The Advent election

... can ye not discern the signs of the times? Matthew 16:3.

The result of last week's General Election in the United Kingdom had been predicted by a Church of England bishop.  He had discerned the signs of the times.  In December 2016, Philip North - bishop of Burnley - wrote a Church Times article entitled 'Heeding the voices of the popular revolution'.  Quoting Blue Labour's Lord Glasman, North declared:

to understand the self-identity and concerns of most working people in this country, we need to focus on three things: family, place, and work.

And he goes on to give what could have been a description of how significant numbers of working class communities in the north of England responded to Labour in this election:

deep-seated frust­ra­tion at structures and institu­tions that have abandoned them, and at a middle-class culture that misun­derstands or misrepresents their heart­felt concerns.

Bishop North may have discerned the signs of the times.  Unfortunately there is little evidence that this is the case more widely in the Church of England.  An inability to discern the signs of the times has significant consequences for the Church's mission, rendering the Church clumsy and inarticulate in the public square - just as the culture is asking significant questions regarding the ordering of our common life.  Instead of a meaningful engagement with the culture, drawing the culture into a deeper understanding of the Christian vision of human flourishing (particularly as it is embodied in the rich tradition of Anglican social teaching), the Church ends up all too easily sounding like an echo of the very passing order which the culture is now questioning.

The irony is that the Church of England has for some decades been asking questions of that order.  From Faith in the City (1985), the assumptions of free market individualism - economic liberalism - have been subjected to sustained critique by the Church of England.  Thus, when Justin Welby addressed the Trades Union Congress in 2018, his critique of free market individualism was pronounced:

Today there are some who view that kind of oppression of the employed as a virtue. The gig economy, zero hours contracts, is nothing new, it is simply the reincarnation of an ancient evil. And God says, “let justice flow down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” ...

And let us not delude ourselves into thinking that the gig economy is the only reincarnation of oppression of the vulnerable in employment. 

Pensions are just one example of the profit motive leading to the weakest being given the most risk and the strongest the most protection. In these areas, and in employment rights, and in many others, we see that where inequality and profound injustice seem entrenched, insurmountable, it leads to instability in our society.

The order of economic individualism, however, is intrinsically related to a wider culture of individualism, of the undermining and overturning of the culture of solidarity.  As Phillip Blond emphasised in his Red Tory, the Right's economic individualism and the Left's cultural individualism have been in an unholy alliance, the Right giving economic expression to the Left's social libertarianism, the Left promoting "neo-liberal values" in its assault on the social practices and allegiances which give meaning to solidarity:

The effect in each instance is the same: the weakening and destruction of the social bonds that create the communities within which we can flourish and prosper.

In other words, any attempt to renew economic solidarity without a renewal of cultural and social solidarity is doomed to failure.  As long ago as 2004, David Goodhart had (now famously) identified this:

And therein lies one of the central dilemmas of political life in developed societies: sharing and solidarity can conflict with diversity. This is an especially acute dilemma for progressives who want plenty of both solidarity – high social cohesion and generous welfare paid out of a progressive tax system – and diversity – equal respect for a wide range of peoples, values and ways of life. The tension between the two values is a reminder that serious politics is about trade-offs. It also suggests that the left’s recent love affair with diversity may come at the expense of the values and even the people that it once championed.

Anglicans should instinctively recognise the significance of cultural and social solidarity.  We are a people of common prayer, of national churches, of place and parish.  A Church of Somewhere, not of Anywhere.  As John Milbank puts it, "sturdily incarnated in land, parish and work".  It is a profound rejection of the coherence of the Anglican experience when the Church sounds as it is echoing the values of Davos.  To return to North's 2018 article, on family, patriotism, and the dignity of labour:

The Established Church has historically had a great deal to say about these areas of life, but has now fallen strangely silent.

In this context, the result of the General Election is - to use words from the Epistle for Advent Sunday - a call to the Church of England "to awake out of sleep": to discern the signs of the times, to grasp the opportunity presented by the culture's deep and profound dissatisfaction with an economic and social order defined by the thin gruel of autonomy and individualism.

In its post-election statement, Blue Labour set out what was necessary for the renewal of the Labour Party:

Blue Labour believes that task can only be fulfilled if Labour shows itself to be a patriotic, communitarian, one-nation party rooted among working-class people and which understands the importance of work, family and place in their lives.

Blue Labour has discerned the signs of the times.  Similarly, Phillip Blond has said that the General Election result was a rejection "of rampant social, economic, and cultural insecurity" and a call for "common values and societal cohesion".  Crucially, he continues:

Those who voted Conservatism for the first time yesterday do not want and will rightly reject any supply-side Thatcherite nonsense. For they know that under those auspices they will be abandoned once more to insecurity and deprivation.

For those with ears to hear, the result of the Advent Election reveals a culture desirous of and open to a fuller vision of human flourishing than has been offered by economic and social individualism: open to, in other words, a communitarian embodiment of the good in the loves of family, place, and country, which has been at the heart of the Church's understanding of communal flourishing, not least in Anglican social teaching.  If, on the other hand, glum resentment about the outcome of the election is combined with a determination to continue to echo the assumptions of a spiritually and socially impoverished cultural order, the Church of England will fail in its mission to - in the words of the Archbishop-designate of York - "a nation ... hungry for meaning".


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