Book review: Reimagining Britain (Justin Welby)
Review of Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope, byJustin Welby (Bloomsbury, 2018).
Hardback RRP: £16.99, ISBN 978-1-4729-4607-2
Books with the word ‘reimagining’ in the title make me nervous. ‘Reimagining’ suggests a continuity with, and gains a certain authority from, that which has gone before. Often authors seeking to ‘reimagine’ a subject, quickly pass over the task of deep critical wrestling with inherited notions and rapidly move on to suggest ways their readers might change their thinking and practise in whatever area the author wishes to ‘reimagine’.
Archbishop Justin Welby’s Reimagining Britain doesn’t commit this sleight of hand. Firstly, his work is firmly grounded in tradition. He notes that change works ‘when it retains a recognisable sense of where it has come from. Tradition that is static dies. Tradition that abandons the past in a paradigm shift loses stability’ (p. 80). We’ve known since the earliest days of philosophy that you can’t step into the same river twice. Even just to stay the same is to change. In fact, to stay the same you have to change. Ecclesia semper reformanda - the Church is always reforming. As Cardinal Newman famously noted, ‘to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often’. Archbishop Justin’s appeal to tradition supplies the grounding for any change he suggests within society rooted in that tradition.
Secondly, the whole argument of the book is better summarised as: ‘rediscovering Britain’. He concludes: ‘the UK grew from Christian roots: my hope is that in the future it rediscovers the power of the narrative that has shaped it for so long and set its values so deeply’ (p.283). Throughout, Archbishop Justin suggests that solutions to current problems which beset British society should be grounded in shared reflection on where we have come from in order to better ascertain where we wish to get, and how we might get there together as a unified society changed for the better.
Any argument to revisit the values which inspired our society’s behaviour in the past risks overlooking some of the failures of past generations, not least of Christians, of which we are all too aware. Archbishop Justin doesn’t ignore these failings, but when suggesting that a future grounded in this past has promise, he is rightly selective in which Christian attitudes should form the basis of a renewed vision for Britain. He groups them into values around community, courage, and stability (p. 59).
A central plank in the theoretical support for the book which Archbishop Justin finds connects all three is Catholic Social Teaching. He defines this as ‘the applied outworking of the good news of Jesus Christ in terms of social structures and social justice’ (p.35). This is the body of social thought stemming from the Roman Catholic Church as it navigated the new challenges brought about by industrialisation and globalisation. A reasonably long excursus unpacks for a fresh audience this body of thought.
Archbishop Justin is slightly optimistic in evaluating the contribution of Catholic Social Teaching to society, claiming that ‘the values of Catholic Social Teaching have become implicit in our culture when at its best’. He is right to point out that where our society flourishes, the principles of Catholic Social Teaching are lived out - but this may be as much correlation as causation. Catholic Social Teaching has often sought to mediate between internal and external forces demanding change to discern what change the catholic vision of justice should embrace in ever-changing political contexts. Nonetheless as catholic Christians, this grounding means that any self-defining catholic Christian ought to take the argument and vision of society expressed in Reimagining Britain seriously.
The scope of the book is wide-ranging. It deals with many difficult and contentious subjects, both politically and within the Church: family, education, health, housing, finance, immigration, and more besides. As might be expected from an Archbishop, his suggestions are limited as to actual concrete policy proposals. He prefers instead to describe the contours of what would be needed from any action in the area under scrutiny, and, importantly, how such action can be unifying.
We can see this method in his discussion of housing (chapter 5), which in the current political climate, is one of the most radical: ‘To reimagine Britain we must thus reimagine housing’. As catholics, we know the value and importance of a home as the foundation of the Christian life. One of the shrines which occupies an important focus in our Christian witness, the shrine of our Lady at Walsingham, has at its centre the home in which our Lord was raised.
Archbishop Justin proposes a fundamental redefinition of housing as a means of ‘creating communities and not merely building houses… The revolution would be more profound if the incentive for housing was to have good and safe shelter in a safe and convenient location, not principally an investment (or two)’ (p. 129). In short, houses should be homes, not assets. This has long been the argument of those Christian groups involved in the setting up of Community Land Trusts, such as London’s first in Mile End (http://www.londonclt.org). Residents buy a home, not an asset - and sell on at a rate linked to local earnings, not for profit.
Archbishop Justin does make some concrete proposals in this area, for example, the creation of Community Transformation Boards within local authorities in order to oversee the contribution to social value of different projects (p. 135). However, generally, he prefers to describe what a policy should contain, rather than what such a policy might look like. Whilst it can’t be said that the Archbishop shies away from any difficult areas of discussion in this volume - the book is extremely bold in some areas - there is space for more political courage in articulating a concrete vision for Britain today.
In a very different context, William Temple famously set out the contours of what would become the welfare state in Christianity and Social Order (1942). Most of that volume exhibits the same archepiscopal reservation in matters touching on the political. In an appendix, however, Temple sets out a ‘suggested programme’ which offered concrete political proposals:
‘It seems right to indicate how I personally think we should do well to begin. Very likely better ways than these can be found… very likely one or other of my proposals is definitely ill-founded and would, if fact, frustrate its own object. I offer them as suggestions for criticism rather than adoption, and beg that readers will consider them in that spirit’.
Such an appendix to Archbishop Justin’s work would have both benefitted the reader, and be a fruitful means of beginning to check and enact future political developments in line with the Christian vision articulated in this work.
Ultimately, this book is about ‘values’: ’the issue is one of values’ (p. 68). The central refrain of the work is one of values, discerning the values we should act on and implementing them. There is little critique or discussion of the notion of values on which so much of the book rests.
We can see this in practice within education too (Chapter 3). The Church of England educates thousands of children in primary and secondary education. As part of this, Christian Values for Schools have developed which seek to distil Christian values which are accessible to those from any or no faith commitment.
Values are abstractions. The rise over the last century in the use of the value as a count noun (to name discrete values) as opposed to mass noun (to talk of value) is significant. The rise in values over value, echoes a society which is increasingly divided as to what should be valued. The language of discrete values has become a means by which diverse groups of people can come together around sets of practices and behaviours, with no shared underlying commitment to, or recognition of, an authority which underwrites that value.
What is missing from this account is a critique of the value of values, and an exploration of the extent to which abstract goods can be drawn out of a particular tradition without demanding a more thoroughgoing participation in, or acceptance of, that tradition as a whole. What happens when two different sets of values come into conflict - what is it that makes the Christian values of our past superior to the neo-liberal values of the present?
This is to split hairs. It’s always easier to critique a book for what it isn’t than to engage rigorously with the claims it forces us to consider. There is much to value in Archbishop Justin’s text. The section on reconciliation is a powerful reflection of an area in which Archbishop Justin is an expert. His praise to intermediary institutions an important counter-balance to our ever-atomised social landscape. This book forces us to ask questions about the ordering and direction of society. It takes on the struggle to find the ground for a vision of society which might be shared across ever-increasing divides. It grounds all of this in a vision of our shared past which has much to offer our future, if only we would work together across our institutions to bring that future into being.
This is, of course, a book about British (and in particularly English) society, as is proper coming from the most senior Bishop in the Church of England. However, none of the challenges which Archbishop Justin seeks to address are unique to England, and are in a great deal worse state in many other so-called developed and increasingly divided nations across the world.
The Archbishop’s book raises many difficult and important questions for Christians in every country as they too seek to reimagine their present, grounded in a hopeful past, work together toward that future to which God is calling his Church and all society.