Sunday 17 April 2022

Class Conscience and the Church of England

The Church of England, it used to be said, was the Tory party at prayer. Inbetween the pews and the pulpit, this was the place tens of thousands of Tory members and supporters found one another in the early to mid parts of the 20th century and knitted the organisation together. Particularly in the expanding suburbs from the 1930s to the 1960s, and for scattered but big C Conservative congregations in rural areas the local church was a community focus. It's no accident that there is a relationship between falling church attendance and declining Tory membership from the 1950s on. Indeed, what was once an intimate relationship is now something of an estrangement. Rather than recalling maids cycling through the mist, contemporary Tories are more likely to curl their lips when the CofE gets a mention. And this is because the Tory imaginary sees the Church as an opponent. Like schools and universities, the Church of England is a peddler of the woke ideology.

The furore around Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby's Easter sermon is a case in point. Pulling no punches, the Tories' Rwanda asylum plan is unChristian. He said the "sub-contracting out our responsibilities ... is the opposite of the nature of God." He added that it's
... so depressing and distressing this week to find that asylum seekers fleeing war, famine and oppression from deeply, deeply troubled parts of the world will not be treated with the dignity and compassion that is the right of every human being, and instead of being dealt with quickly and efficiently here on our soil will be shipped to Rwanda.
Not helpful to the Tory project.

An intervention like this is nothing new. In 2020 and from his kitchen, Welby's Easter sermon concentrated on Covid and warned against post-pandemic public spending cuts. In 2018 he criticised Brexit divisions and how Tory austerity was "crushing the weak". And after a year in the job, in 2014 he called on the government to fund food banks after the Tories turned down EU money for them. His predecessor, Rowan Williams, took up similar concerns during the Blair/Brown years - particularly with regard to Iraq. And in the Thatcher years, Robert Runcie's criticisms of inner city poverty so irked the Tories that Norman Tebbit floated the idea of disestablishing the Church. The next world and this don't mix, apparently.

The idea the Church is some liberal bastion really dates from George Carey's spell at the helm. In the 1990s there were key debates around the ordination of women and the Christian attitude to homosexuality. The tabloids had turned against the Tories at this point, but they enthusiastically piled in against the Church's perceived liberal agenda. When sex offenders among the clergy were uncovered, they reported it with alacrity. Typical of this was the feeding frenzy over the Nine O'Clock Service. Attracting adverse coverage for marrying rave to Christian worship throughout the early 90s, the press went into overdrive when allegations of abuse and improper conduct came to light. Any old rope would do as the moral guardians of Fleet Street took on the hypocrisies of state-sponsored religion. But ultimately, prurient copy on clerical sex crimes was concerned with more than satisfying an appetite for scandal, it was about discrediting an institution whose values put it at odds with the authoritarian and atomising project the Tory press were committed to. Are still committed to.

The funny thing is the Church of England wasn't and doesn't raise concerns because of "liberalism" or "wokeism", even if its Archbishops are drawn almost entirely from liberal backgrounds (Rowan Williams once described himself as a "bearded leftie"). The CofE is merely reflecting its constitutional role as part of the state. Marx and Engels talked about the state being the general committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. In Britain it's best to think of the state as a system, a constellation of semi-autonomous and relatively autonomous institutions subject to the authority of the executive - the government - and whose affects are the reproduction of the class relations that underpin the show. The CofE's role has been to confer the constitutional set up and, ultimately, class rule with heavenly blessings. An ideological state apparatus in the most literal sense. The Monarch, as head of state and head of the church unites God's will and the popular will in one office, ensuring harmony between the secular and the spiritual. But the Church has always been more than a constitutional prop for legitimation purposes. It is a class conscience too.

The divergence between the Church and the Tory party preceded Thatcher by around two decades. Michael Ramsey, who was Archbishop between 1961 and 1974 and his successor Donald Coggan, who held the office until 1980, were known for also having relatively relaxed attitudes toward the ordination of women and homosexuality, and both publicly opposed racism when this was not de jure in establishment circles. Ramsey, for example, suggested the armed overthrow of Ian Smith in white supremacist Rhodesia was justifiable on Christian grounds - cue right wing hysterics. But also both were concerned with the consequences of mass consumption and the privatisation of life. And they were right to be. It didn't lead to a crueller society, but certainly meant there were fewer bums on seats for Sunday service. What concerned them was how this process, which contributed to what came later, might be loosening the grip of religion on the public imaginary. This spiritual weakening would have knock on effects where it came to families, crime, sexual morality, and communitarian values. Indeed, if anything this was the spur for the conservative Festival of Light and the resurgence of evangelical Christianity in the 1970s and 80s. But the CofE were concerned not just because it meant its institutional power was waning, but also that integration into (bourgeois) norms and values might become jeopardised. It had no choice but to raise the alarm, regardless of what the government of the day was thinking or doing, because it foresaw a potential danger that more radical forces might fill.

The same is true of Welby's pronouncements this last decade. Undoubtedly, as a Christian he feels personally obligated for speaking on behalf of those not afforded mainstream platforms and write ups in the papers. His patricianism and attempts to shame the Tories into doing the right thing is, again, a warning. Don't create hated out groups and clearly defined minorities, because that logic could rebound on the party of the one per cent. Don't hammer poor people lest they become the ones who do the hammering. At each stage, the public display of Christian conscience has a class content - a content that criticises the government not because the CofE want to build a woke utopia by smashing capitalism, but precisely because its messianic mission is to save it. Unfortunately for Welby and the Church, the Tories aren't interested. They're annoyed by suggestions there are great gaping chasms between what they do and what Jesus said in the Bible, but appeals to the divine won't get Boris Johnson and cronies to change course. If the Archbishop, in the final analysis, attends to the common outlook of the bourgeois, by their actions the Tories are chiefly interested in the sectional interests of the City, of commercial capital, and of property wealth - big and small. They've got the authoritarian politics and the big stick if the state is challenged. As far as they're concerned, Welby is just another wet wipe. A minor distraction from their missionary zeal for their one true God: perpetual political office.

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Anonymous said...

The CoE is the Guardian to the government Telegraph - it is the bourgeois (self) interested conscience.

Which isn't to say it is wrong.

Actually, the real reason so many people seek to illegally emigrate to the UK, apart from its wealth, is its lack of identity cards - as long as they keep their noses clean, people can literally disappear into UK society in a way that would be unthinkable elsewhere in Europe.

When Patel says 'well wots yor solution?' the answer is actually quite simple.

Does JRM think he is above the AoC? Of course he does! He is a Catholic - for him everyone else is a heretic. Catholicism is the perfect religion for the filthy rich - everything is forgiven in this world, so everything is permitted.

JN said...

For many wealthy and reactionary people their piety (along with their patriotism) is utterly self-serving, and as a result paper-thin. They care what the church says as long as the church says exactly what they want it to say. But when, say, an archbishop says things that are a bit inconvenient for wealthy reactionaries, the cry goes out: "Who will rid us of this turbulent priest?"

JN said...

"Catholicism is the perfect religion for the filthy rich"

Coming from a Catholic background, that's very much a matter of interpretation. I do wonder if when Tony Blair was converting to Roman Catholicism anyone explained to him the concept of purgatory (less "waiting room" and more "cleansing fire").