I wonder whether the recognised triad of State, Markets and Civil Society is also something which might mutual illuminate the monastic vows of obedience poverty and chastity? This is one of the reflections I’ve had after reading part of the House of Bishop’s letter about the election.
The present welfare state is a legacy of the 1942 Beveridge Report - and the 1945 Atlee Labour government which implemented much of it by creating, among other things, the National Health Service and bringing together a single system of state schooling.
Thirty-four years later (and thirty-six years ago), the 1979 Thatcher Conservative government also ‘changed the political weather’ (a phrase in the letter) with a focus on less intervention and less regulation of markets.
These two things simply became normative, as the letter says:
Just as successive administrations between 1945 and 1979, Conservative as well as Labour, tended to regard the collectivist structures introduced under Atlee as part of a strong national consensus, so different administrations since that of Margaret Thatcher have treated the market-orientated and individualistic emphasis of her governments as part of the undisputed political landscape.
But, as the letter goes on to observe, ‘neither was, initially, as lacking in nuance as they have often been portrayed’. Beveridge had also reported on Voluntary Action ‘which affirmed the principles of personal responsibility and local, informal activities which built stronger communities’ while Thatcher was keen to promote values of charity and self-help.
So we wrestle, the letter suggests, with the values and dangers of each: state intervention which provides for all but can disable initiative; market forces which generates wealth but can victimise the vulnerable; social structures which form and sustain community but are in danger of being fragmented by either state control or market competition. The triad is, as I say, well recognised.
Now, I’ve written before about the warning in Deuteronomy that the King should not have too many horses, too much gold or too many wives – potential monopolies of state power, market resources and civil relating. And about the way these mirror vows of obedience, poverty and chastity – setting aside personal power, resources and relating, any of which would distort equal membership of the community. (For this purpose, I ought to clarify that the vow of chastity is not so much ‘I will not have a sexual relationship’, although, of course, it does imply that, as ‘I will not seek partnership and family other than this community into which I am now vowing commitment’.)
So, a starting point might be that we are only able to operate as human beings in the context of rulers, resources and relationships; this is obvious when one considers the alternatives which are the nightmares of lawless anarchy, of exposure and starvation, and of isolation.
We have our rulers – from absolute monarchs with direct control of the army to Abbots who listens to their community and articulate a way forward for them. We have our resources – from those accumulated in the hands of a small number to those shared by the whole community. We have our relationships – from the exploitative to the mutually supportive.
We cannot always avoid operating at times in a mode of intervention – from calculated manipulation to acts of rescue. We cannot avoid operating at times in a mode of competition – from getting ahead by disadvantaging others to selecting the best person for a job. We cannot avoid operating at times in a mode of collaboration – from pragmatic partnership to interdependence.
The juggle of human living may be how we recognise the three and how we find the most constructive way of operating each – whether in a national political approach or within a family or community.
Meanwhile, I can’t begin to think of the significance of the next illustration to hand which is of the stunning large Old Rectory at Great Billing where my great-grandfather was living as incumbent a hundred years ago (Rector 1899-1918); it is on the edge of Northampton and we looked at it taking a break from visiting my mother in hospital there a couple of weeks ago.