Foundations for Hope
Thirty-three years ago this autumn the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, oversaw the publication of the report Faith in the City. Commissioned by him in response to the then changes in Britain’s economy and society. He said:
"For me there was a government that was successful in strengthening the economy and dealing with the unions and yet at the same time I could look out of the window at Lambeth Palace and see the fires of Brixton burning. I wasn't wholly convinced she [Lady Thatcher] was wrong but I was convinced something had to be done about the effects of her policies that turned me into a wet, someone who was wobbly."
The challenge Runcie set to those he tasked with producing the report was:
‘To examine the strengths, insights, problems and needs of the Church's life and mission in Urban Priority Areas and, as a result, to reflect on the challenge which God may be making to Church and Nation: and to make recommendations to appropriate bodies.’
The result was 61 recommendations, 38 to the Church of England and 23 to the government, and a blistering attack by senior members of the Conservative Government on the Church and Runcie personally. It was a substantial piece of work, with long term effects, which the government took seriously enough to bother to attack it – a mark of the seriousness with which they took the Church and the Archbishop. It was the last occasion the government, any government, bothered to take an Archbishop seriously enough to bother to attack him.
Runcie’s successors, George Carey and Rowan Williams, preferred to publish their own views, rather than drawing on the richness and breadth of the Church they led in seeking to respond to the challenges of the country they served. Where Runcie’s impact was significant and his legacy can be seen in the important work of the Church Urban Fund, Carey’s and William’s impact was muted and their legacy limited.
Reimagining Britain is Justin Welby’s second book in as many years. Dethroning Mammon, written for Lent 2017, was well received in the Church. It was coherent and insightful. As an insight into the thinking of a relatively new Archbishop of Canterbury it was worthwhile. This second book is a different beast altogether – and a quote on the front inside cover gives an inadvertently sharp insight into it:
“Bigger than politics and broader than religion – a timely and inspiring read that requires response.” Paula Vennells, Chief Executive of the Post Office
This book is certainly big and broad. Its ambition and scale is enormous. The breathless pace at which it covers Britain’s history and progress since 1945 is, at times, hard to keep up with. He reaches even further back into history to illuminate his points, with names and events swirling across the page at a blistering rate.
Disarmingly in the Preface Justin Welby says he writes ‘chiefly for myself’ and it is in that context that this book is, perhaps, best understood. As a general commentary on current affairs it is a worthwhile read. The integrity of the attempt to address the many challenges that face Britain is indisputable.
In all the reviews I have read of this book not one mentions any fresh insight the Archbishop of Canterbury brings to bear in how the Church of England can contribute to the reimagining of Britain – what unique role, understanding, contribution he has discerned that the nation’s church brings to this task. In suggesting how we might reimagine Britain Justin Welby could have suggested how he envisages the reimaging of the Church of England as a way to achieve it? I wanted to find this insight, scoured pages and chapters to see it, the thing that would have elevated this beautifully produced and fluently written book into something more durable and resonant. Somehow I may have missed it, but I certainly could not find it and this, in the end, is what makes this a fundamentally disappointing book.
The Church of England is a unique institution in in the life of the country. It is not just any other Christian denomination or any other institution. It holds a special place in communities across the country, available to all, when they want it, as they want it. This is not a romantic or dated view, but the reality of the role and place the Church of England still occupies. It is a precious and precarious construct to be nurtured and loved by those who lead it not treated as a wearisome annoyance to be dragged along as the price one has to pay for occupying the Archiepiscopal Palace.
Three Archbishops and just over three decades on Robert Runcie is not a fashionable figure in today’s Church of England, but his example of how to effectively contribute to public debate is one his successors at Lambeth would do well to study.