speak of our faith. My experience as a chaplain over many years working in workplaces is that one can speak of faith but it needs to be in Ann Morisey’s sense of the Foundational Domain of ‘re-enchanting’ people’s view of the world, of enabling people to explore their sense that there is more to life than meets the eye, and having ‘the skill of code-switching which enables clumsy efforts to express sub-Christian ideas to be treated respectfully and accorded value. The opportunity to proffer a concept from an informed Christian perspective…’ (The Future of the Parish System, Ed. Stephen Croft, pp.126, 7).

    I guess I find the pre-packaged sense of Radical Orthodoxy that seems to be built on a world different from the one I inhabit and difficult to envisage (though that may just show how far our world has moved from God’s ideal for us) to be hard for me to embrace, but at the same time I am very conscious of the need to have a better sense of the God in whom I believe and the necessary attributes of the faith and values that flow from that. What I also sense, is that living in a number of worlds: full-time diocesan officer engaging with the economy, employment and society in a variety of settings, member of a ‘conventional church’ and working with this project on the margins of what it means to be church, means that my way of understanding and expressing faith differs according to the location. The underlying realities may be the same, but how do we express them in these, and other, different places and what does it do to that reality when it inter-reacts in these different expressions with those different places?

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