'Freedom and Slavery' - Wilberforce Lecture 2007
Tuesday 24th April 2007In an address given at the invitation of the Wilberforce Lecture Trust, at the City Hall in Hull, the Archbishop speaks of the legacy of the campaigning Christian MP William Wilberforce and issues of faith and politics.
Click link on the right to listen to the lecture [92Mb].
A transcript follows:
When, a few years ago, I was invited by one of the national newspapers to name the greatest influential British citizen of the last millennium, I didn't have much hesitation. It is not easy to think of anyone whose legacy affected the lives of so many millions or whose struggle against inhumanity enjoyed so little in the way of financial or military support. So much rested on the personal motivation of one man, encouraged by a small and dedicated group.
This is not in the least to minimise the contribution of those others who did offer support, or to overlook the importance of slaves and ex-slaves themselves, including those who led slave revolts and so brought the urgency of the issue before the eyes of so many. But there was one specific bit of business to do - a process in the legislature of the United Kingdom; and that business was accomplished by Wilberforce.
Perhaps predictably, there have been attempts to minimise or relativise his achievement or to make us think just a little less of him. In Wilberforce's own lifetime, William Cobbett kept up a fairly steady stream of belittling criticism, suggesting that the MP for Hull was more concerned about slaves in distant countries than in the poor on his doorstep. More recently, the same evangelical Christianity that fired his passion for abolition has been quoted in reproach. He was more interested in souls than bodies, it is said, caring more about the spread of the gospel than about abolition in itself, even regarding slavery as an opportunity for black people to be converted.
Cobbett's criticisms can be set aside for a start: Cobbett was in many ways a great figure in English political history, but he was a good hater and saw Wilberforce as an enemy of the simple pleasures of ordinary folk and of the proper self-sufficiency of the British economy. Anyone disposed to take him too seriously on this subject might ponder Cobbett's own unguarded remarks on Wilberforce's partiality for 'fat lazy Negroes' over the English peasantry and ask whether Cobbett's sentimentality about some aspects of British identity had not corrupted his judgement in other respects. They might also note that Wilberforce's no less passionate concern for the urban underclass of eighteenth century England (for exploited women and child labourers, for example) failed to register with those who, like Cobbett focused their attention on the devastation of rural England - indisputably, as Cobbett saw, a scene of terrible injustice, yet only one of the dark undercurrents of the age.
On Wilberforce's own Christianity, I shall have more to say later. But it doesn't take too much ingenuity to work out that if he had a passion for souls greater than his passion for material welfare, that passion for souls must have been immense, given the scale, depth and variety of his commitment to justice for the materially poor. And as for the idea that slavery might have had something to commend it insofar as it had opened up the African population to Christian mission, it is a serious mistake to fasten on to Wilberforce any suggestion at all that there was or could have been a justification for the slave trade. There were a good many Christian writers of the eighteenth century in particular who advanced this notion as an excuse for pursuing or profiting from a trade about which they felt some humanitarian qualms. The annual sermons preached for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel provide plenty of material on these lines. Wilberforce might have welcomed the bare fact that slaves were on occasion exposed to the Christian gospel in ways that they would not have been had they not been in the position they were in. But this is a very different thing from treating the one as any sort of excuse for the other, and I can find no evidence that Wilberforce was ever guilty of that level of moral confusion.
The truth is that we have a fair number of testimonies from slaves and ex-slaves in the British dominions of the eighteenth century who say something not incompatible with this. For them, the paradox is that slavery has given them - through exposure to Christianity - the tools they need to attack it. Chigor Chike, a Nigerian who has made an intriguing and very valuable study - Voices from Slavery' The Life and Beliefs of African Slaves in Britain - of the experiences and testimonies of four African slaves active in Britain during the eighteenth century, observes that they both deploy their Christian resources with great energy against slavery itself and support further evangelisation of their own people by missionaries who are free from any taint of supporting slavery. The famous Olaudah Equiano asks uncompromisingly, 'Can any man be a Christian who asserts that one part of the human race were ordained to be in perpetual bondage to another?'(Chike, p.53). Similarly Ottobah Cugoano, author of the first published attack on the trade by an African (1787), both uses the Bible to threaten divine judgement against political authorities that maintain slavery and argues for mission activity as a 'restitution' to Africans for what they have suffered.
There may of course be in this an element of simply assimilating the rhetoric of the 'master-culture'; this certainly appears in one or two such writers. Yet what is consistently striking in much of this literature is the fierceness with which nominal Christianity is assaulted and blamed for the slave trade, and the conviction that authentic Christianity is the most powerful argument against it and in favour of human equality. Ukawsaw Gronniosaw can describe hearing from a well-intentioned European 'that God was a Great and Good Spirit, that he created all the world and every person and thing, in Ethiopia, Africa and America, and everywhere. I was delighted when I heard this; There, says I, I always thought so when I lived at home! Now if I had wings like an eagle, I would fly to tell my dear mother...If I could but go home, I should be wiser than all my country folks' (Chike, p.159). As Chike observes, this illustrates the painful sense of inferiority about their own culture and religion that was bred in slaves; but it also illustrates the recognition of acquiring a vision that is potentially liberating for all in a quite new way.
The point is that it will not do to suppose that Wilberforce should be judged guilty of covert racism or sympathy with slavery on the grounds that he believed Christianity had brought advantages to slaves. Those who had the good fortune to be able to speak from direct experience of slavery could say something very similar. Of course we cannot speak of or for those others who did not have that fortune; and it is all too likely that many of them openly or secretly hated and despised the faith of their masters. But it remains an undeniable fact that Christianity could and did act as an engine of criticism not of compliance in so many within slave communities, in the eighteenth century and after. And this raises a substantial issue with extensive bearing on how we are to judge the lasting elements of Wilberforce's legacy.
The issue is this. Apart from Christianity, what were or what could have been the factors that could drive any critique of slavery in the eighteenth century? We think of the Age of Enlightenment as an intellectual climate in which the assumptions of modern liberal and democratic thought were first formed; and that is not wholly wrong. But you will look in vain to the secularising writers of the period for systematic criticisms of slavery, let alone campaigns for its ending. The liberal and egalitarian principles of the French Enlightenment made not the slightest dent upon the slave system (and the post-Revolution French administrations made no move towards emancipation of their own accord). The egalitarianism of the age was like that of the Stoics in ancient Rome - a theory for the elite, unrelated to actual human relationships in the present, where, sadly, primitive justice had been rendered unattainable. And we must not forget the ways in which some aspects of enlightened thinking could end up reinforcing attitudes of racial superiority by appeal to the normative status of European thinking and the assumption that non-Europeans were incapable of 'standard' reasoning. There is an uncomfortable history to be written of what might be called progressive or scientific racism as well as of religiously motivated varieties; Colin Kidd's recent monograph, The Forging of Races. Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000, is a very distinguished beginning to this study.
What is it that moves egalitarianism from being a wistful theory to being the motive for serious political action? The answer is very simple: the conviction of responsibility before God. Wilberforce and his circle were bound by that conviction; they believed that if a sinful system existed and its sinfulness implicated them as well as others, they were under an obligation to end it. God could not will sin; so if there were sin in the political and economic conditions under which they pursued their business, it was God's will that it be eradicated. There is no place here for wistfulness or for a 'tragic' sense of unavoidable moral compromise. We may think this, as a principle, worryingly naive; but what is undeniable is that it motivated a series of major social changes, not only in respect of slavery.
It is one of Wilberforce's most powerful insights -as it was of St Augustine many centuries earlier - that injustice damages the oppressor spiritually as much as it damages the oppressed materially. If there is a recognisable 'Enlightenment' strain in Wilberforce's thinking, it is that of a Christian enlightened self-interest: an unjust and unlawful system may bring profit in the short term but it injures and destroys souls in the long term. This is not to reduce the abolitionist passion to a refined selfishness - you have only to read what Christian abolitionists wrote to see the strength of their plain abhorrence of the cruelties involved. But it is a significant element in any such moral campaign to ask about the effect of immorality on the health of the individual's soul, to make the oppressor grasp that their own humanity is fatally compromised by the oppressive relationship and that in God's eyes they will have to give account of how they undermined that humanity in themselves.
Understanding this point should help us see one of the central aspects of Wilberforce's legacy. There is no simple gulf between personal and public morality; and Christian morality is not about 'keeping yourself unspotted from the world' in any sense that simply implies withdrawing or ignoring public wrongs. In a democratic state - even one as imperfectly democratic as eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain - the citizen is morally involved in what the state actively enables or supports in terms of the common life. The Christian citizen thus cannot in a democracy simply accept in all cases without question that what the state determines through political majorities is right, because he or she shares an accountability for the corporate moral standing of the state.
And, put like that, the legacy may seem alarming to some. Does it not lend itself to a politics of relentless pressure-group activity, lobbying and perhaps even imposing standards of moral behaviour on non-believers? Before moving on, I want to address these anxieties, and to try and distinguish what I believe to be a proper 'Wilberforcean' politics from some sort of endorsement of a Religious Right on the American model. Wilberforce and his circle, we should note, were deeply preoccupied with personal morality; but they did not seek to enforce purely personal morality by public legislation. Responsibility to God was not for them the same thing as responsibility before the law of the land - nor would we expect it to be, since they lay such emphasis on the believer's free decision to obey God's law. The campaign for the reform of 'Public Manners' with which the Clapham group was so closely associated was about confronting the ethos and assumptions of a culture, but not about imposing morality by statute. Personal morality is precisely that - an area where individuals are free and able to make the decisions that shape their own particular lives
But if the state enacts or perpetuates in the corporate life of the nation what is directly contrary to the Christian understanding of God's purpose for humanity - if it endorses slavery, for example - the Christian is bound to protest and to argue in the public sphere for change, through whatever channels are available. This is something that implicates every citizen, irrespective of their personal choices. There is a difference between matters of personal choice and matters, which, because they help to determine the economy of a whole society, involve everyone who benefits from that economy. So Christian activism in respect of changing the law is justified primarily when the state is responsible for - so to speak - compromising the morality of all its citizens. In such situation, the state is in effect limiting the freedom of its own citizens by involving them in the consequences of morally questionable actions
This is not to sanction any manipulation or sidelining of agreed political process. In this context, to protest and argue for change is to recognise that the state's processes are open to persuasion, one way or another, as the political argument develops. But it is also implicitly to accept that, for the sake of common public order, the legality of what the state decides is normally (if not invariably) to be accepted, even if its morality is still challenged. Wilberforce struggled ceaselessly to persuade Parliament to change the law; if he had not taken the law with absolute seriousness, he would not have bothered. There is a significant point here about the distinction between advocacy and activism to change the law and actions that directly contravene the law or seek to enforce change by extra-parliamentary means.
This looks back to the much misunderstood tradition in Anglican thinking of an earlier century about 'passive obedience': if government enacts what the conscientious believer cannot accept, the believer obeys 'passively', accepting that if he or she breaks the law they will legally and legitimately suffer the consequences, but still refusing to act in any way that could support the general enforcing of a specific law that is problematic. It is the claim to a space for conscientious dissent that may question but does not try to negate the effect of a particular law. That is to say, it allows room for peaceful civil disobedience, while accepting the legal consequences of this; it does not sanction violent or anti-constitutional resistance.
In the twenty-first century environment, these are very complex questions indeed, and a couple of examples may be helpful. There are circumstances where the state creates or recognises a right to certain personal choices, which may be regarded as wrong by some or virtually all Christians. This was once the case with divorce, though the majority of British Christians now have little problem with this. It applies strongly in the case of the abortion laws for many; and it is the subject of some very tangled argument in the context of the Sexual Orientation Regulations, where we not only have the difficulty of working out the precise level of legal restriction that may bear upon dissenting individuals but are also faced with sharp disagreement within Christian communities as to the proper response to the needs and requests of sexual minorities. But all these have in common a focus on the personal choices of individuals. Some Christians may deeply deplore the effect upon society in general of the granting of these rights to choose; but you could not easily claim that the Christian who objects is morally compromised by the choices of others, particularly when the law allows for conscientious exceptions.
But then there are circumstances in which the state is corporately committed to acts and policies that involve all citizens because their effects are universal. Just as the slave trade in eighteenth century England was a central element in the national economy, so that anyone doing well out of that economy was in some sense benefiting from this trade, so there may be national policies in the spheres of economy or defence from which everyone benefits, but which are in varying degrees morally questionable for a Christian. If all benefit, all are involved, and so all are in some measure compromised. This is how, for example, a Christian unilateralist would see Britain's maintenance of a nuclear capability. It is how a Christian committed to fair trade would see a state that operated protectionist trade policies or refused to remit unpayable debt on the part of poorer countries. It is what is taken for granted by the slogan that has become so familiar in recent years, 'Not in my name' - a way of saying that while I am involved in the consequences of a government's decisions, like it or not, I want to make it clear that I cannot own the decision made 'on my behalf' by government. If I profit in some way from what government has done, I need to register that this is not my personal decision and that I object to association with the policy in question.
This, I suggest, is at the heart of what Wilberforce was concerned about. He is not campaigning for the state to impose a personal morality, and would probably, if this were put to him in such terms, have agreed that such a policy would take away the essential aspect of personal liberty in choices about one's own life. But he is campaigning for a moral state - that is, for a state that does not compromise its citizens, and that recognises its own accountability to considerations wider than those of immediate profit and security. He wants government to understand that its policies directly shape the moral status of citizens; public policy creates the world in which particular citizens live their lives, it creates a climate, a set of possibilities, a language and culture of public life or international life. And this moulds what is possible for individuals; it does not - obviously - mean that they are directly and simply responsible for things they have not chosen, but it does mean that the horizons of their moral vision or at least their practical possibilities are limited. The public climate has the capacity to make people less than they might be. This is the important point about the blurring of any easy distinction between public and private morality.
This makes sense, though, only if it is possible to convince those who run things in the public sphere that there are human values and ethical norms to which an entire society is answerable. In our relativist climate, this is very difficult. We are understandably cautious about seeming to give unfair privileges to one system over others, because we are aware of the ways in which cultures have oppressed or exploited each other in the past. But what tends to happen is that nothing much is left as a substantive moral basis for public life except a poorly defined principle of tolerance or avoidance of mutual harm. The idea that you can give substance to a common social ethic, something to which the processes of society as a whole can be held accountable, is unfashionable and unwelcome.
Even from the point of view of many who themselves have no religious commitment, there is a recognition that this is a thin diet. In their challenging recent book, Suicide of the West, Richard Koch and Chris Smith analyse the problems of contemporary liberal democracy and identify as one of the main crises liberalism's 'divorce from its ethical base, the weakening commitment to community, and the lack of real passion on the part of liberals.' These authors go on to say that 'Liberalisms was an offshoot of Jewish and Christian beliefs. The most successful societies and elements in society are those that combine liberalism with a belief that humanity's purpose lies beyond material gratification. People and societies thrive when they believe in some cause beyond self-advancement.' (p.130). A political culture that makes no allowance for motivations beyond profit and security is one that makes no allowance for criticism, for fundamental questions about the worthwhileness of what happens to be current and reasonably useful. And a culture in which fundamental questions like this don't get asked is not an innovative or creative one.
But the problem is deeper still. Without a notional standard of human excellence and human flourishing, the definition of what is good for people is always going to be vulnerable to what happens to suit a dominant interest group. Plato's basic political question, 'What exactly is wrong with saying that justice is the interest of the stronger?' finds no persuasive answer. To sharpen up the paradox, you could say that liberalism as we know it could not have produced the steady revolution in values that brought liberalism itself into being. It could certainly not have generated abolitionism of Wilberforce's kind.
So part of Wilberforce's legacy is to keep the question on the table of what it is that society is responsible to. Only if that is seen as a real question can society imagine (an important word) becoming different, even becoming better, to use a controversial and value-laden word. Relativism is ultimately profoundly conservative; it tells us either that no rational comparisons between systems of value or culture are possible or that change from one to another can only be the result of weighing some chance advantages. In such a decayed liberal society - as ours is becoming - individual virtue is still possible because personal freedom of choice is still available. But the old idea of political virtue is getting more and more remote - political virtue as a way of life which is excellent and admirable because it uses the processes of public life as a means for achieving the measurable good of human beings in their corporate existence, a means for creating a social life worth maintaining and defending. It is true that we often hear appeals in Western societies these days to the need to 'defend our way of life' against alien forces - frequently Islamic at the moment, as they were formerly Communist. And this 'way of life' is normally described as having something to do with freedom. But if all this means is that our society maximises the possibilities of individual choice, never mind what particular things are chosen, it does not take us very far in settling why defending it might be virtuous rather than just self-interested.
Wilberforce would presumably have wanted to defend the British democracy of his age because it was at least capable of nourishing responsible lives, lives directed towards the general improvement of working conditions, the rights of women and children not to be exploited, and so on. And it was abundantly clear to him - after his conversations with John Newton and others - that a career in Parliament was a potentially virtuous and Christian calling, offering through the political process the tools for creating virtuous patterns of life among individuals and classes in the nation. It was possible in political debate to appeal to a general sense that government was indeed answerable to more than considerations of profit and security; and as long as that was the case, a Wilberforce could rightly and responsibly devote a lifetime to working at politics.
Take away that sense, and it is a great deal harder to think about political life as a vocation. If the national political framework is seen as first and foremost the context for managing competing financial demands, worse still, if it is seen as a context for power games unconnected with a clear positive agenda, the sense of answerability disappears. The more politics looks like a form of management rather than an engine of positive and morally desirable change, the more energy it loses. It is significant that in the last few years one of the most widely supported political campaigns was the 'Jubilee 2000' movement for the remission of unpayable debt; outside - but not in opposition to - the parliamentary process, many hundreds of thousands lobbied for a change in what the administration regarded as legally possible, with a certain degree of success. What is interesting is how it seemed to be assumed that parliamentary campaigning would not deliver the same effective results as a diversified and well-organised process of lobbying ministers directly. It suggests a level of disenchantment or indifference in regard to the greater focus there has traditionally been on lobbying elected legislators, rather as if it were being taken for granted that people did not enter Parliament to make a change these days.
I'm not implying that this perception is fair or that our culture has simply swung against old-style parliamentary campaigning for good, only that we are in a disturbing position if, on major issues of public morality, people expect to make a change outside rather than within the electoral system. If political virtue is to be found these days, it is less likely to be in the forms Wilberforce worked with. But if parliamentary democracy is the structure we have, and if the alternative is an executive-driven administration preoccupied with quick results and efficient management, something of the dignity of the democratic process has been lost. And the loss, I am suggesting, arises from the steady draining away of any residual notion that the state itself has or should have a moral foundation, a set of touchstones for human good that are non-negotiable - and more substantial than the market choice models which dictate so much in public as in private life.
But doesn't this lead us back to the problem of what this might be in a culturally and religiously plural society? I shall leave aside for now the question of how far pluralism actually extends and indeed how genuinely plural it is, though there is plenty to say about this. I believe that it is possible for a state to have a moral basis without thereby becoming confessional or theocratic. It involves a state being ready to recognise its own history and specificity; to say that its horizons and assumptions are indeed grounded in a set of particular beliefs, and to embody in its political practice ways of allowing those foundational commitments to be heard in public debate. The establishment of the Church of England, as it has evolved in the last century or so, has turned out to be such a mechanism - a rather awkward one, with many questions around it. But if the Church were to be disestablished, the question would still be there in an acute form: how does the state properly expose itself to argument about its collective moral status?
The modern state needs a robust independent tradition of moral perception with which to engage. Left to itself, it cannot generate the self-critical energy that brings about change - change, that is, for the sake of some positive human ideal. As a guarantor of security, internal and external, and increasingly as a broker and provider of people's 'market' requirements, it is not equipped to work as moral forum. The increasing assimilation of the state, in ways that would have startled Wilberforce's contemporaries, to the provider of goods demanded by a population means that the primary question is likely to be about the means of provision rather than the ideology cal desirability of what is demanded. Quite understandably, the experience of command economies in the twentieth century and the appalling oppressiveness of systems that have had clear definitions of ideological desirability have strengthened the case for a severely neutral state apparatus and have reinforced the growth of the 'market state'. But this leaves it with a set of questions about its moral legitimacy that cannot be left indefinitely ignored.
It is a point that has emerged in very interesting ways in one of the most unusual of contemporary societies, China. From being an unequivocally ideological and command economy state, China has moved towards something rather different, introducing market rhetoric and processes more and more as it seeks to secure prosperity and a new role in the world. But the collapse of straightforward Marxist philosophy as the moral basis of the state has left a disturbing vacuum; and the state has had to rethink its attitude to religion in surprising ways. The situation remains confused, and the notion of a genuinely free and independent moral voice being allowed to develop itself without some sort of state regulation is still a bit academic. But there is wide recognition of the dangerous character of the void in people's motivation when the apparatus of government no longer pretends to be working for a common good that rests on more than material prosperity.
China will not become a theocracy; but it is beginning to think about how its political life can incorporate some kind of dialogue with religious morality or moralities. It is an extreme case, but it does show how societies need to factor into their workings the issues of moral motivation and motivation for proper self-critique. If the state does find ways of incorporating such a dialogue, this certainly does not mean that it thereby enforces or even privileges a religious tradition; it does, though, announce that it will attend to the concerns of a community or communities of moral tradition and, if such communities can convince a credible body of the population, act accordingly, even in areas where such action lies beyond the expected boundaries of the market state's modest aspirations to the management of security and profit. Once again, the Jubilee 2000 campaign offers a good example: although it is certainly not the case that lobbying for debt remission was exclusively the preserve of religious people, it is very doubtful whether the corporate energy for this campaign could have been generated without such people - an acknowledgement readily made by a good many politicians.
We are looking toward what I have called elsewhere the 'more-than-liberal' modern state - liberal in its acceptance of pluralism and market freedom, more than liberal in its readiness to be persuaded to certain sorts of moral action. So it is worth while continuing the pressure for trade justice, further debt remission - and, to take a matter of some current interest, pressure against binding the regeneration of deprived communities to the gambling industry. But perhaps the most sensitive area likely to arise in the specific connection of this bicentenary is that of reparations for the slave trade. Many would want to argue that taking a step in this direction would be an action consistent with and continuous with the courageous campaigning of Wilberforce and his colleagues.
Because this is a subject readily open to serious misunderstanding, let me make one or two clarifying points. No simple legal model of reparation will meet this case. We do not have direct moral and legal liability for the acts, however deplorable, of ancestors, nor do we have a clearly defined destination for reparation in the sense of being able to identify exclusively and precisely those who would count as current victims, however obvious and widespread is the ongoing cost of the slave trade's legacy. We have no clear way of distinguishing levels of culpability as between those who in Britain and America operated the trade and those who 'serviced' it locally - though the levels of relative profit are enormously wide. Most importantly, as in other areas of the law, we have no simple calculus of cost in terms of the value of lives.
So we are bound to be struggling over all this, since there is no way of setting out a legal structure that will do anything other than create both practical and moral confusion. What the talk of reparations does, though, is to remind us of Wilberforce's own insight, that we may be seriously morally compromised by the choices of others, to the extent that we can identify a sort of loss of moral freedom and moral clarity in an inherited situation. Something needs 'repairing' - not compensating for, as the tide of history moves on inexorably and some past evils simply cannot be 'compensated' in any meaningful way; the loss is strictly and literally incalculable (we have only to think of genocides). But the discussion is about acknowledging that past evils leave an agenda formed by the broken relations, the lastingly crippling effects of injustice and oppressive violence, arising from historical decisions - an agenda because we cannot simply say that this can be or ought to be forgotten or even absolved in any direct way. We are who we are and where we are in part because of these evils; we are relatively prosperous societies or singularly deprived societies partly, even largely, because of a long episode of what any would see as a protracted genocide. If we take seriously the fact that we are implicated by the nature of our inheritance, we have work to do. The classic novelistic dilemma of what you would do if you found that your family's fortune had been secured by murder or prostitution (as in [Bernard Shaw's] 'Mrs Warren's Profession') is applicable at the level of collectivities as well. And it suggests that if 'reparations' is the wrong word, there is still a moral case for actions over and above the simply calculated and profitable to restore what has been ruined or broken - to create a relationship as between more equal partners, given the enforced and brutal inequalities of the past.
Nations and institutions thus need to be asking not how to calculate levels of financial obligation but how to devise mechanisms for equipping higher degrees of economic liberty in deprived societies. I don't suggest that there is any formula for this; but I do suggest that it takes us beyond the bare calculation of security and profit and needs the kind of conversation with deep-rooted moral and religious tradition that I have been speaking about. To put it briefly: if democratic opinion can be galvanised into moral vision, into a shared aspiration for change in the direction of justice for all, not only security for some (us), the institutions of government have an incentive to respond. They are being tested not just by their capacity to guarantee prosperity but by their willingness to take practical risks for a moral good. It is worth remembering that the abolition of slavery was thought by many (even if wrongly) to represent an immense practical and financial risk at the time. Even in a less marketised political climate, it needed a firm sense of popular support to encourage government to take such risks. As has often been remarked recently, it is no use simply reproaching government with failure to implement better trade conditions for the poor or indeed better environmental measures if there is not a clear groundswell of opinion in the electoral public.
What is needed then is a set of practices and conventions that will allow government to hear voices that are not constrained by electoral anxiety and narrow considerations of practical profitability. As I have hinted, the presence of the established Church in the political scene has become, as it has evolved, one channel for this, though one that has a fair number of awkward questions around it; there are others. And it is important that in our current debates about the Upper House of Parliament we take seriously the role of such a House in offering channels of independent moral comment. Whatever model we devise for the Upper House, it is vital to ensure that it is not simply swallowed up in an electoral system that could remove this degree of moral independence. And I make no apology for saying that the nature and extent of religious representation in the upper House - a bigger issue than the number of Anglican bishops holding seats there - is not, as some seem to think, a marginal question at all in the light of this discussion. No amount of plaintive appeal to the difficulties posed by 'multiculturalism' should be allowed to obscure this. Indeed, I would say that a proper grasp of the complex of matters unhelpfully bundled together under the name of multiculturalism actually reinforces the need for intense and rigorous public statement of independent moral tradition. But that needs more elaboration than I can give it here.
I come back to the point made earlier: Wilberforce's legacy is about the question of whether we believe in a moral state. If we accept that public morality is inseparably connected with the moral health and well-being of persons in a society and that human moral agents can be damaged by being implicated in public and corporate immorality, we are in effect saying that the state's organs of action cannot be immune from challenge on moral grounds. In the absence (irreversible and not really to be regretted) of a universally shared and assumed moral and religious system, this challenging will be a matter of mobilising and motivating the public at large to bring pressure to bear on public authority because that general public has caught a vision (Jubilee 2000 - but also the beginnings of consumer pressure around ecological matters as it begins to spill over into political pressure). For that to happen, what I have called communities of moral tradition need to go on developing their self-awareness and self-confidence in areas of collective moral issues (and not to confuse this with ill-fated and ill-focused campaigns on questions of personal morality, which are not sensibly addressed through legislative processes).
Wilberforce believed politics was a vocation because he saw politics as always opening out beyond itself. Good politics was in significant part a matter of trying to make sure that a state's public policy did not compromise the souls of its citizens, clouding and complicating their responsibility before God. It is a powerful and a crucial legacy. Our democracy is very different now from what it was in 1806, but some of the dangers are much the same. And Wilberforce - not to mention Equiano and the others - confronts us now with the question, 'If Christians, committed to personal responsibility and social justice, cannot keep before the eyes of the state and its legislators the greater issues beyond security and profit, who can?'
© Rowan Williams 2007