Bishop of Exeter responds to the Queen’s Speech on the importance of social cohesion

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bishop of exeter_500x375On the 9th May 2013 the Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Michael Langrish responded to the Queen’s Speech addressing his remarks to devolution, community cohesion, and the need to address the increasing London-centric bias of policy making. Bishop Michael used the Church of England as an example of a way to successfully balance competing interests to create a sense of cohesion and mutual belonging in our society.

The Lord Bishop of Exeter: My Lords, last night I had to return to my diocese for an event involving community leaders. Inevitably, the conversation turned to the Queen’s Speech and the implications for Devon. As I listened to what was being said, the issue was one not only of implication but of translation. Increasingly there is a sense of a loss of not only a common agenda across the country but also a common language.

In contrast with a decade ago, the nature of the issues which we as a nation are grappling with now are more disturbing and existential. At the turn of the millennium, a number of benign developments were working themselves through—the recent enactment of the Human Rights Act, devolution to Wales and Scotland and a political deal in Northern Ireland. The agenda now is of an altogether different character. Is Scotland to remain part of the UK? Is the UK to remain part of the EU? Is there to be a common understanding of marriage not just between church and state but across the different jurisdictions of this relatively small group of islands? These issues, in turn, raise deep questions about national identity, questions which have enormous consequences and ought not to be settled solely by reference to the moods and passions of the moment, nor especially the moods and passions of a metropolitical mindset that feels increasingly disconnected from the realities of life elsewhere, including the south-west.

In parenthesis, perhaps I might mention an interesting article by Neil O’Brien on the growing problem of “Londonitis”, in which he says:

“London has always been different from the rest of the country. But in recent decades the differences have widened to the point that, economically and socially, the capital now has little in common with the rest of Britain … The politicians, civil servants and journalists who make up Britain’s governing class have had their world view shaped by living in the capital and its wealthy satellites. They run one country, but effectively live in another … The priorities of the people they know are often different”.

In terms of the policies that we are at times offered and the rhetoric used to support them, many miles from London it often feels just like this.

In this context it is interesting to reflect on the book that the former US ambassador to the UK, Ray Seitz, produced in the 1990s. As the first professional diplomat to be US ambassador at the Court of St James, he contrasted the British and American approach to handling difference. He said that in his country when people disagreed, they tended to go their separate ways and do their own thing. The frontier spirit meant that there was always new territory where you could set up on your own. By contrast, the experience of living on a relatively small island had bred the habits of accommodation, compromise and trying to rub along together.

The Church of England could be seen, historically, as an embodiment of that approach, trying, so far as possible, to hold people in, working for the good of the whole community, not drawing tight lines around its membership. However, increasingly it is not something that the church finds as easy as it used to. Witness, for example, the temporary failure last November to reach a way forward on women bishops. But what we are experiencing in the church we see writ large in wider society. The holding together of diversity in unity, with a common language and shared frame of reference for public policy and community values, seems to be something that wider society is finding even more difficult. Various attempts to engage with this issue through the language of the big society or one nation—fill in the blank yourself—do not seem to have had much real effect. A growing tendency to grapple with the challenge through defining ever more issues in terms of enforceable, justiciable rights has not been entirely helpful because it has tended to foster the notion that solutions are best found through forensic arguments, when what is most often needed are negotiation, mediation, accommodation, and reasonable give and take.

I was not going to say anything about the so-called equal marriage Bill, but I have been moved by the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, to say that that is one of the things that I find so disturbing. The steamrollering through of a Bill that will fundamentally challenge long-standing and shared values—and, indeed, a fundamental building block of society—without ever being tested at the ballot box is troubling. Cohesion and community are built on consultation and consent. In short, I am suggesting that what is required in church and state is a fresh engagement with that tradition of Christian social teaching embodied in the concept of the common good.

Times of social hardship and economic stringency, such as those we are facing at present, can lead to the increasing fragmentation of society, the polarisation of communities and an increase in the pressures which can appear to be forcing us apart. Sometimes this is so quite literally, when legislation and public policy have the effect, intended or unintended, of forcing people from their home and disconnecting them from existing networks of support and care at precisely the point of vulnerability where there is the greatest need. This is because communities that care for the young and the old and that have sufficient energy to shape local public life, including public services, exist where people are able to settle in one place long enough to create trusting relationships. Relationships with neighbours, teachers, doctors, shopkeepers, those who deliver the post or see children safely across the road to school—they are the community. They enable us to invest in making the place we live in together better. This means, of course, that communities are also central to how we care for our environment. It is communities with an investment in place that will battle to get cars off their streets so that children can play safely, band together to clean up their local park and get to know, protect and love their local woodland and the wildlife it supports. This trinity of community, place and identity has a vital contribution to make to the common good, but it is easily undermined through carelessness in legislation and regulation as much as anything else.

I have referred to the economically stringent times in which we live. Pain may so easily be responded to with short-term populism but with long-term divisive effects. By contrast, history shows us that such times may frequently bring out the best in us, as we seek to ensure that the most vulnerable are not neglected and that an atomised society does not allow its members to disappear beyond the reach of loving relationships. The present period of austerity is no exception, and it is not difficult to think of examples of this being precisely the case with regard to the church. I cite the church’s response to the urban riots of 2011, with the remarkable ability to mobilise its members being a splendid example of spontaneous yet effective action for the good of the community.

Compared to the 1980s, the church’s response to such circumstances now seems to be less focused on structures and more on rapid responsiveness, quicker to learn from each other, less inclined to reinvent a wheel in every local setting and—fascinatingly, in terms of my earlier comments about signs of a loss of generous cohesion—taken up across the spectrum of different strands that make up the complexity of the church. The fruits of such responses I see right across my diocese in, for example, the work of street pastors, the growing number of food banks and initiatives such as the Seaton FREEdom Café, which provides free food and free friendship for all. Each is an example of community supported by churches serving community. There are perhaps lessons here for our wider society and for the Government as they seek to implement some of the aspirations laid out in the Queen’s Speech.

In drawing attention to the church in this way, I am merely drawing on that element of the nation’s life which is my prime focus. Others could speak similarly of the responsiveness and contribution of other faith communities and of a whole range of organisations and movements within the voluntary sector.

However, with the mention of these, I want to offer a warning. All the various components of civil society undoubtedly have a contribution to make to the fostering of the common good. Nevertheless, none should be expected to bear, or be asked to accept, a weight for which it is not equipped. Part of the problem that we face in trying to achieve a sense of cohesion and mutual belonging in our society today is that the strong, informal, local community and voluntary structures that existed even in past decades have become more and more attenuated so that the balance between local neighbourliness and state provision has been skewed unsustainably. Her Majesty’s Government are right to recognise that this balance has to be redressed, but the churches and the voluntary sector are not in the business of replacing comprehensive provision with patchy charity. What is necessary is that they are fully engaged in shaping a language and a policy framework that respects and balances solidarity and subsidiarity in the interests of the whole of the United Kingdom’s common good.

(Via Parliament.UK)