My copy of On Rock or Sand?, Archbishop Sentamu’s intellectual stab at applying Christianity to the cost of living crisis, landed on my mat yesterday – after all the brouhaha about it in the papers had subsided.
So before I opened it I was well aware that the Church’s two most senior figures, the Archbishops of York and Canterbury, had come under fire for what was widely received as a highly political intervention given a general election in the offing.
At worst Marxist and at best out of touch had summed up the Conservative’s response. Lord Tebbit’s contribution was along the lines of how about dealing with the beam in your own eye.
So too was Damien Thompson’s comment piece in the Mail on Sunday. How about filling your pews first was his quite reasonable riposte. He went further and castigated them for their sheer irresponsibility. Did they want to derail our all too fragile economic recovery? Other commenators went for their dishonesty in painting Britain as in crisis (we are not Greece) as well as for Sentamu’s unreconstructed old leftyism.
None mentioned what these prelates thought was the cause of contemporary (relative) poverty or, apart from sharing and caring, what the politicians’ solution to it might be. So I was intrigued read it for myself.
What struck me was the startling absence of any reference to family in this selection of symposia essays from the great and the good.
After the book’s initial dedication to “hard-pressed families on poverty wages”, the word ‘family’ reappears just twice – in passing – in the chapters written by Sentamu and Welby.
Talk about a gaping hole given that the good bishops are discussing – or meant to be – the foundations of our society
Sentamu’s references to the post-war period, to the five giant evils of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness, might have led him to address their present manifestations.
But nowhere in this tome features the rise and rise of single parenthood, cohabitation, multi-fathered or fatherless families. Nor does the rise of mental ill health, addiction and depression that has gone hand in hand with family breakdown.
Modern poverty has, it seems, got nothing to do with fractured families, or the decline of marriage, now the prerogative of the wealthy thanks to successive governments’ tax and benefits policies.
Where is Sentamu’s tub-thumping about that. Nowhere.
Even if he and Welby have not quite grasped the negative economic implications of many of today’s modern unmarried families, you might have thought they would be concerned about the moral or spiritual aspects.
They might worry about the implications of relational breakdown and insecurity for adults and children. In a word, they might castigate government for failing to defend marriage – that moral, spiritual, social and economic good.
But no. The problem of poverty in the archbishops’ world view seems solely be a consequence of the ugly face of capitalism and a breakdown of communal solidarity – a failure of social action, of the vision of mutuality that Sentamu says is at “the centre of Jesus’s own ethical reflection”
Well I am sure it is. But Jesus did not have family breakdown to cope with and put right in the Judea he grew up in. Neither did Beveridge for that matter after the war.
I have no gripe with bishops preaching moral revival, nor indeed of telling politicians what they think of them and their policies. That is absolutely their prerogative. The archbishop does not need to spend several pages justifying this Christian duty. I do not even have a gripe with Sentamu’s socialist predeliction per se.
What I do have a gripe with is his ignorance. This becomes a double sin, when he, a churchman, ignores what the Church should be most concerned with – the plight of family. You cannot humanise socialism, as Orwell adjured we should in The Road to Wigan Pier, unless you respect that most basic of social arrangements, which is the family.
Marriage is, as CARE, the Christian campaigning charity, would tell the bishops, both a moral and a social justice issue.
I also have a gripe about the bishops lacking the courage to preach the virtues of and the need for marriage. Or perhaps they don’t believe in it anymore. In which case they should cast off their cassocks.
Does Sentamu really think that his favourite war time bishop, William Temple, would have turned a blind eye to the number of children growing up without fathers, as he and the Archbishop of Canterbury appear to do?
Does he think the great architect of the welfare state, Sir William Beveridge himself, would have have thought his creation could have been possible without the family?
My question to the archbishops, on reading their morally, socially and economically flimsy treatise, is just this. Or doesn’t marriage and the family matter to them any more?