Roscoe Lecture: Dr George Carey Christianity and Citizenship


Lecture by Dr George Carey

St George’s Hall, Liverpool 23 February 2000

First let me say how delighted I am to be here in Liverpool with you this evening. It is a city I have visited many times and one to which I always return with a sense of pleasure and anticipation. Liverpool is different. It is a special place, and what makes it special finally is its people – its citizens.

I am also honoured to have been invited to deliver this lecture – the latest in a distinguished series on what makes a citizen-for that surely is what citizenship is all about. The list of my predecessors is illustrious and in itself a tribute to the importance of the subject. It is one that like Liverpool itself can be approached from many directions and by many routes.

My theme this evening is ‘Christianity and Citizenship’. Well, I am Archbishop of Canterbury, and tempting though it might be, as an Arsenal fan, to talk about say, football and citizenship, I think in this city at least I’ll stick to something more like home advantage.

Of course these lectures do not exist in isolation. They are a natural outworking of the Foundation for Citizenship, which owes so much to Lord Alton and his colleagues, and to Liverpool John Moores University. Indeed, David Alton has provided much useful food for thought with his recent book Citizen Virtues. But the emphasis of the Foundation is not just on thinking and talking about citizenship, but also on trying to foster it – to produce good citizens.

Though there is much to celebrate here, I think it is fair to say that the impetus for this very impressive body of work on citizenship was less a sense of celebration than a sense of crisis. A sense that here as in so many places, the glue that binds societies together was in danger of losing its adhesive power. Too many people feeling left out rather than included, worthless rather than valued, hurting rather than fulfilled.

And that, as many of you will know, was an important part of the message of the hugely influential report: Faith in the City, which the Church of England produced in the mid eighties. That report formed the foundation for the Church Urban Fund, which has done a great deal of work in urban areas across the country. Some people greeted Faith In The City with hostility -regarding it virtually as a Marxist tract. It was no such thing– but it was certainly prophetic-both in describing the problem and in suggesting ways of tackling it.

As I will seek to illustrate this evening, the Christian approach to many of the issues surrounding citizenship has a long history and one biased towards practical involvement.

Making a priority of citizenship, it seems to me, is an important part of trying to regain what has been lost; of building something better in which more people can share a sense of belonging and self-worth.

Actually, the term ‘citizen’, to me at least, is not one that sits very easily on English ears. Citizen Kane, yes if you’re a film buff. Citizen Smith, if your taste runs to ageing sitcoms. Not a very extensive set of references, is it?

A different context is offered by the Citizens Advice Bureau. That has certainly proved a valuable resource, especially when we need to get advice on our rights -rights as a citizen. Rights that a distinguished son of Liverpool, William Gladstone helped to shape, of course, through his commitment to parliamentary and other reform in the nineteenth century. Did you know, incidentally, that being Prime Minister was something of a second best for Gladstone? His original ambition was to be a Church of England clergyman!

Back to rights, though. These are important and must never be taken for granted – a society that fails to respect such rights – human rights, civil rights, legal rights – is not likely to be a very healthy place.

But rights cannot be understood on their own. They exist and have meaning in a context of responsibilities and obligations. For Christians, our understanding of our rights as citizens is intimately connected to another C word- our ties to community.

Nearly sixteen hundred years ago, St Augustine’s great work, City of God explored both the possibilities and the limitations of human communities – what Augustine calls the ‘City of Earth’. Augustine says that we are all in ‘exile’ in this ‘city’, yet we are to reach out in hope to something beyond our human limitations. For Augustine, that ‘something’ is the ‘City of God’. “The freedom of that city”, Augustine writes, “will be one single will present in everyone, freed from all evil and filled with every good, enjoying continually the delight of eternal joy.” Indeed, that is something to look forward to!

Augustine accepts that the city or community of man can never be the Kingdom of God, can never be perfect. Like the quest for an earthly paradise it is bound to fall short. It is a notion that from the Garden of Eden right up to the present continues to tantalise and tease us. The latest Leonardo di Caprio film, The Beach, for example deals with just this idea-a paradise on earth that proves something rather different. William Golding’s influential novel Lord of the Flies explores similar terrain. The Christian doctrine of original sin is a statement of the way we fall short of our aspirations, our idealism and our longings for perfection. Utopia, after all, means ‘no place’. Sir Thomas More’s satire on this theme is a reminder to politicians and to us all that a perfect society and perfect citizens will alway remain fantasies. We are dealing with ourselves.

But in St. Augustine the acceptance that human endeavour is flawed is not a dead end or a defeat. Instead, it challenges us to look to the future – and to do so in a special way. In a way that – like some pairs of glasses – is bifocal: we have to keep our sights set on both the short-range, the ‘here and now’ of our everyday life, and also look beyond, to the long-range promise of the glorious life that is to come. A life in which our disparate needs, desires, and concerns will be melded together into ‘one single will’ for good. That future promise is what Christians hope for, certainly – and it is that hope which informs the Christian understanding of how to be a ‘citizen’ of this ‘City of Earth’.

Christianity, community, citizenship. The three C’s. So, how do they fit together in practice? I want to suggest to you this evening that it comes down to how we relate to others.

You don’t have to dig very deep into the Christian gospels to find the ideas of community and relationship powerfully expressed. Christ’s injunction to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ is not only an exhortation to think beyond ourselves, it also carries the clear implication that truly to be ourselves we must attend to others, as well. The great seventeenth century poet and Dean of St.Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne, captured this sense of necessary relationship with others when he wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

So, a citizen doesn’t just have a tick list of rightful possessions; a citizen also has a necessary set of relations, of obligations and responsibilities. Citizenship is not merely about what we should have; it’s about what we should do and how we should do it. It is not only about ‘having’ but also ‘being’. It has to do with others.

I was in South Africa recently. There is a wonderful African word ‘Ubuntu’ for which there is no precise English equivalent. However, Nelson Mandela summed it up in this way: ‘It is the sense that we can only be human through the humanity of others.” So, ubuntu, you could say means community at its deepest level. For Christians that is modelled in the example of Christ himself. It is a message that of course has special resonance in South Africa as its people, with the Churches very much involved, strive to build a new post-apartheid sense of community

But it is no less of a challenge, wherever and whoever we are. When you pause to think about it, most of us inhabit or seek to inhabit a number of different communities.

And to Christian thinking a crucial one is the community of the family. I believe the family is the basic building block of community and citizenship. How we learn to interact with our parents, grandparents, siblings and other relations – shapes so much of the values and standards, expectations and obligations by which we live the rest of our lives. That learning process, especially across generations, isn’t always easy. You may recall Mark Twain’s remarks: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

Some family problems are less easily and wittily overcome. Indeed many people would argue that the community of the Family is in crisis. The erosion of its shape and stability – reflected in both divorce rates and the undermining of marriage as an institution -impacts on hundreds of thousands of individual lives–many of them young and vulnerable lives.

But it also places severe strain on the fabric of society. The American academic, Francis Fukuyama, in his most recent book ‘The Great Disruption’ identifies this erosion as a serious element in the loss of what he calls ‘social capital’ — the ability to trust and form associations outside the family–with serious economic and social consequences.

For the community of the family helps to shape not only who we are as individuals, but also what we become as citizens – our public as well as our private, our social as well as personal sense of ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong, there are traditional families that are disaster areas, where there is such bitterness between parents that children end up as spoils of war– damaged and traumatised. Equally, single and divorced parents are no less loving or devoted to their children. But research continues to show that marriage provides the most secure and stable environment for children. A secure home offers the best context for the dynamics of love and acceptance, tolerance and understanding, rights and responsibilities, firmness and gentleness, rules and guidelines.

And that is more likely to generate a healthy bank balance of “social capital”– to use Fukuyama’s term — for the potential benefit of all. Certainly, social capital is not a product of most dysfunctional homes.

Of course, from a Christian perspective the model of marriage matters not just because it may work better for families and communities, but because it is part of God’s design for us.

Not that Christian or religious communities are perfect. At its best the congregation of a church may be a remarkable support network of people from a range of backgrounds, difficult to match in its diversity in virtually any other context. But congregations can also become inward looking and exclusive – cut off from the wider world. It is a proud aspiration of the Church of England – and one that I hold dear – that we are not insular, gathered communities of the faithful. We are open to all. A substantial basis I believe of our claim to be a national church is that we are there to minister to and serve all who come to us, wherever and whoever they are.

A similar impulse means we are called to reach out to other faith communities. Last autumn I initiated a remarkably well-attended and supported debate in the House of Lords on the role of religions in promoting a just and peaceful world. I was delighted that David Alton was one of the speakers. In that debate, I took issue with the well-rehearsed idea that religion is a source of endless division and conflict. It has performed that unfortunate role at times, but that is only part of the story. And there is now great potential, I believe, for faith communities and leaders to be bridges to understanding and harmony, not barriers and bulwarks of division.

This country, this city, is now a very diverse one in terms of cultural and ethnic background. Our neighbours may come from anywhere in the world. They may be from Warrington or Warsaw, Runcorn or Rwanda. They may be Muslim or Christian, Hindu or Buddhist. It is tempting to think that the communal challenges of such diversity are almost entirely modern. But the Christian perspective was defined two thousand years ago in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. You probably remember it-but it bears a little retelling, not least to highlight how radical it was, and in some ways still is. ‘Who is my neighbour? A Jewish lawyer asked Jesus. He responded by telling a story about a Jew making a journey along a rough road. He was attacked, beaten up, robbed, stripped and left for dead. A fellow Jew came along- a priest, as a matter of fact, and he didn’t want to get involved so he rushed home.

Along came another Jew- someone called a Levite – and he too was rather busy- so he didn’t bother to stop either. Finally the Samaritan came along and not only cared for the injured man and took him to an inn, but also paid for his lodging. The point of the story was that the Samaritan was not a Jew and certainly would not have been considered a neighbour! He was very definitely a member of another community- indeed, a group despised by the Jews at the time. But he was the one who reached across the divide.

Of course breaking down barriers is nothing new to the Churches here in Liverpool. The co-operation between Anglicans and Roman Catholics is well documented and justly celebrated. David Sheppard and the late Derek Warlock formed a formidable alliance that continues to flourish and develop under their successors- Archbishop Patrick Kelly and Bishop James Jones.

It’s an alliance based on a vision of a fully engaged Christianity, committed to make a practical difference to the lives of individuals and communities. My distinguished predecessor as Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, once said: ‘Christianity is the most materialistic of all religions’. In other words, the idea of Christ taking human form expresses God’s commitment to the world. God in Christ Jesus was willing to get his hands dirty in the ordinariness of humanity. And so he calls us to action. We are meant to roll up our sleeves and get stuck in. And we are meant to involve others.

The current focus on what has become known as “social exclusion” reflects this Christian imperative. It is not just about being part of the community ourselves; it is also about bringing in others who feel left out.

Those who feel excluded and rejected, useless and unloved, are unlikely to be the most effective citizens. There is a practical as well as a moral imperative here. Social exclusion is related to the idea of social capital that I talked about earlier. Rejected children, out of work young people, aggressive and alienated adults, are in no-one’s interest.

People need support and encouragement, but they also need skills and training; they need not only to feel the door is open, but that once inside they can make a contribution. A sense of personal worth feeds the social capital of communities.

Once again we find the Christian view of citizenship closely linked to community – in this case the community in which we learn and the community in which we work

It was a similar impulse that first inspired the Church’s role in education in this country. It represents a long and proud history of practical community involvement-and one incidentally that predates much in the way of government activity. But it is not just history-as the presence of many of the younger members of the audience this evening clearly demonstrates I am particularly flattered that you are here even though its half-term!

Many Church schools are very popular and rightly so. Parents value the fact that our schools offer sound and stimulating education set in a clear spiritual and moral framework. We look to equip young people not only with skills and knowledge for a job, but also with values for life.

We would like to do more, especially in secondary education. Certainly the demand is there. I am delighted that Lord Dearing is currently leading a review into the possibilities.

Today we are partners with government in education, and a positive partnership it is proving. The Education Secretary, David Blunkett has been generous in his praise for what we offer, and receptive to many of our ideas and concerns. It will come as no surprise, given what I said earlier about the importance we attach to the family for the wider community, that we believe strong support should be given in schools to marriage as the fundamental building block of family life. I’m pleased that ministers have been prepared to listen carefully to our views and priorities in considering a statutory framework for future guidance to schools.

In addition, the school curriculum is now to include citizenship itself-the very stuff of this lecture series and the work of the Foundation. Like you, it is a development I welcome and one that sits well I think with the Church’s own focus on prioritising a moral and ethical context for education.

Whenever I come to Liverpool, I am always impressed by its openness to the world beyond. The city’s great maritime tradition means it has long been connected to other countries and cultures. Indeed a city that is twinned with Shanghai could never be accused of excessive introspection!

One use of the word “citizen” I didn’t mention at the outset was “citizen of the world.” It strikes me as having a slightly quaint ring to it now – harking back to a time when most of us didn’t or couldn’t travel all that far, when the world was a largely unexplored idea somewhere over the horizon.

Today most of us I think have a more sophisticated understanding of the idea and more experience of the reality. Both through foreign travel and the fact that we live in an increasingly inter-connected and interdependent world.

In some instances, it gives us greater variety and diversity-the fruit and vegetables year round in our supermarkets can come from virtually anywhere these days. In other cases it means a reduction of that diversity and a greater uniformity -with global brands and products wiping out local variations. Either way, we now have to add the idea of a global community to all the others where we might need or want to be members.

What does this mean for Christian understanding of citizenship and community?

A great deal of my time is spent on the implications of being a member of a global community. Compared with much of the world, we live in a very privileged and wealthy society, where the availability of food and shelter, education and health care are generally taken for granted. But other members of our global community have rather different expectations and experiences

1.3 billion people live on less than seventy pence a day; a further three billion people live on under one pound fifty One 100 million children die every year of readily-treatable diseases. If I am a citizen of the world I have to care for that world and my brothers and sisters who lack the basic necessities of life. This presents us in the West with a moral challenge.

As part of this challenge, the Churches and many other organisations have in recent years taken part in the Jubilee 2000 campaign, which is endeavouring to eliminate the crushing burden of debt that many very poor countries have to pay off.

I pay tribute to our Government and in particular the Chancellor, Gordon Brown and Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development for their personal commitment to making sure that Britain is helping to lead the way on debt reduction. Some other wealthy countries could and should do more. It is important to keep up the pressure, especially if there is a danger of slipping behind schedules already agreed.

Membership of this global community carries a very real set of obligations and responsibilities. But globalisation is not only a physical reality it is also a virtual one. I mean of course the exponential growth of information technology, especially as manifested by the Internet. Increasingly, we are not only citizens of the world but also citizens of the world-wide web.

Clearly the access to information and the ability to tap resources not otherwise available can be a potent tool of empowerment. It can be part of the education for citizenship and participation that I discussed earlier.

But it can also be exclusive and isolating. “Only connect!” wrote E.M. Forster memorably in the novel Howard’s End – but he had something more in mind than a PC with a modem. Of course, you may argue, e-mail can be a way of making important connections. That’s true, but it can also be a distorting and unsatisfactory one — in which self-deception and evasion are prominent. The Christian emphasis is on relationships not just connections-Yes we have to make contact, but it is the quality of that contact that matters. We must be sure that the virtual community is at the service of the real communities I have been describing, not a substitute for them. It must be a tool for inclusion, not a weapon of exclusion. In other words, exactly the same values and priorities should obtain in this new community, as in the others we have visited tonight.

So, from the nuclear family to cyberspace, we have travelled a long way in a short time. A series of concentric circles of community, complementary not contradictory, when viewed in the light of a Christian understanding of citizenship.

And that understanding as I suggested earlier is a “bifocal” one-with two fields of vision. One is “near and now” the other is long range-where we are, and where we are heading. It is all too easy to become totally absorbed in the first and lose sight of the second. We must resist that temptation.

For there is one more community in which, Christ tells us, we are called to participate, which enfolds all others and is the only one in which we ultimately belong. This is what St Paul refers to in his Letter to the Philippians as “our commonwealth . . .in heaven”. This is St Augustine’s “City of God”. “Thou hast made us for thyself,” Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”

Of course, I realise that there are those who struggle to believe in that glorious city and that heavenly community. But, regardless of differences in belief or tradition, I suspect that many here will agree with me that we as a society are yearning – aching – for an experience of the transcendent, the mystical, the ‘more perfect’ world to come.

Cilla Black, that famous daughter of Liverpool on being asked: ‘Do you believe in God?’ is said to have replied ‘Well, there must be something greater than the London Palladium!’

Indeed, yes! For Christians, all earthly forms of citizenship are merely rehearsals for that something greater-that perfect community in heaven. As we seek to make sense of this life together, I believe the values of the next can enrich us all and help to make us better citizens, now and for the future.