The recent blogs relating to Radical Orthodoxy and its differences from the work of the William Temple Foundation appear to have ground to a halt. This is a pity as they were just about to get beyond the realms of intellectual points scoring and into some serious debate. An angle that had yet to be pursued was that of the former’s advocacy of localism and how that might be operationalised in the UK context where the current administration is keen to promote this as a policy initiative. As someone who through parochial ministry, has been eager to operate at a local level and been involved in various community work projects, I feel that I have a powerful stake in this debate (examples of this are to be found in my Local Theology: Church and Community in Dialogue, 1994, and again in Blurred Encounters: A Reasoned Practice of Faith, 2005). So when I read that there should be a renewed interest in and support for church-based projects that are indeed locally based and developed, I would have to say that I am broadly in agreement. My problem, however, is that it is difficult to see how this can be operationalised given the current pressure upon local voluntary resources, and that it fails to take into account the reality of many local issues. Bruno Latour uses the language of “matters of concern” in contrast to “matters of fact” (Politics of Nature, 2004, P244), and I find this a helpful way of addressing these issues as it encourages us to stand back and take into account all the various components that go to make up projects in which we find ourselves engaged. If we examine in detail the various dimensions of most supposedly local issues, we rapidly discover that there are as many national or global influences at work as there are strictly local ones. So, for instance, on the matter of education in the UK, what is actually driving the future configuration of local schools is the political movement towards academy status, breaking away from Local Authority control, and effectively privatising education. The Church of England, perceiving this to be both a threat and an opportunity, seems to want to follow this route itself, and exercise more power over its schools by going for academy status, but without taking local views and circumstances into account. The future of other supposedly locally provided services or developments, whether those of welfare provision, housing, or health, are in fact being shaped by decisions at national political level, and local people feel disempowered and disenfranchised. Perhaps there is nothing new in this, but it does raise serious questions about the reality of localism, and suggest that there is an element of political rhetoric at work as well as a genuine idealism which would argue for a greater level of local democracy So I am all in favour of resisting centralized decisions over local issues, but the prospects of doing so under current circumstances are remote at best and utopian at worst. Perhaps this is a moment when churches and faith communities might reflect upon their involvement in local activity in order to be able to identify the translocal and global factors which shape the world which they wish to transform and then engage these both through and beyond the local?
And then I wonder whether the other extreme of this debate offers any greater hope for the future. I have recently read Paul Gilding’s The Great Disruption: How the Climate Crisis will transform the Global Economy (Bloomsbury Publishing 2012). Although Gilding does himself admit to being brought up in a Methodist household in Australia, religion plays no part whatsoever in the scenarios he paints. His argument is that all the talk of previous years about changes of values and “conversions” of the sceptics and climate-deniers, is simply irrelevant now, as the realities of the crises we face as a result of climate change, resource depletion, and population pressures begin to impinge upon our lives. The time for arguments (reasoned or otherwise) is almost at an end, and once the real life impacts of these environmental changes become evident, the human species will have no choice but to adapt. He suggests that our history is that of making the necessary u-turns at the last moment, before it is too late – for some at least. In that sense this is a hopeful and positive book which presents a future that will be painful and difficult, but in which the necessary action will be taken. It is an important and challenging read which tackles head-on this question of hope when matters appear to be almost hopeless. I am aware that colleagues from a more evangelical school who are fully engaged in the environmental debate, are also struggling with the question of what hope means when nothing seems to be moving in the right direction.
How might an engagement with this interpretation of the environmental debate inform the challenge to faith communities to be able to look beyond the local ? It is certainly not localistic in any recognisable sense. In fact one of my concerns about it is that it presupposes highly directive, if not authoritarian government in order to achieve the changes required. I read it and ask myself “so what price any form of democracy, local or otherwise?” The local does not figure. It does however seem to be based on detailed empirical research and scientific interpretation, and thus is not in this sense either idealistic or utopian, although it does represent a particular strand of idealism in the future that it envisages. It is tackling what may well be THE most important practical and political concerns facing the planet and trying to establish realistic ways forward. Why has Radical Orthodoxy yet to address this debate? Surely the Transition
Initiative movement – granted it is largely secular – should figure in RO’s examples of local action? (For those unfamiliar with this movement which began in Kinsale and then spread across to the UK and beyond, Transition Towns are an attempt to respond to the challenge of Peak Oil and Climate Change, and to work out how local communities can “power down” and reduce their dependence upon non-renewable energy). Yet, there is no mention of how faith/religious values might play a part in the shift of attitudes, behaviour and self-understanding that would surely have to accompany the political changes that Gilding argues are required. So I conclude that what he believes must and will happen, is more likely to result instead in an apocalyptic scenario, as the motivation necessary will not materialise.
If Radical Orthodoxy is unable to address these problems realistically, and fails to even acknowledge environmental issues which are now high on even most political agendas, then Gilding is unable to address them from the perspective of principle and value that could prevent the worst excesses of global disruption and political upheaval. Somewhere between the two there must be a realistic, but hopeful solution that provides a better way forward. I would like to see both RO and my colleagues from the William Temple Foundation, get to grips with this most important of debates and show how their respective approaches and understandings might contribute to a debate that steers between the utopian and the apocalyptic.