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Archbishop's address at Welsh Assembly

The Archbishop speaks with young debaters

Monday 26th March 2012

The Archbishop visited the National Assembly of Wales and delivered a keynote address on the subject "For the common good: what is it that turns a society into a community?".

Listen to an audio file of the Archbishop's speech in which he shares his views on factors that unite and strengthen communities, or read the transcript.

Earlier in the day, the Archbishop joined a debate with a group of 14-18 year olds who were looking at the theme of identity.  The debate was held at the National Assembly’s recently opened Youth Debating Chamber and Educational Centre, and had been organised in partnership with CEWC Cymru, an educational charity that works to develop active citizens of Wales and the world.  The young people discussed their own identities, not just with regard to feeling Welsh or British, but also in terms of culture and religion.  Speeches were made from all sides of the debate - Muslim students shared how growing up in a Church of Wales school had had a positive impact on their own faith; other students spoke from Christian and atheist perspectives.  The Archbishop spoke at the end, summing up the debate and giving his thoughts in response to what he had heard.  His comments, one of which is transcribed below, can be heard in full here

Identity is a very slippery word, as everybody has brought out.  I heard some voices raised, I think very importantly, against what people now often call ‘identity politics’: this is who I am, these are my rights, I demand that you recognise me. 

Identity politics, whether it’s the politics of feminism, whether it’s the politics of ethnic minorities, or the politics of sexual minorities, has been a very important part of the last ten or twenty years.  Because, before that, I think there was a sense that diversity was not really welcome.  And so minorities of various kinds and - not that it’s a minority - particularly a group of women, began to say ‘well, actually we need to say who we are in our terms, not yours’.  And that led to identity politics of a very strong kind and the legislation that followed it. 

We’re now, I think, beginning to see the pendulum swinging back, and saying: well, identity politics is all very well but we’ve got to have some way of putting all that together again, and discovering what’s good for all of us, and, as I said at the beginning, sharing something of who we are with one another so as to discover more about who we are. 

That’s just one point that struck me in listening to this excellent conversation – identity isn’t just something sealed off and finished with. Identity is something we bring to the task of building up a fuller identity all the time.  It’s always a work in progress, always a project, never something done with.  Once we start saying ‘This is my identity and that’s it,’ then I think we’re in danger of really fragmenting the society we belong to. 


For the common good: what is it that turns a society into a community?

Address to the Welsh Assembly

by The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams

26th March 2012

Thank you all very much for coming. This weekend has been a huge privilege for me. I’ve been able to visit a number of familiar and less familiar sights and I feel myself very deeply at home once again.

So I’m very glad to have this opportunity of sharing with you, in this unique political context, some thoughts about society and community.

How and when does society become community?  Because ‘society’ is largely a neutral word - society is about the backdrop against which we live; it’s about many of the relationships and interconnections that we didn’t choose but which are part of our mental furniture. And yet we want to say that society, in itself, as a concept, doesn’t have very much of a moral tone to it, whereas the word community more obviously does.  So much so that it’s almost become a cliché – community values, community action, community solidarity, are immediately and obviously ‘good things’. But why?  How does this work?  And what are some of the specifics that add that moral value to the background against which we live and the connections which bind us together?

In my remarks today I’ll be suggesting four particular areas in which, I believe, community is most evident; four particular kinds of priority for those who want to turn society into community. And all of them depend on one foundational assumption; that community occurs when people take responsibility for one another.

When we’re occasionally told 'We’re all in this together' (with varying degree of plausibility), that appeals to the sense that a solidarity experience, a community experience, means that what happens to me and what happens to you are not separate issues.  My fate and my wellbeing is bound up with yours, and if it is bound up with yours then I have some responsibility for understanding and managing and nurturing that reality.

So if that’s where we start, with a notion that community is about taking responsibility for one another and being answerable for one another’s wellbeing, what would be some of the things that community makes less likely? What are the things that community pushes back at? What does community challenge?  I’m going to come at this from that rather negative point of view to start with, because I think that may help us actually get a clearer grip on the issue. Rather than saying what community is, I’m going to begin by saying what community isn’t, and see where we get to with that.

The first thing I want to say is that community, in the sense I’ve suggested, challenges inequality. I’ve put it that way round not because I’m saying that community is essentially egalitarian, that the only true community is where everybody is equal in some abstract sense, but to underline the fact that community as an ideal, as a moral value, pushes back against inequality.

And it’s been said with a good deal of backing and a good deal of plausibility, that societies with the highest levels of income inequality and inequality of access to services are societies with the highest indices of unhappiness, the lowest indices of wellbeing. The famous research of Wilkinson and Pickett embodied in that very striking book ‘The Spirit Level’[1]  a couple of years ago, draws this out very clearly. Put alongside the measurements of inequality and the measurements of declared unhappiness, and you see the correlation immediately. Where the gap is widest between the wealthiest and the least wealthy, the levels of dis-ease in society are most clear.

So to speak about community in that context, to speak about taking responsibility for one another, is to challenge society about what levels of inequality it is prepared to tolerate. Not in the name, as I’ve said, of an abstract ideal that everybody should be equal, but simply in the name of the pragmatic recognition that the wider that gap is, the more dis-ease and discontent there is going to be.

My second ‘challenge area’ is the conviction that community pushes back against managerial and functionalist approaches to human beings. Community, as taking responsibility for one another, assumes that the ‘other’ for whom you’re taking responsibility is a three-dimensional person – not an item, not an abstraction; but somebody with a particular history, with a particular set of strengths and weaknesses, with particular gifts to give.  Reduce that three‑dimensionality to something else and you are reducing the chances of a vital and healthy community life. That is why it is so vitally important that we take education seriously and do not reduce it to training in skills alone. We’re not simply preparing people to be cogs in a wheel or items on a list; we are preparing people to understand themselves and the society they inhabit.

Those of us who were present earlier this morning at the session with schoolchildren from a variety of secondary schools around South Wales, will have rather vividly in our minds what the results of a good education look like: young people who are genuinely eager to understand themselves and their world, who are not nervous or ashamed of declaring who they are and where they stand, and who are also deeply willing to listen to, and to learn from, one another. And I was impressed and delighted that that vision was still alive here.

But there’s a great deal in our environment, our whole cultural environment, which, because of its impatience, presses hard on that ideal and makes it less likely. Worse still, there are trends in society, in the North Atlantic world, which are reductive in their approach to human beings in an even more alarming way. There will shortly be published a study by the American economist and sociologist, Michael Sandel, under the title of ‘What Money Can’t Buy’[2] in which he lists some of the things that have become ‘commodified’ in recent years, some of the things for which you can now pay – legally and not so legally.

Among those things which you can now buy is other people’s time. If you do not wish to stand in line for a queue in New York and want to have a theatre ticket, you can pay somebody else to go and stand there for you. That’s one of the least offensive aspects of it. Much more offensive is the practice of some companies taking out life insurance on their employees, so that if an employee dies they will frequently get a great deal more money than the deceased person’s family.

And my thought on reading these pages was, I hope appropriately, a biblical phrase: when the Fall of Babylon is announced in the Book of Revelation, the last commodity in which Babylon is said to have traded is the 'souls of men'. And what we see in that commodifying of human life, time, wellbeing, is a trade in human souls. That is something which manifestly makes the ideal of community and mutual responsibility far less likely. And when it is extended still further into the purchase of donor organs from the poor – a trade which we all know goes on in organs used for transplants for the West and secured by doubtful means outside the developed world – we see how very far we’ve come from anything that could be called mutual responsibility. The managerial and functional approach which seeks to reduce everything to commodity is one which, whatever its surface allegiance to ideals of diversity, actually seeks to smooth everything out into lumps of material on which price tags are affixed. 

And, as I hinted already, to take seriously the opposition to this managerial or functional or commodifying strand, is actually to take seriously the reality of human diversity – once again, the three-dimensional character of your neighbour.

The third thing which I believe the community vision challenges is the downgrading of an idea of public and shared benefit. There are some things that are, by definition, impossible to understand as an ‘individual good’ alone; some things which are inherently good because they require and produce cooperation.

As somebody pointed out some years ago, it may even have been Amitai Etzioni, the great communitarian theorist, you can’t be individualist about fire brigades. That is a necessarily ‘social good’ - either it is something shared, or it is nothing at all. But part of recognising that is to recognise that leaving public or common goods entirely to chance, or even to tender, is something which threatens a full-blooded sense of mutual responsibility. So the challenge is not only to the forgetting of the character of public goods; it’s also to a growing tendency to assume that you can leave the provision of public goods to chance.

And that means not – and I’ll come to this in a moment – an assumption that all problems are to be solved top down from the State, because that is no more faithful or helpful to community than anything else.  It is a challenge to find the right kind of balance between statutory provision and local initiative, which is the key to so much of what we’re talking about here.

Because the fourth and final area where I think challenge is involved, is that a mutual taking of responsibility pushes back at a passive welfarism, a passive ‘statism’, as some people call it.  That is, an assumption that the State is a provider of solutions and solver of problems.  We may bridle, as I sometimes instinctively do, at the way 'welfarism' is used in a derogatory sense these days, because the achievements of public welfare in this country have been enormous. And yet there is some substance to that suspicious use of the word.  There is a problem about dependency, there is a problem about assuming somebody else resolves the problems, and there is certainly a problem about centralised state provision as the solution to everything. And those who have recently, from both left and right, pointed out that welfarism is not good news for those who want a mutually responsible, active and creative community, have not been wrong.

As I said, I’ve chosen to come at the question of community through those negatives.  And bodying out what they mean in positive terms would be a very long job indeed, certainly longer than I have time for in these brief remarks today. But I hope that by identifying some of the things that community values are intrinsically against, we may have a sharper sense of what we need to beware of with any set of political and social solutions that we’re offered.  The values of community challenge inequality; they challenge managerialism, they challenge the unbridled market of public goods, and they challenge passivity and dependence.

Much of that, of course, points us back to a particular kind of social and political vision that has been very much part of Wales’ own history, and that is the cooperative tradition in the broadest possible sense. A cooperative tradition which was never, in Wales, simply about voluntary agencies responding to local problems, but was about keeping up simultaneously local initiative and pressure on the public purse to support local initiatives. Basic public provision fleshed out in active local initiative. 

That seems to me to have been the political ideal at its best of the cooperative movement in Wales, and not only in Wales. And it’s something which, again, has some challenges in it – challenges to many of the current orthodoxies of both left and right in our politics.

It’s become quite familiar now to point this out, but there is a strand of thinking in the British left, and again probably not just the British left, which has been almost obsessional about state solutions. The Fabian element in British socialism has always sat rather uncomfortably with the localist cooperative element in British socialism. The Fabian element has often won because it often seems that central planning is bound to be more effective than anything else and that we’ve learned from our mistakes in that way.  Equally, that strand in the British right, which has assumed that between the individual and society there is nothing very substantial, has found its comeuppance in a whole variety of ways in the last couple of decades.

So if we are to talk about community in terms of mutual responsibility, then we have to be prepared to be an uncomfortable ally, whether we define ourselves as belonging to the right or the left.  And as I’ve said on one or two occasions before, I happen to think that this is part of the Church’s calling to be an uncomfortable ally, not a body which simply exists within the comfort zone of any political party. If the churches are being a nuisance equally to Government and opposition, they’re probably roughly in the right place.

But all that I’ve said also means that there is something we are corporately against, if we’re against the things I’ve listed.  And that is what one could call, in shorthand, 'economism', the notion that economic calculation and economic solutions can be narrowly defined in terms of measurable profit and loss, bracketing out issues of a shared wellbeing. I’ve mentioned already the work of Michael Sandel and I shall mention also the extremely important work of the Indian economist, Partha Dasgupta, whose work for the last ten years or so has struggled to redefine economic assessments of profit and loss by factoring in issues like environmental cost and cost to corporate wellbeing. Economism, rather like scientism, is something rather different from economics, as scientism is from science. Economism, which assumes that we are all essentially calculating machines, and that profit and loss can be separated entirely from our sense of ourselves, is a dangerous presence in the intellectual and social world – but it’s had quite a lot of currency in the last two or three decades.

All the things I mentioned: challenges to inequality, to managerialism, to the market in public goods, to passivity and dependence, all of those are bound up with problems that can be defined as rooted in economism.

How we persuade ourselves corporately and politically, how we persuade some of the economic intellectual establishments to rethink concepts of profit and loss in relation to shared wellbeing - that’s perhaps the challenge which the title of this talk embodies.

But to try and draw this further together, in moving towards a conclusion, I want to say that the challenges I’ve enumerated and the context of a call to take responsibility for one another, are rooted in a very strong moral sense of what human beings are – what they are for; what they are capable of; what, as a theologian, I’d call an anthropology, a doctrine of human nature.

And I’m more and more persuaded that it’s impossible to have anything resembling an intelligent discussion in the political and social realm without struggling to clarify what we actually believe about human beings. I don’t think that, in recent decades, we have been pressed hard enough about the need to bring this to the surface.  I turn here again, not only to Michael Sandel, but to some of the work that’s been done in the last couple of years, again work about to appear in print, by another rather radical economist: Robert Skidelsky[3], the biographer of John Maynard Keynes.  He, like Sandel, like other political thinkers including Philip Blond on the half of the Red Tories and John Millbank from the Christian theological point of view, all of these in their different ways have underlined the imperative of clarity about what we actually think of, and expect of, human beings. All of them in their different ways, therefore, have challenged a one-dimensional picture of humanity.  It was, of course, the notorious Marxist thinker, Herbert Marcuse who wrote a book called ‘One Dimensional Man’ in the sixties, and while his analysis is wildly implausible in many ways and his prescriptions for solutions not, on the whole, to be encouraged, nonetheless the title tells us that about something we need to know about: the risks of one-dimensionality; the risks of shrinking and reducing what we believe about human beings

To undertake a response to the challenges that I’ve enumerated requires us to be very, very clear about what we think of human beings. And it requires us also to be very, very clear about what I called earlier the ‘essentially social’ character of some of our goods, some of the benefits we want to work for.

What are the sorts of things which we cannot adequately talk about in an individualist or a managerial way, if they coincide? I mentioned fire brigades but I could just as well talk about blood donors, as did a former Cambridge colleague of mine, who many years ago said that, for him, one of the most theologically significant facts about society was the practice of giving blood. Nobody has to do it, nobody controls the quantity that is given.  There is demand, and mysteriously supply meets it – but not for economic reasons. Why? Because people are still, at some level, persuaded that this is a practice that is good for everyone and therefore a good decision for them. We cannot think individualistically about the practice of giving blood – though those of you who remember Tony Hancock’s blood donor sketch may realise it’s not always as simple as that!

But perhaps in other ways too we can talk about how we locate and how we value the presence of sport and art in common life. Sports and arts are, again, public goods. The individual artist or writer is not someone simply expressing themselves, but somebody offering a gift for understanding, stimulus, challenge, stretching, in a community. Sport, as we have very good reason to know in Cardiff particularly, is something which not only requires spectators to be around to applaud but feeds into the self-image and self-understanding of an entire community.  But it is, in itself, a cooperative enterprise which, in spite of some aspects of what I’d have to call the ‘football industry’ these days, is not best served by a primarily individualistic approach to things. There’s a wonderful blunder in a 19th century novel about university life by somebody who had clearly never watched a boat race. The author is describing her hero as part of a team competing in a boat race: “All rowed fast but none so fast as stroke.” That nice little phrase encapsulates exactly what is wrong with an individualistic approach to some of these issues around sports.

The point is that the ‘good’ of a good game, the ‘good’ of a good play or concert, is a good both of the group together producing something, and the good for a participating community around. These are intrinsically social, shared goods.  And to hold onto that is, once again, to witness to something we believe about the nature of human beings. To witness to the fact that human beings are not adequately described in terms of consuming, in terms of individual self‑expression, individual profit or wealth.  That wellbeing is itself a shared matter, which is why spiralling differences in income, for example, are such a problem.

And if we have the requirement of a good doctrine of human flourishing, human dignity – if we have that robust view of what social goods, shared are really like – we have, of course, a very good rationale for being deeply serious about the moral thrust of education.  By which I don’t mean simply classes in ethics for young people, but a whole educational framework which takes it for granted that the educational institution is there so that three-dimensional persons may emerge, so that citizens may emerge.

And that really is where I want to bring these remarks to a conclusion: the idea of citizenship. A community where people are taking responsibility for each other is a community of citizens in the fullest sense. Society doesn’t necessarily require citizens.  It may require law-makers and people who obey the laws; but it doesn’t necessarily require people who act in the civic context because of what they believe about themselves and their neighbours as human beings. I believe very strongly that a proper notion of citizenship is one which takes for granted that three-dimensional humanity I underlined. A proper notion of citizenship tells us something about how a community works because it tells us something about responsibility for, and with, one another. 

For me, as a Christian, that is a model with its ultimate roots in a theological doctrine of humanity, but also a theological approach to community. I read, every day, scriptures which remind me about the nature of a community in which the purposes of God are visible, whether it’s the community of the Hebrew scriptures living under law, or the community of the Christian scriptures where, as Paul says, we work as a body in which there is nothing good for one part that isn’t good for the whole and nothing bad for one part that is not bad for the whole. And in which we all have something we are called upon to contribute to the flourishing of an organic whole.

How does society become community? By discovering the roots of a three-dimensional understanding of humanity; by discovering what citizenship fully and properly is; by discovering something of the depth and surprise that belongs to human nature. I trust that in this building, in the institution which it serves and represents, and in this nation, that is a vision which still makes sense and is still felt to be worth pursuing and capable of attainment.

© Rowan Williams 2012  


[1] The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.  Penguin, 2010. 

[2] What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael Sandel.  Allen Lane, 26 April 2012.

[3] How Much is Enough: The Economics of the Good Life, by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky.  Other Press, 26 Jun 2012.


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