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