Edward Carter: “Anglican Social Theology – Renewing the vision today” edited by Malcolm Brown

 

Anglican Social Theology – Renewing the vision today, published in 2014, consists of four heavy-weight essays, by Alan Suggate, John Hughes, Jonathan Chaplin and Anna Rowlands, each of which wrestles in a different way with the idea that there has been and remains such a thing as a distinctive ‘Anglican Social Theology’. These four contributions are sandwiched by a thoughtful and helpful introduction and conclusion from Malcolm Brown, the Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England.

Suggate and Hughes take the influential work of Archbishop William Temple in the years before and during the Second World War as a kind of sounding board, on which to explore the ways in which Anglicans have thought about social and political questions. Chaplin specifically considers the part that the evangelical tradition has played in this story, while Rowlands places Anglican Social Theology in dialogue with Catholic Social Teaching. The overall effect yields a book that combines a broad historical review with an instructive theological and philosophical treatment of Christian responses to the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment world.

As Brown states (page 188), the book aims to ‘…set out the claim that the continuities in the tradition of Anglican social theology are sufficiently robust to have a great deal to offer the Church in its relationship to society, culture and politics today.’ As such, all of the authors are essentially optimistic, even if some notes of caution are sounded.

There were a number of specific points of interest for me. I enjoyed Brown’s description of Archbishop Justin Welby’s intervention over Wonga (page 20), with his acknowledgement that this was a new and fresh way of the Church speaking into a real and pressing situation. I was persuaded by Suggate’s argument and evidence that William Temple was rather less of a patrician than I’d previously thought (see especially page 66). I nodded as I read Hughes’ description of how both the world and the church have changed in very different ways since Temple’s day. I found myself reassured if not surprised by Chaplin’s suggestion that one of the main gifts to Anglican social theology from evangelicalism has been and remains an ‘associationist’ model of social transformation, based on self-governing voluntary societies. I was struck by the parallels Rowlands drew between the 1930s and today, within her discussion of what a proper vision of a national community might look like, especially in the face of fascistic tendencies (page 147).

The above are mere snap-shots, to illustrate the richness and quality of the discussion throughout all the contributions. However, I was left with two main concerns as I finished the book. First, I remained unsure who would read it. On one level it feels as though its purpose is to defend the need for such a tradition within today’s Church of England, and even to defend the work of the Mission and Public Affairs Department. If so, it should be read by members of the House of Bishops and the General Synod of the Church of England. My feeling, however, is that this probably hasn’t been the case; it is more of a theologians’ book than that. Similarly, it would be somewhat too abstract and theologically dense to give to someone thinking about setting up a food bank, not withstanding Bishop John Packer’s words of praise for the book in this direction (page 190). Is it then a book for theologians? Perhaps, although many of the themes are set out in general terms and would be familiar to anyone working in this field. Might it be helpful for a certain kind of thinking politician to read it? Again, this would be a possibility, but my hunch is that the jargon and assumed knowledge is rather too strong. I was left not entirely sure who the audience is supposed to be, although I would certainly recommend it to anyone seriously studying political theology.

My second concern connects to the fact that this book is now four years old. It was written prior to the ‘Brexit’ event and debates, prior to the election of Trump in the USA, and prior to the rise of Corbyn as Labour leader in the UK, and the outcome of the 2017 UK general election. The genesis of the book as it stands has more to do with the financial crisis of 2008 rather than the political crises to do with national identity, refugees, and protectionism. A few hints are tucked away within the book, for example when Suggate flags up the identity question: ‘what it means to be an ‘I’…’ (page 37), and an oblique reference to space/place by Rowlands (page 145). My own reflection was that the optimistic conclusions about the state of Anglican social theology had been found somewhat wanting by the weak and cautious public voice of the Church of England in the face of the EU referendum, and the rather impoverished theological discussion about the nature of geographical places in a world where huge population movements are of growing concern. Brown, with admirable prescience, worries in his conclusion that the Church of England may be poorly placed: ‘…today’s culture demands much greater clarity about identity and boundaries…’ (page 185), but on balance he feels able, in 2014 anyway, to set these worries largely to one side.

As an Anglican myself, I am confident that the theological resources are there to be found, and in that sense this book is helpful, by way of an intelligent reminder that the Church of England should speak and act in the public square. It would be interesting to ponder how a 2019 version should be updated.

 

“Anglican Social Theology – Renewing the vision today” edited by Malcolm Brown was published in 2014 by Church House Publishing (ISBN-10 0715144403). 226pp.

 

 


Edward Carter has been a Canon Theolgian at Chelmsford Cathedral since 2012, having previously been a parish priest in Oxfordshire, a Minor Canon at St George’s Windsor and a curate in Norwich. Prior to ordination he worked for small companies and ran his own business.

Since 2010 he has been a Trustee of the Church of England’s CBF Funds, which has around £2bn of church capital under investment. He also serves on the Ethical Investment Advisory Group of the Church of England. His research interests include a theology of enterprise, and his hobbies include board-games, volleyball and film-making. He is married to Sarah and they have two adult sons.