Comment: St Paul's protest has revealed pressures at the heart of the Church

Nick Spencer is research director at Theos, the public theology thinktank
Nick Spencer is research director at Theos, the public theology thinktank

By Nick Spencer

Herbert Mason's famous photograph of the dome of St Paul's Cathedral rising defiantly from the Blitz smoke was much invoked last month. Not since the 1940s, we were repeatedly told, had the Cathedral been closed. And then it had taken the Nazis.

The early days of the St Paul's encampment witnessed a similar fog of war envelop the cathedral. The chapter dithered in the face of an unexpected and unprecedented protest. Prominent clergy resigned. Episcopal splits allegedly appeared. And when, for a while, it appeared that the cathedral steps might provide the settling for Dale Farm: The Sequel, all cameras were at the ready. The core issues of corporate greed and material inequality were obscured in the fog of conflict and potential violence.

It was Rowan Williams, whose clarity of vision is not always matched by clarity of prose, who saw through the mist and recognised why St Paul's was such a good stage for the debate. "The Church of England is still used by British society as a stage on which to conduct by proxy the arguments that society itself does not know how to handle," he wrote in the Financial Times.


This is not the self-serving post hoc rationalisation for which critics like to accuse the established church. Being the nation's stage for impromptu morality plays is not exactly fun. Turbulent Priests?, a recent Theos report into the political activity of the Archbishop of Canterbury since 1980, convincingly shows that whatever the reasons behind his various different interventions, the quest for popularity was clearly not one of them.

The more plural and the more individualised a society is, the more contested its ideas of the 'common' or 'public' good become. One way of negotiating this is simply to abandon attempts to define or embrace such a good, and retreat into privatised spaces which interact by means of contracts that are policed by a supposedly neutral state – a kind of libertarian utopia.

The rhetorical and legal emphasis on rights, and the extension of market mechanisms into aspects of life heretofore largely free of them, has moved the nation in that direction in the last half-century. But no society worthy of the name could be truly libertarian, and contemporary Britain certainly isn't such a society.

Whether in terms of actual physical space, or of money, time or legislation, we still live together, and whether or not we share values some are still 'imposed' on us by simple virtue of our cohabitation. How should public money be spent? What criteria should be adopted for regulating markets? How should the Charity Commission define 'public benefit'? How should we preserve our shared natural environment? How should policymakers evaluate the worth of public services? What public good does the BBC serve? How should we understand and (legally) define marriage and the family?

These are difficult but inescapable questions and every society needs some way of debating them. Furthermore, they are also irreducibly moral questions, hinging, in the last resort, on our idea of what it is to live well.

This is where Rowan Williams' vision of the established church comes in. It is not, of course, the only place where such debates can occur but it is the only one that is genuinely national ("a presence in every community"), stretching from villages square to Parliament Square, and explicitly concerned with what it means to live well. Moreover, it also stretches back through our national past and across the globe, thereby providing the widest possible context to conduct such debates.

Given that the other forums for such debate are beset with problems – politicians are not best placed to conduct moral debates, for fairly obvious reasons, and the media are conscious of, one might even say driven by, the need for high ratings – Williams is right to say that the Church is uniquely well placed for such debates. Explosions of public frustration, such as we have seen around St Paul's and the London Stock Exchange of late, underline the value of its establishment.

There is, however, a 'but' here. The Church of England may indeed be "explicitly concerned with what it means to live well" but it is not a moral debating society, a national version of Oxford's famous Socratic Club. It is, rather, founded on and for Jesus Christ, worship of whom is its raison d'être.

It is not as if Anglican clergy don't know this. "The primary purpose of the Cathedral," intoned the Bishop of London during the most fraught moment of St Paul's fracas, "is to worship Almighty God". One wouldn't, or at least shouldn't, expect a bishop to think otherwise, but it was nonetheless a little shocking to hear one say so with such feeling and clarity on national television.

The reason for this slight frisson of shock is, surely, that by being a stage on which the nation may debate its moral concerns, the established Church undoubtedly feels a subtle pressure to circumscribe a message that, as the first Christians knew, is stubbornly discomfiting. At very least, being the national church means that its dirty washing is deemed to be everyone's business, in the same way as are BBC salaries. Being public means everyone can have a slice of you.

Church of England clergy would, of course, deny that being established means they must pull in their horns. But the mere fact that the Church of England of which people speak most fondly is the gentle, liberal, All Gas and Gaiters kind of church is indicative. What profits a church to gain a national stage if it loses its soul?

The Church of England's prominence has certainly not entailed the loss of its soul. If anything, it is considerably more soulful now than it has been at many times in its chequered past. However, if the nation continues to grow ever more individualised and morally plural, the church will find it ever more difficult to reconcile the tension that comes from being a national stage while also having its own unique message to enact.

Nick Spencer is research director at Theos, the public theology thinktank

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners. 

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