Rector’s Letter: The Gospel and Social Justice

Dear friends,

There are many reasons why I am an Anglican rather than a Roman Catholic.  They include the way authority in the Anglican Church is dispersed rather than focused on one powerful figure, and the way the Anglican Church makes room for the proper contribution of lay people and women in its ministry and mission.

But there is one area where, for my money, the Roman Catholic Church has traditionally had the edge over Anglicans, and that is the long tradition of Catholic social teaching.  It was the last Pope of the 19th century, Leo XIII, who in his papal encyclical ‘Rerum Novarum’ set the foundation stone for the development of the Church’s engagement with society on issues of social justice.  That tradition continued through the Second Vatican Council of the 1960’s, and into the papacies of the supposedly conservative John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

By contrast, Anglican social teaching has often been more piecemeal, relying on reports on  social issues commissioned by General Synod, and written by committees.  Examples have included the ‘Faith in the City’ report, which questioned the direction of government policy towards Britain’s inner cities and examined the proper role of the Church in such places, and ‘The Church and the Bomb’, looking at the ethics of nuclear policy.  Anglicans are used to having their reports debated, dissected and degraded – not least by politicians and their allies in the media who get uncomfortable at the thought of ethics invading ‘their’ political territory.

Debate and criticism are far from unknown in relation to Roman Catholic teaching on social issues.  Pope Paul VI’s late change of heart over the 1968 encyclical on birth control, ‘Humanae Vitae’, left many Roman Catholics feeling angry and out of step with their Church.  David Lodge’s comic novels, such as ‘How Far Can You Go?’, bring out some of the human dilemmas for ordinary people.

Yet by and large, Roman Catholic social teaching has succeeded in bringing together the twin concerns of evangelisation (spreading the gospel) with promoting concern for poverty and social justice.  Far too often in Church thinking and teaching in all denominations, social justice has been seen as an added ‘extra’ to the main business of saving souls.  At best it has often been regarded as marginal or optional to what the Church is ‘really’ about.  At worst, social justice has become little more than charity – putting the odd pound or two into a box for a good cause that demands no other effort from us, that alleviates but does not fundamentally change the conditions requiring our attention in the first place, and that can be easily dispensed with and forgotten when other financial priorities are more pressing. 

Benedict XVI’s encyclical of 2009 ‘Caritas in Veritate’ (which can be translated ‘love in truth’ or ‘love of truth’) deserves to be widely read and pondered by anyone serious about Christian faith and social justice.  Indeed, Benedict makes the point that there is no spiritual pathway that bypasses social action, for both are integral to the very idea of human development as revealed to us by Christ himself.  One of Benedict’s central concerns – writing against the backdrop of global financial meltdown – is to distinguish between what he calls a ‘civil market economy’, which is not orientated solely towards profit, and a capitalist economy where maximising profit is what matters above everything else.  The civil market economy is, he says, a way of reforming our economic life which allows for profit within an overall framework of promoting the common good.

It is a significant contribution to bringing together Christian faith and the realities of a global economy, and far removed from the voices of those who say the Church should ‘stay out of politics’ on the one hand, or offering a simplistic ‘wish list’ of how the world might be a better place, on the other. 

We are all indebted to the tradition of Catholic social teaching.        

Some days are more important to us than others.  On days when the rest of the world was digging potatoes or washing dishes, we were busy being born or marrying, watching a child come into the world or a loved one leave it.  As Christians, we were being baptised or confirmed or (for some of us) being ordained: in each case increasingly betting our lives on the person of Jesus Christ.

We do the same during every year, when our own everyday concerns are taken up into a larger and grander narrative.  We mark that narrative by having special days: Christmas, when God becomes one of us; Good Friday, when God reveals the extent of his love for us; Easter, when God’s creative power calls us into new life; Ascension Day, to remind us that no part of life is outside God’s sovereignty; and Pentecost, when Christ’s life-giving spirit is with us for all time.  Each one of these days, if we attend to them properly, marks out for us something of what it means to be me, and helps shape our own journey of life and faith, just as our other personal special days do.

A confirmation has that kind of personal quality about it.  It brings together an individual decision to take a new and important step with a recognition that many others have travelled this way before, and the road is made up of all kinds of people who may have little in common except that they all know that each is also walking alongside Jesus Christ.  Our personal story and journey come together with God’s wider purposes in and through his Son. 

The Confirmation Service this year comes in that short time between Ascension Day and Pentecost.  It’s when we’re thinking about the gift of the Holy Spirit, which so transformed the lives of the first Christians.  The service is full of references to the Holy Spirit.  The Bishop prays that the Holy Spirit may rest upon the candidates; he confirms them with the Holy Spirit, he invites us all to pray that the candidates may “daily increase in your Holy Spirit more and more”.

God’s Spirit is not some super-charged boost of spiritual energy: it is simply the Spirit of Jesus Christ alive and active among us.  At times like confirmation and Pentecost we are not asking for a special ‘fill-up’, but recognising that the Christian life is about being open to the life-giving Spirit whose ways we cannot fathom but who will lead us where we need to go – into new life, a new world of possibilities, a new future which we will help construct day by day.  The gift of the Spirit brings life, and life implies movement and growth.  Confirmation is not the point at which we become ‘adult’ Christians (which of us would dare to claim we were that?). 

It is a step towards a greater spiritual maturity, and our task (however young or old we may be) is to continue to grow towards our salvation, and to be aware of the ever-present risk of regressing, of falling away in faith.  If you want to see someone struggling against the view that sees growth as an achievement, as something to be acquired, read St. Paul in his letters to the Corinthians.

Perhaps above all we have to learn to see that God’s Spirit is not the preserve of the Church, but is at the heart of everything, crossing the boundaries of what is conventionally ‘religious’ or not.  Every experience of awe and mystery – climbing a hill, looking at a Rembrandt picture, sitting quietly in a peaceful building, singing along in a Robbie Williams concert – is taking us beyond ourselves to that source of creative life and power which is God’s very Spirit.  It is that breath of life which breathes through the entire universe, and which breathes hope into the downcast, justice into the oppressed, freedom into the fearful and love into the unloved.  It is what makes it possible to say ‘yes’ to life in spite of all the disappointments and difficulties everyone faces.  Receive the Holy Spirit – at confirmation, at Pentecost, whenever – and live.

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