A talk given at the AGM of the ALMSHOUSES ASSOCIATION in the City of London.
It is a privilege and a delight to be invited to address you this afternoon.
My father who died a few years ago was a passionate supporter both of alms-houses and it care of the elderly. He and my stepmother used to have a comic routine when it came to raising funds.
As far as she was concerned he always had far too many books in the house I could well afford to lose a few. She would prepare for a fundraising event by scurrying around the house and secreting into the back of the car books she thought he would not miss.
He on the other hand always make sure he got to the fundraising event early and that will give him the opportunity to travel around and buy back his own books and add a few more of course for good measure.
By this means both their ambitions for emptying or filling the house with books were met and they contributed to the health of the funds for the care of the elderly which they were both so committed.
Although the supposedly Chinese curse ‘may you live in interesting times’ is wholly apocryphal and invented, we do in fact live in interesting times. We have crossed from the second into the third millennium. But we’re crossing more than a mathematical number: – we also in transit from one culture to another.
In the last few weeks we’ve all become rather excited, along with the media, about the European elections. I don’t want to bring divisive European politics into this Irenic and civilised body, but I do want to talk about the two European projects that the European elections draw our attention to.
The first European project is the Christianisation of Europe. We argue still about the extent to which it was begun by the Celts, or by the initiative of the Church in Rome, but the effect was the move a whole culture from the raw worship of power and the invocation of nature that was paganism, to faith in a personal God whose defining characteristic was humility and love.
Churches and Cathedrals
Two things strikes me as being particularly extraordinary about Christianity at the beginning of the European project. It was the amount of Gross National Product that the Normans were willing to put into building Churches and Cathedrals for worship Not only do they remain with us almost one thousand years later, but they remain some of the most inspiring and beautiful buildings our culture has ever achieved.
The sacralisation of human person
The second is the sacralisation of human person.
It is all too easy to take for granted the gift of the Christian faith which is declare sacred each human being.
In other cultures no such connections made. Whether we look at the classical culture of the Greeks and Romans, the pagan culture of Europe, or whether we look at the secular political systems of the 20 century Marxism and Fascism we find no such concern for the sacredness of the human being.
At the heart of the Gospels is Jesus’ own identification with the love of the neighbour. The most famous passage is that of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 – where a link is made between God and our neighbour. We already knew that our neighbour was made in the image of God – but we didn’t not know there was such a vivid connection between the suffering of the poor and vulnerable and Christ himself.
From this window through which Christians looked, came the whole platform of social concern and social re-ordering that has given birth to and configured our culture. Education, medical care, shelter for the poor, shelter for the aged and infirm.
None of this was inevitable and flowed directly from our understanding of the moral law that lies at the heart of the universe and by which we shall we judged at the end of time.
How Christian in Britain?
Recently the Prime Minster caused a small sensation when he said in the public square that we were a Christian country. The rush to deny it in the media was indicative of the energy that informs anti-Christian sentiment in the media and in the Academy in particular. They wanted to contest the numbers of those who sign up to the faith; but they ignored that shape of the culture that gave birth to the compassionate and moral society that stretches back over a thousand years.
The European Constitution
The arguments about the influence or identity of Christianity go wider than our own country the touch the heart of emerging European identity. Was an attempt in 2004 to draft a European constitution? Considerable argument took place as to whether or not this constitution should mentioned God or the Judaeo-Christian background to the formation of Europe.
Some of the arguments ranged against the inclusion of God would put forward on the grounds that as European law was going to deal with some contest of moral issues like genetic clothing and even easier excluding Christianity from the European identity would also exclude Christian arguments against euthanasia.
In the end voting in 2004 put an end to this attempt is writing a European constitution and it was replaced by what became the Lisbon Treaty.
Nonetheless what the episode tells us is that this central moral principle of underlies the first European project, which is the synchronisation or the holding secret of you in person is now under threat and deeply contested. The argument has been lost for abortion. The reasons for abortion are immensely varied and one can only speak with tenderness and compassion in the face of the complexities that lie behind the decision-making that bring people to consider the abortion clinic in response to the discovery of pregnancy. Having said that however the original legislators who proposed the 1967 Act would not have expected 40 years later the figure of aborted foetuses to have reached over 6 million.
The figure 6,000,000 deaths is a resonant one in European history. Whatever the moral complexities in making medical and personal decision, the normalisation of abortion has contributed to this process of desacralizing of the human person.
I will leave aside genetic cloning because we have neither the time nor the expertise in my case, but I would like to say something about euthanasia.
Is often said that one of the hallmarks of our society is that we know the cost of everything in the value of nothing. That is an exaggeration of course, but it is also a trajectory. We all only too aware of the cost of looking after the aged and infirm, is medically and socially.
We also realise how problematic the ethical questions that lie behind euthanasia are.
On the one hand all of us would be anxious in the face of debilitating terminal illness whether we could not be sure of adequate pain relief. On the other hand without the strictest safeguards, there is a danger that we evaluate human life increasingly in monetary terms.
And if we begin to do that, we place significant pressure on the elderly, and those who care for them, brining in to question their right to share in the resources of our wider society. Where the door to euthanasia has been opened it is hard to see how the value of declaring and keeping the individual safe and sacred human can avoid being eroded by economic pressure.
The second European project sets itself against the values of the first European project in another particular and distinctive way.
Equality v Restraint of Injustice
The pursuit of equality is something borrowed from the Judaeo Christian tradition.
The notion of equality finds its place in the first European project in the form of insisting that all human beings are equally valuable in God’s eyes.
There is not theological favouritism; all are made in the image of God.
But the secular project has taken this one idea and turned it into an idol. It has turned a spiritual perception into a political project.
What is extraordinary to me is that when this was attempted as the heart of the Marxist project as both a political and an economic goal, it caused in both the Soviet Union and China suffering in untold millions. When the Soviet Union fell this Marxist idea moved, almost like a meme into the European project becoming an existential and political goal that required coercion to impose on society.
Those who continue to suspect that there are in fact differences in the performance of certain goals between men and women, between different races, between different sexual orientations find themselves criminalised if they explore the possibility publicly
The first European project had at the heart of it a campaign against injustice. Time and time again the Bible was used to pursue campaigns against various forms of injustice when religion was used oppressively. The poison of prejudice and perverted power came with an antidote of the moral demands of faith. But it is one thing to restrain injustice. It is another to attempt to create a perfect society. The attempt to socially engineer equality demands a hubris that only secularism aspires to.
The Personal and the Particular
One of the particularly attractive features of the alms-houses association is the variety of specific bequests that compassionate benefactors have given expression to. A need was seen, and in very particular ways bequests were set up to meet that particular need.
There is something important about the particular. We can argue about the merits of giving to beggars in general. There may be reasons why giving contributes to drug or alcohol dependence. But when one meets a particular beggar in the street, the moral dilemma is sharpened when I have the means to alleviate something of this persons need. I may decide not to give money but to taker them for a meal – or buy them a sandwich, but at the heart of it this personal relationship of compassion, which is also embodied in the way in which bequest in the alms-houses movement has been set up.
This personal element matters greatly. At the heart of the Christian understanding is that God is personal – indeed He is the fount of source of all personality so that we derive our personhood, our individuality our distinctiveness, from Him. There is something sacred about the personal relationship of compassion.
But one of the shifts that has taken place in our culture as we have moved from the 1st European project, the Christianisation of Europe to the Second, is the replacement of God the Father with the State the Parent.
The Church, used to be the expression of compassion and enablement. Shelter, food, education, hospitals – until the State, seeing this was good not only because the compassion and love were worthwhile, but also noting that caring for those at the bottom of the social heap contributed to social stability, stepped in.
Slowly the State elbowed the Church aside and took responsibility for welfare.
At one level, this was obviously welcome.
But at another level the State makes a bad parent, partly because it is often blind and inefficient but also because it is impersonal.
This personal element which enables some form of mutual accountability goes missing.
There is accountability, but only via the democratic process at the ballot box once every 5 years, and then quickly forgotten.
The State as parent is a form of bad parenting. It doe not know how to walk the very tricky line between helping people in crisis and creating a culture of lazy, disabled dependence.
Even Beveridge though that benefits should be temporary.
His report tackled the five threats to society: want, ignorance, disease, squalor and idleness.
Often overlooked in Beveridge’s report was that he favoured a level of benefit set at subsistence level only, as he did not want to take away individual initiative. “Management of one’s income is an essential element of a citizen’s freedom,” he wrote. But he also regarded social welfare as an individual’s right. He summarized his scheme by saying: It is, first and foremost, a plan of insurance – of giving in return for contributions benefits up to subsistence level, as of right and without means test, so that individuals may build freely upon it.
We can argue about what subsistence level is – it certainly changes with the changes of economy and expectation – but with so many people locked into a dehumanizing inactivity, the State is proving to be a bad and demoralizing parent.
The move from the Personal to the Impersonal
So we might say that one of the other characteristics of the second European project is the move from the personal to the impersonal;- the personal accountability between people as fellow human beings – the rich to the poor, the strong to the weak; all this has been replaced by the impersonal imposition of moral duty by the blind and clumsy apparatus of the state.
One of the consequences of this is that the bequests which you oversee which are as varied as the conditions that gave birth to them, are overshadowed by a clumsy legislative process that resorts to the ‘one size fits all. And beyond the clumsy legislation a discomfort with the personal and the particular, in favour of the statist and the general. This dehumanizes not only the integrity of the original bequest, but also you- the trustees of the bequest who seek to carry out the compassionate, kind and until recently, the effective wishes of those who chose to take responsibility for their neighbours in the vulnerability of the old age.
We are not facing anything as starkly obvious as the choice between Capitalism and Communism, or democracy and Fascism as our parents did.
But the way you cook frogs is to boil them very gently at first on a slowly warming heat, in order to disguise the fact that there will come a moment when they will no longer be able to jump out of the pot.
I am not aware that there is anything that can be done politically to defend the integrity of the personal against the impersonal, the particular against the general, the compassion of God against the impositions of an increasingly blind and powerful state.
But I look to what was achieved by my spiritual forbears who confronted power with compassion in the name of the living God, and transformed both people and society by the exercise of prayer and the application of faith.
Perhaps our future lies not in the pursuit of political actions but in the fostering of faith and love which brought love and kindness for the neighbor to a darkened Europe once, and can do so again.