The Archbishop of Canterbury has been asked to play a highly significant political role as the would be chair of something that is to be called the Citizen’s Forum. Opinion is divided on how wise it might be to accept the invitation. What might the issues consist of?
St AUGUSTINE, PELAGIUS AND THE LIMITS OF HUMAN CAPACITY
We have just celebrated the feast of Saint Augustine of Hippo. One of the most important things about his life was the struggle with the aberrant theology of an Irish monk called Pelagius.
Augustine and Pelagius clashed about the fundamentals of human nature as Christianity exposes them. In their early arguments they were not initially very far apart but as time went by and they sparred and provoked each other into ever more definitive responses they came to represent two fundamentally opposite views about human nature.
Pelagius believed that moral virtue and human progress could be achieved by trying harder. Saint Augustine believed that human nature, although bearing the image and likeness of God, was nonetheless fatally flawed. The flaw lay in our incapacity to exercise the human will; it lay in the gap between aspiration and performance. This is usually summed up in the theological phrase ‘original sin’.
It’s not unusual for people to dislike Saint Augustine for his clarity of thought and his honest appraisal of a moral incapacity. In this he is very like Saint Paul who in a similar way described a clash between aspiration and the capacity of our morally handicapped will to deliver the ethics we reached out towards.
The reason many people dislike Saint Augustine, Saint Paul and even for that matter Jesus, whose death on the cross became the means by which our incapacity was healed by a mysterious alchemy of trust and sacrifice, is because we like to have a more optimistic view of our capacities. We like the idea of being able to save ourselves.
It is at this point that contemporary politics intersect with the practice of the Christian faith in the light cast by this feast day of Saint Augustine.
THE CITIZENS’ FORUM
This takes us to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s invitation to chair a citizens’ forum in order to assist with national reconciliation over the clash of wills, world view and wishful thinking over Brexit.
But whilst to him this may seem like an invitation to play a vital part in national political life, it is in fact more of a temptation than an opportunity.
If he accepts, Justin Welby is in danger of having succumbed to a misleading temptation to prove that he (and his church) can be politically and ethically ‘relevant’.
A rather vulgar, straight talking but otherwise astute American commentator called Tucker Max, has written “the devil doesn’t come dressed in a red cape and pointy horns. He comes as everything you ever wished for.”
It is not unreasonable that Archbishop Welby might long to be politically and socially potent. Otherwise, he would never have considered this invitation for more than an instant.
During his time in office the number of people practicing the Christian faith within the Church of England continues in an alarming nosedive. The average age of the Anglican in the pew is almost 70. Within 10 years parishes and the Church of England will largely be empty. (There are of course a number of well-resourced churches and ministries that buck the trend but they are exceptional and the influence contained beyond the confines of the religious tribal culture within which they operate.) The icing will be kept on top of the cake by the enormous resources of the Church Commissioners. It’s just that there won’t be much or any cake.
Archbishop Welby may well long to be relevant, but the only power that the Church contains is a spiritual power. Every time the Church has sought political relevance, it jeopardizes its spiritual potency. It almost always does politics badly; and when it seeks political relevance it damages the allegiance of those who look to it for the reformation of the soul and mind. The only way that the Church can get a handle on the health of society is by bringing salvation to the individual. Reformed people then reform society. Going for political solutions as a direct strategy always fails for the Church, and backfires with serious consequences, whether the direct approach is from the left or the right.
Relevance is not easily gained on the world’s terms. Justin Welby is the Archbishop of Church that has decided in matters of sexuality and the politics of identity to marry the spirit of the age, and then found to its great surprise that instead of being grateful and offering some form of compromise of vision and desire, the age instead despises the compromising church with a growing vitriol, and that no theological or moral sacrifice to a sexualised secular culture will do to buy off its criticism.
The form in which Archbishop Welby looks to achieve relevance is on the basis of his only chance of gaining some public credibility is the practice of his lifelong mantra and preoccupation of achieving ‘reconciliation’.
It’s certainly true that If any political and social movement were to test the capacity of the attempt to achieve reconciliation it would certainly be Brexit, and perhaps that is where the scale of the temptation that he has been presented with lies.
But, he is likely to fail on two counts.
RECONCILIATION OR POLITICAL ENTRAPMENT?
The first is that, pretty obviously, reconciliation has to be wanted by both sides. In the Brexit neither side wants reconciliation at all. In fact they want to destroy or neuter each other. And they seem to want to do this with a depth of hatred and myopic anger that is rare even in our conflicted times. It’s true most of the rage is directed from Remainers towards Brexiteers, but neither side has much time for the other.
And it is not as if the group of politicians who have invited Welby to practice his particular magic of reconciliation come with clean hands. They have asked him to do something psychologically and culturally impossible, and in fact are using him as a pawn for a rather nasty political trap they are setting for the Prime Minister.
The idea behind the Citizen’s Forum is to create some alternative ‘democratic’ assembly outside Parliament to act as a means of protest if Boris Johnson manages to sidestep the Parliamentary timetable and close down the space and days for debate within the House of Commons.
This almost amounts to a potential coup or at least a clever political piece of public manipulation that could provide a platform for a media coup at the very least.
When the people planning this particular manoeuver put their minds to it, they decided they needed a chairperson who would bring the greatest degree of moral propriety and the minimum to do degree of political partisanship, so as to cloak their political intentions and not to give the game away.
The Archbishop was the obvious and perfect patsy.
Any sensible person with a grasp on the intractable political seismic forces at work, and a reasonable sense of their own limits and skills, would walk away from this at speed, breaking into a run and wiping away the sweat.
But this temptation may have caught Welby at a weak point.
The danger is that his concern to be relevant, and his not-very-secret political preferences play into a strategy expressed by Remainers, to frustrate Boris Johnson and the Brexiters. He may choose to hide his political preferences under the canopy of moral virtue by accepting invitation to be the chairperson of the citizens forum. They certainly hope that is role would be to appear to be bringing clean political hands to the task, at least cosmetically.
But he may be being played by people who are politically more astute than he is.
The task is politically and psychologically impossible and the purpose of this forum is only a show window for political manoeuvers that have a far darker and more dangerous potential.
RECONCILIATION , CONVERSION AND DIVISION
The Archbishop made his name by offering expertise in the task of reconciliation. Reconciliation is indeed a wonderful thing. It should be based on mutual forgiveness and a deeper understanding between two parties who have fallen out. Christians have a particular understanding of forgiveness. Where it becomes impossible for us, we find a resource in our own ‘having been forgiven’ to break the log jam of resentment. But for people who have not experienced reconciliation with God, reconciliation with their neighbor can be a difficult and in fact an intractable business.
The best way to offer the resources of Christian forgiveness to being about reconciliation is to introduce people to Jesus first so that in penitence they might be forgiven and this forgiveness can cascade down through their own broken relationships.
How does this definitive Christian experience find its way into the political arena? In Northern Ireland, time and again, impossible reconciliation was brought about by those who had encountered Jesus, had their lives turned around and offered a magnanimous forgiveness, an echo of that they had found in the cross for their own souls?
What would Justin Welby’s formula be for providing political reconciliation on this proposed Citizen’s Forum?
And this brings us back to Augustine, his feast day and his opponent Pelagius.
Welby’s optimism that reconciliation can be achieved by skill and optimism looks at root to be essentially Pelagian.
Pelagianism in the 21st-century takes the form of a longing for a political and social utopianism in which equality, fairness, reconciliation and inclusion can be achieved, and indeed even sometimes, if they are resisted, imposed.
There is always a balance in a Christians relationship with the society he or she lives in. At one at the same time the Christian a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, and also of the political state to which they belong. But as soon as the state begins to take steps antithetic to the faith, the Christian has to shift their weight to give preference to the life in the Spirit; to an allegiance to the Holy Spirit over the zeitgeist.
The present devotion to identity politics, pseudo-equality, gay marriage and the disintegration of the Judaea-Christian family, morals and culture that our secular society preoccupies itself with, ought to set the Christian subversively against the zeitgeist. Critics of Welby claim that to the contrary, he has led the Church in a direction that placates, honours and deepens the zeitgeist.
There are two areas of conflict that might provoke the possibility of a need for reconciliation then at the moment. Brexiteers v Remainers; and the Church and secular culture;
The first is neither asked for nor possible. Remainers have not asked to be reconciled to Brexiteers. They have demanded their political obliteration. What skills could possibly change that nationally to a longing for mutuality and each other’s best interests?
Far more problematic for the Archbishop is that authentic Christianity it at loggerheads with a secular an aggressive culture. What does Jesus say about this dynamic? He promises to bring the sword of division in order to separate the good from the bad. He promises to bring fire to purify the humanity of evil. There is no model of reconciliation here. And secular society knows it, even if Justin Welby does not, which is why it turns upon Christians and removes them from their jobs and posts as people intractably opposed to their assault on the Judeo-Christian moral tradition.
If there was a vision for reconciliation it lies between the Church and secular culture in order to stand up for Christian vision and virtue and explain its case to an increasingly hostile secular audience. That is not a form of reconciliation that has yet appealed to Archbishop Welby.
It remains to be seen whether or not Welby will actually chair this Citizens’ Forum deigned to be a lever or power to frustrate Brexit, while pretending to be neutral.
If he does, he will further dismay the laity he has left, who are mainly Brexiteers deeply frustrated and already disillusioned with the politburo-style appointed bishops drawn almost without exception from a limited pool the left-wing utopian, spiritually underpowered, ecclesial apparatchiks. He may also come a deep cropper at the hands of a group of politicians who have sensed than he is insufficiently alert not to offer himself as a pawn in their particular political purposes.
THE BISHOPS’ LETTER: RECONCILIATION AND POLITICAL PARTISANS.
The Diocesan Bishops themselves have backed their Archbishop but in a way that exposes the vacuity of their collective claims for reconciliation.
In their letter they express their concern about lies and misrepresentation. They then immediately embark upon a serial mis-presenting of the Brexiteer positions. They make the accusation that for some (guess who) the Irish border is merely a political totem to be ‘kicked around by the English.” This is an outrageous slur and misrepresentation and brings about reconciliation how exactly?
They make the accusation that for some people (who would they be exactly) the “sovereignty of Parliament is not just an empty term.”
The shallowness of their analysis combined with a scarcely concealed political partisanship drastically damages their claim to “continue to serve regardless of political persuasion.”
The primary author of the diatribe, too humble to need to be humble and insert his name in the alphabetical order imposed on the other sues signatories is + Nick Baines, who has the reputation for being one of the most intractable conservative and Brexit despising bishops on the bench.
This is the fuel and ideological integrity that represents Justin Welby and his “ministry of reconciliation” that he will bring to the ‘neutral and balanced’ citizens’ forum?
If the bishops want to put an end to the telling of lies and the engaging in misrepresentation, they can perhaps start with themselves and the presentation of highly politicised projects as neutral, when they are nothing of the kind.
Let’s give Augustine the last word;
“Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.”