What can be done to heal our fragmented society? How should people across the churches respond? Will we give up our own tribalism to build the Common Good?
Healing the nation may sound like a grand ambition, but churches are already exploring what they can do to help bridge the gulf in British society that some anticipate may descend into an American-style culture war. How should the churches approach this scenario?
Philip North, Bishop of Burnley, Debra Green, Executive Director of Redeeming our Communities, and Jenny Sinclair, founding Director of Together for the Common Good, came together for a 30 minute podcast for TWR-UK, which you can listen to here.
Division and political discord is not a problem faced by Westminster politicians alone. Indeed Bishop Philip expresses concern at the rise of populism and increasing division within specific communities, and points to the important role of churches locally, emphasising that “empowering local communities is probably the most important thing we can do." Debra Green advocates cooperation between churches, community groups and local agencies. She notes that churches are welcomed into such local partnerships as it visibly strengthens communities and can bring people together from different walks of life. At a time when funding pressures on policing and youth services are most acute in already disadvantaged areas, grassroots collaboration and action is vital.
Jenny Sinclair argues that first, people across the churches should try to resist their own natural tendencies to be tribal. The greatest gift they can bring is to build relationships across different viewpoints and backgrounds. T4CG’s new Common Good training workshops, she adds, are designed to build capacity for working together across differences as well as to refresh the churches' sense of mission. Building and appreciating the unique place that churches can hold within communities, and their special responsibility to build relationships in a divided society, is the first step towards meaningful change and engagement within and across communities.
In 2017 Sinclair argued in her article ‘Rebuilding the Broken Body’ that “the Church, with its social teachings, could be a blessing to our national community: the Common Good correctly understood is never partisan or sectarian. But if it cannot reform its relationship with the poor, the Church risks a sterile internal conversation, sidelining the very person of Jesus.”
Around the same time, David Goodhart published The Road to Somewhere, which has since become an acclaimed analysis of the fault lines underlying the divisions manifested in the Brexit vote. He was recently interviewed for the Sacred podcast discussing what could be done to heal the fault lines his book identifies.
Goodhart’s book explores the idea that the key social divide today is between the ‘Anywheres’, forming about 25% of the population and the ‘Somewheres’, just over 50% of the population. Anywheres can be grouped as “the highly educated mobile people, usually graduates, who have the general worldview in favour of openness, autonomy and self realisation”, whilst Somewheres are seen as “the more ‘small c’ conservative, settled people whose worldview places more stress on security and familiarity, tends to draw value from group attachments and is more patriotic than the educated mobile groups.” The gulf in world views and cultural perspectives between these groups is stark and has begun shaping the political landscape in recent years. The vote to leave the EU split the nation along new lines, breaking the traditional economic and political environment. As a result, public discourse has become more polarised and sharpened with a cultural angle in recent years, as the new fault lines in values and outlook cut across established positions of left and right.
Asked about how churches should respond to heal these divisions, Goodhart commented that “the Church ought to be in a stronger position than it is today, it ought to be in the right position to act as a bridge between these new divisions that have emerged. It is the task of anyone who’s involved in society to think of ways of how one overcomes divisions, to find common ground between conflicting interest groups.”
As Revd Al Barrett, pictured, said in our earlier blog about his work on the Hodge Hill Estate in the West Midlands: 'How richly blessed would we find ourselves to be, when we began to receive the gifts of our neighbours (and often from those neighbours who, seen through a financial lens, have little that can be counted)?"'
But Goodhart identifies a problem, at least with the Anglican Church, that shows how it is failing to achieve this. “The Church has not been there, really. Whenever I hear a bishop or even an archbishop I think they are speaking to such a narrow group of people – I don’t even mean believers – I mean just in their worldview; and they are such a long way from their own believing group too.”
“A switch has happened in the Anglican Church - from being the Conservative party at prayer it is now the ultra Liberal party at prayer – arguably this has not been to the their long term benefit. I’m not saying it should go back to what it was, but of the 120 senior Anglican bishops only one voted for Brexit”. The Anglican Church is now unfortunately perceived as being not only partisan, but politically aligned with “liberal currents” and the “mobile, educated groups”.
If senior church leaders publicly take a partisan position, genuine efforts to promote reconciliation will sound fake and will be fraught with risk – the danger of being perceived as patronising is obvious. Whole communities that do not fit the modern, liberal sound of the Anglican Church can easily feel disenfranchised by a Church that doesn’t look or sound or speak like them, in the same way as distant political and economic elites. This is a significant barrier to the Common Good and applies not only to the Anglicans – it is an issue across the churches.
Indeed, a response from a parishioner to her local church initiative serves as a warning to others: “I stopped singing in my church choir as they were holding "peace and reconciliation" services... while continuing to try and undermine democracy!” Well-meaning ventures will backfire if the church or a church leader is perceived to be partisan on Brexit; they will be perceived as nothing more than a trojan horse, however well-disguised.
There are more productive ways to build the peace.
Goodhart sees this as “a moment where the Church could yet still play a role as a kind of national therapist”, but it needs to make some serious adjustments. “Although it often uses the rhetoric - almost too excessively - about ‘bringing groups together,’ this just sounds pious. You’ve got to acknowledge differences and conflicts - genuine conflicts - and you’ve got to be ready to speak up for your own side – there is a lot that is really rather good in the Christian faith.”
Humility is a prerequisite. There may well be divisions even within a single congregation and this must be acknowledged and respected - courage to recognise conflict and foster debate will build strength. Contempt, or even pity, for those who take a different view, is profoundly unhelpful, as well as dangerous, as it leads to self censorship and limits freedom of speech. Rather, there needs to be a mature acknowledgement of difference - alongside a commitment to value what is held in common.
The unfortunate term 'safe space' has led many to believe that an echo chamber in which people are 'safe' from opposing views is a good thing. But in this context it is a falsehood and will weaken those involved as well as deepen trench warfare with those it excludes.
Churches must never become silos of anyone's ambition. The Church must honour people, no matter their different conclusions.
As John Henry Newman says: "The energy of the human intellect does from opposition grow."
Churches need to be above the Brexit divide and focus on the needs of all communities, rather than becoming just another angry voice in a debate that fosters division and sows the seeds of social disharmony.
In how the church lost its flock over Brexit, Giles Fraser quotes Goodhart, who expressed some frustration with church leaders after a recent meeting: “The trouble with this bit of the Church is that they have turned themselves into a subaltern ideological sub-set of the Anywhere liberal class – the educated, mobile, secular, cognitive class, with its bias toward the rational, the open, the autonomous, the individual – a quick witted, goal oriented, solution focused worldview.”
Fraser believes that this strain within the church has succumbed unwittingly to the international business narrative of 'openness' and globalism. He continues: "The socialist in me believes that large international banks such as HSBC deploy the soft and apparently inclusive language of globalisation as PR for the triumph of international capitalism.”
In taking this position, the national and local role of the church has been eclipsed: "...The whole point of a family, a church and a nation is that they accept people uncritically – and not on the basis of how clever they are, how mobile, how rich or how solution focused. This is indeed the love that asks no question. You belong and are valued by it simply because you are a member of it.”
Fraser affirms where this works well, that the church "at its best, and when not trying to be bit-players in policy debates, does do this... the parish system roots the Church in the specifics of time and space. It refuses the abstract political and concentrates on real lives lived by real people.”
We may never agree on Brexit, but churches ought to be places where people feel free to speak, to engage with each other, and learn from one another.
What people want from the Church is meaning and belonging.