The most depressing thing about Michael Sandel’s book, What money can’t Buy is that the list is so short. You name it, there’s a market for it. What’s even more depressing – there are respectable and authoritative figures ready to argue that the market is the right and proper place for discerning the value of unborn children, or for trading on the probability of a terrorist attack.
The connection that Sandel made for me, more clearly than I’d seen it before, is the one between the economically orthodox view of human beings, and the ethical degradation it drags in its wake. Through many examples, he shows how a view of human beings as ‘rational actors always looking to maximise their utility’ (sorry, I didn’t come up with the definition) carries with is an unacknowledged ethic of individualist satisfaction at the expense of any public good or commonly held ethical standards.
I heard about this book through the Archbishop of Canterbury’s article about it in Prospect: he sums up the ethical problem thus:
A world in which every object is instantly capable of being rendered in terms of what it can be exchanged for is one in which there is nothing worth looking at for itself, a world systematically ‘de-realised’.
How do we make the world real again: how to extract the market from those parts of our society into which it has wormed its way? Maybe the other book the Archbishop was reviewing will help with some answers. But I am also reminded of a meeting a few days ago in my area, at which we were discussing educational achievement for excluded young people. When we began to discuss the importance of a wider and deeper sense of purpose in life, as a crucial factor in young people’s lives, there was no dissent – I’m sure a few years ago it would have been written off. Maybe a tide is turning? In which case, will the churches be brave enough to articulate what Christian faith has to offer, not as a private lifestyle option but as a gift to the whole of society?
Paul wrote (I’m quite a traditionalist on the authorship of Colossians):
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
Which is his way of saying some of the things that the Archbishop of Canterbury said in commending the Anglican Covenant. Mutual accountability, and therefore a structure for conversing with each other about new or difficult questions in the church, are surely part of what it means to love one another in the body of Christ.
I doubt if any of those voting against the Covenant in the dioceses of the Church of England were voting against those principles. But as a church, we have now voted against that means of making them concrete – enough among us felt that the Covenant would not in fact deliver the dialogic co-operation that the Archbishop was talking about, but instead be a battleground for groups trying to seize power over others.
So what now? I wonder if we’ve been doing this on to grand a scale – it’s difficult to translate the words of Paul to the Colossians into a document which tries to encompass all the Provinces of the Anglican Communion. At the same time, new triangular relationships have been growing between dioceses of different Provinces, bringing together bishops, clergy and lay people in personal encounter and shared worship. I haven’t (yet) been part of one, but it seems that there the seeds of covenant are growing in a mutual accountability which comes from an understanding of difference along with a common sense of sharing in the same gospel.
It’s not something that can be dictated – but maybe it can be sown. If we can learn to love each other across unresolved differences, then we’re really doing the church’s work.
PS If you’re wondering how I voted: the issue was voted on in Southwark while I was still in London, and in London after I’d moved to Southwark.
Tomorrow is my last day as Rector of St Mary Stoke Newington; on Wednesday I am consecrated as Bishop of Croydon. But my little ending and new beginning is somewhat overshadowed by yesterday’s news of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s impending resignation. Maybe my own transition has set me up a bit to think about how we could approach this time of change with hope and purpose, rather than colluding with the media expectation that it will just be a bear pit of fruitless competition between our competing factions.
So let’s start by ignoring the bookmakers – make a resolution not to note how the odds are changing. Follow that up by paying no attention to anyone, inside the Church or out, who claims to know who the new Archbishop will or won’t be. Why? Not just because they’re probably wrong, but because doing either of those things is a way of trying to escape from the uncertainty which is a real part of the situation – and which is where God’s gift to us lies right now.
Plenty of people are predicting the end of the Church over this or that issue. They always have been. If the Church were a purely human institution (and it’s always in danger of becoming one) it would surely die. If it takes the risk of faith, then it lives. So every time you feel tempted to check the betting, pray. I will if you will.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has written to the Primates of the Anglican Communion (we’ll have to find another name for it, soon, I fear). It is the mark of someone who truly has their vision on the things that matter, that their judgement still proves true when the situation changes. In the light of the disaster in Japan yesterday, it is a sign of the Archbishop’s vision that his letter focuses in part on the crucial importance of the Church’s response to natural disaster. He of course did not know that the earthquake was about to strike. That’s exactly the point; he was able to mention the first news of it in the context of the direction he was already offering to the churches.
Anglican Churches around the world are suffering significant persecution; they are living out – some of the very same churches – the gospel call to be ‘an effective, compassionate presence for the healing of a devastated community’. That is Christianity.
If the Primates of the Communion are to lead us into being that sort of church, the last thing we need to be doing is consuming ourselves in struggles about who is orthodox enough to be included. It is equally an outbreak of Christianity to hear the Archbishop say that ‘The unanimous judgement of those who were present was tha the Meeting should not see itself as a ‘supreme court’, with canonical powers, but that it should nevertheless be profoundly and regularly concerned with looking for ways of securing unity and building relationships of trust’. That is precisely how trust develops – by people meeting together and listening to one another at depth (as we have seen in the report of the continuing indaba of bishops from across the Communion).
It would be a fruitful Lenten discipline – if there is to be a thing called the Anglican Communion with any honesty in the future – for us all to take up the cross of praying for and supporting in their faith those who believe it very differently from ourselves.
I’ve just finished this fascinating collection of essays – particularly fascinating for me because they bring together contributors from different parts of the political spectrum, but with a common concern that economic life needs to (?re)discover an ethical base which goes beyond mere economics. The book has been well reviewed by John Gray in The Guardian. Gray points out that the various articles add up to a compelling judgment that we can’t go on the way we are – and an equally difficult conundrum as to how we start operating differently.
One very practical essay by Andrew Whittaker (General Counsel to the board at the Financial Services Authority) suggests ways in which cultures can be changed within institutions, but other writers point out that what we need is cultural change on the scale of our whole culture. You can change one part of a culture, particularly if its views are out of alignment with everyone else’s – and I think most people agree that the values of the investment banking sector need changing. But what if they only represent a particularly successful version of a common cultural change? Do the rest of us feel real moral indignation at their actions, or resentment that we’re paying for their mistakes? There’s a significant difference.
The Archbishop and several of the other writers suggest that we need a common ethical base, and in particular they propose a new form of virtue ethics. But as Gray says, ‘Is this imaginable at a time when globalisation has created a market that includes not only countries shaped by monotheism but also those moulded by Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions?’ – and I would add, the secular religions which posit equally various and conflicting basic principles of life.
For me, the Archbishop’s essay points towards a starting point with which all might not agree, but which nevertheless are so basic to my own understanding of human life that I would argue that they should provide a basis for social life. Archbishop Rowan argues that from a Biblical perspective ‘ the model of human existence that is taken for granted is one in which each person is both needy and needed, both dependent on others and endowed with gifts for others’ (p25). In which case, ‘a global economic ethic in which the indefinitely continuing poverty or disadvantage of some is taken fro granted has to be decisively left behind’ (p26). Economic systems cannot be exempt from ethics: we have to reject the arguments which try to describe them as objective fact; human choice is still at work, and to pretend otherwise is nothing but moral cowardice.
Archbishop Rowan talks about one of my favourite recent books, Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, as a pointer towards a different way of thinking about our relationship with work, one which gets beyond the scary idea of the ‘work/life balance’ (I thought it was ‘death’ that was the natural other term to ‘life’?). The sceptical side of me remembers William Morris’ News from Nowhere, a vision of a socialist heaven of craft and free exchange – and wonders if we are becoming entirely utopian. But maybe that’s exactly what we need – a vision that is clearly not attainable in the sense of being reducible to an economic programme, and which is not derived solely from one religious or philosophical framework, but which can help us to tell a new story about the sort of world we want to live in – economic life included.