On Rock or Sand? Firm foundations for Britain’s future

Posted on: 21st January 2015  |
Author: John Sentamu (ed.)
Publication details: SPCK, 2015; 272 pages
ISBN: 9780281071746
Category: Politics and current affairs
Tags: book, Church of England, parliament

Since grace does not take from nature but perfects it, natural reason should serve faith, just as the natural inclination of the will complies with charity. (St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia Q1 Art8)

What a relief from the early sniping of the electoral debate! Ten Christians have contributed serious and substantial essays on the state of the nation to a new collection edited by the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu.

The jewel in the crown is the essay by Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury. It is an exposition of the Parable of the Vineyard (Matthew 20). Opening with a straightforward observation that by May 2014 the UK economy had recovered to pre-recession levels, he goes on to pose the question of how the renewed economic life of the nation may be more sustainable and more equitably distributed than in the period before 2008. This is a call for:

a mass conversion of our hearts and minds to a gratuitous and widespread commitment to solidarity – of a society built and lives lived on the principles of the inherent dignity of the person, outside and beyond any economic value, and of the commonality of the human journey. The good of our society, on every level, depends on precisely such a transformation. (p. 29)

The archbishop describes the idea that ‘if we can fix the economy, the fixing of human beings will automatically follow’ as ‘a lie’ (pp. 40-41). This is strong language. For ‘a lie’ one could properly read ‘a heresy’ (see Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia IIae Q11). The archbishop is unequivocally stating that a particular description of the relationship between economics and the nature of the human animal is incompatible with the Christian Faith.

The proposition that is condemned as ‘a lie’ is quite clearly a philosophical proposition, one that perhaps requires an understanding of economics. It is – as the encyclical of Pope Saint John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, makes clear – for philosophers (and economists) to reach conclusions on philosophical (or economic) questions according to the precepts of philosophy (or economics). Theologians approach truth in a different way and should not dictate to philosophers. So what right has the Church to criticise a conclusion reached by a philosopher or economist? The answer is given in the fifth chapter of that same encyclical, which sets out the need to draw to the attention of philosophers that they have reached a conclusion that is incompatible with the faith of the Church. It is then for philosophers to consider how they are to respond to this, as philosophers. If they persist in maintaining their position, then they inevitably separate themselves from the Christian faith. As Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of All England, Justin Welby has the authority to draw to the attention of the nation that a principle on which it is suggested we should act is dangerous, damaging and wrong. It is a welcome change that an archbishop has been so blunt.

The Archbishop of York also embarks on an extensive discussion of what constitutes human flourishing. He brings passion – indeed righteous anger – to his denunciation of injustice in our society in his opening and closing essays. There will be those who brand his views as ‘socialist’; but it would be a great pity if the Archbishop of York’s message were to be lost in a technical argument over statistics, or ignored – as one Conservative spokesperson suggested to the Financial Times (15 Jan 2015) it should be – because he quoted (perhaps tactlessly) the famous words of Marx: ‘From each, according to his resources, to each, according to his need’ (p.252).    

The other contributors have addressed specific topics, most from the perspective of an academic discipline. A noticeable exception is James Woodward’s essay, ‘Ageing: blessing or burden?’ This opens with an account of how the author stopped his car to allow an elderly man to cross a street, saw his pain and weakness and then reflected: ‘He was me!’ In Dependent Rational Animals, Alasdair MacIntyre describes how this identification with the other is an essential part of the virtue of misericordia: just as justice is a perpetual inclination to render what is due to another, misericordia is the matching inclination to render help to another in need. Of all the essays in the collection, this is the most likely to be accessible to everyone – it demands no background knowledge, yet there is powerful theology contained therein.

The other seven essays provide high calibre reviews of particular topics: economics (Andrew Sentance), education (Lord Adonis), poverty (Julia Unwin), work (Oliver O’Donovan), health (Kersten England), representative democracy (Ruth Hall) and firm foundations for the future (Sir Philip Mawer). They do not contain detailed policy proposals and are perhaps best regarded as solid, reliable background reading for those who want to understand a particular topic in order to evaluate what the politicians are saying. Having said that, we should always remember what St Augustine said: the fact that the authors are good people, committed to the common good, does not exempt them from error. Much of what they have written is in dispute. We need to listen carefully to arguments that challenge what they write and make up our own minds.

A serious omission from this book is a discussion of nationality law. It is imperative that Christian voices speak out against any suggestion that any citizen of this country is less a citizen than another on grounds of ethnicity, colour or religion. Serious questions have to be asked about the nature of UKIP. A review is not the place to go into these issues, but with immigration being ‘weaponised’, the absence of any treatment of the issue – which should surely be coupled with explicit condemnation of hatred – is a critical weakness.

Ruth Hall has provided a tour d’horizon of contemporary political science under the title ‘Improving the health of our representative democracy.’ While it would have been a mistake to include a more prescriptive essay in this volume, there are some issues to which we really do need to apply our minds and which might justify a second volume on reform of our political structures. (A useful contributor to such a volume could be Lord Heseltine, whose report No Stone Unturned: In Pursuit of Growth is described as ‘excellent’  by the Archbishop of Canterbury [p. 31] but who has criticised the book for not giving a fair account of what has been done to encourage urban revival.)  I offer a few questions, all hinted at in Ruth Hall’s essay, that might warrant further treatment.

First, what is the role of a referendum? Is it sensible to have a referendum on EU membership when that may be hijacked by those who would turn it into a festival of hatred of immigrants?

Second, why are we so accepting of the fact that a Commons business committee is yet to be established? Ruth Hall rightly draws attention to the Backbench Business Committee, but why are the front benches being allowed to stop the House of Commons deciding its own agenda? It is over 400 years since the Jesuit Robert Parsons proposed a Commons business committee – will we have to wait another 400 years for reforms which allow all MPs, rather than the government, to decide how Parliamentary time should be allocated?

Third, should we not implement a system of candidate selection via State-funded primary elections? In most constituencies the candidate is selected by a small, unrepresentative group.

Fourth, what is to be done to restructure the English constitution? The pledges that were made to Scotland during the ‘No’ campaign in the independence referendum must now be honoured, and this means a re-think of the English constitution. If we do not want an English Parliament dominated by London and the South East – and the archbishops’ strictures regarding a divided nation suggest that we should not – then what else is possible? And what can be done to revive local government?

You will no doubt have your own questions. So while we should look for a second volume of this collection, in which more specific questions are discussed, in the meantime we should welcome On Rock or Sand? and be grateful for this powerful demonstration of how reason can serve faith.


Joe Egerton was Conservative Candidate for Leigh in 1992 and worked for successful Conservative candidates in 2010. 

Reviewer: Joe Egerton


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