The Church and Social Life



Delivered at mass meeting held under the auspices of the Industrial Christian Fellowship, London, September 26, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 23-25

THE Church has both the right and the duty to declare the principles which should govern the ordering of society. It has this right because, in the revelation entrusted to it, it has the knowledge concerning man and his destiny which depends on that revelation and which illuminates all questions of human conduct.

Of course, it is universally recognized that the Church should lay down principles for the conduct of individuals.

What lately is being disputed is the right of the Church also to lay down principles for the action of corporate groups, such as trade unions, employers' federations or national states, or to undertake in any way the direct ordering of men's corporate life.

This distinction between individuals and the various groupings in which the lives of individuals are conducted is quite untenable. The whole life of man is conducted in societies. Those societies will, in structure and in function, express the character of those who compose the society and the aims which they have set before themselves. And these, having been expressed in the structure of society, will be reproduced through a process of constant unconscious suggestion in every new generation. The understanding which the Church has concerning the nature of the destiny of man gives it the qualification for declaring what kind of structure in society is unwholesome.

Says Church Can Judge

Prejudice against this arises from the risk that Christian people may attempt to impose upon a society consisting of people who are very mixed in religious allegiance a type of order that will only work effectively if all the citizens are genuine Christians. But that is a snare which Christians engaged in this enterprise ought easily to avoid, for it is a fundamental part of the whole Christian conception of man that unless he is guided by trusting in the grace of God he is incapable of conducting his life in accordance with the pattern of Divine intention. Nevertheless, there are certain ways of ordering society which express and reproduce a definitely unwholesome outlook on life and others which suggest a right ordering of human motives—and between the two the Church is qualified to judge.

But the Church has not only the right, but it has the duty to declare the principles of the true social life.

This is not a duty first and foremost to society and does not arise from the fact that men have the right to claim guidance from it; it is first and foremost a duty to God and arises from the obligation to bear witness to the fullness of the gospel and the blessings for human life which that contains.

It would not be possible, as an introduction to a discourse like this, to set forth the social principles that Christianity undoubtedly involves. That task has been performed many times and in this audience the general upshot may be assumed. When we look upon the society with which we have been familiar, two points in its ordering at least challenge the judgment of the Church which must inevitably be uttered in condemnation.

The first is the broken fellowship in our society—which Disraeli called the two nations. For the moment, no doubt, under the stress of war, our whole people are united, but we know quite well that it was not so in the days of peace and that, when the special urgency of war is past, the seeds of old divisions will spring up, and bear their fruit again unless steps are taken to re-create fellowship. I Our Lord told us plainly that if we would seek first His kingdom of justice, material goods would be added to us according to our need—that is manifestly true. If every man were eager that all his fellow citizens should have enough before he himself had any superfluity, there can be no doubt that all would have enough.

Each Seeks "Own Advantage"

But we do not put first God's kingdom of justice and we each seek our own advantage, checking the competition which results only at the point where it threatens our mutual destruction,Saint Paul rather surprises us, until we think carefully, when among the works of the flesh, he puts alongside of obvious carnal indulgences, envyings, strife, seditions and so forth.

But by "the flesh" he means the outlook upon life which primarily is concerned with material goods; of these, so far as they are purely material, it is true to say that the more one has, the less there is for others, so that each man's success represents corresponding failure in his neighbors. Whereas, of the fruits of the spirit, it is true that the more one man has, the more the others have on that account alone: that is true of knowledge, appreciation of beauty, courage, love, joy and peace.

These things are not limited in amount, so that if onehas more, there is less for others, but they are infectious and wherever they are found in one human being they are found also to some extent in all with whom he consorts. So that to care first for these things is always the way of fellowship.

The broken fellowship of our society rests upon the materialism of our habitual outlook. This leads to that gross disparity of wealth and poverty which must at all costs be remedied. It leads also to a lack of leisure which, in an age of mechanized industry, involves a lack of opportunity for a fully human life. To provide for all adequate leisure, with the means to utilize and enjoy it, must be one of our primary aims.

The other point to which I wish to allude is another expression of this principle. The predominant motive, guiding not only enterprise but the whole ordering of industry, has been what is commonly called the profit motive. Now it is true that we are constantly told there is no harm in a man's seeking to better his position and to gain for his children a fuller life than has been possible for himself, provided that this is secondary and not primary in his mind.

Damaging to General Interest

The profit motive is not simply evil: it can have its own right place. But that is not the first place; and the harm in the predominance of the profit motive is not merely that it is an expression of selfishness, whether the form it takes is concerned with dividends or wages, but that to put this first may lead to an ordering of economic life which in fact is damaging to the general interest.

An obvious illustration is afforded by the whole question of the location of industry. If this is to be ordered with reference to the general welfare and proper balance of agriculture and other industries, then concern for profit from the industry itself, whether dividends or wages, must take second place.

But how are we to secure that it takes second place if the people who have to make the decision are in fact bound together only by the concern for the efficiency of the enterprise they conduct and are not selected, and made formally responsible, for their contribution to the general good? However high-minded the directors of a privately owned concern, they are not called upon, and probably have not the qualifications, to decide what is most in the public interest, and it is absurd to expect that they will order that part of the national life which has been entrusted to them with a view to something for which they were not selected and are probably unqualified to estimate with full knowledge.

We have to find a way of securing that the general interest in which we are all united takes precedence over every sectional interest by which we may be divided.

For the promotion of that general interest there are two special problems which we need to consider with an altogether new thoroughness. These are land and money.

There are four requisites for life which are provided by nature, even apart from man's labor: air, light, land and water.

No "Right of Exclusive Use"

I suppose if it were possible to establish a property claim upon air somebody would have done it by now and would have made people pay if they wanted to breathe what he would then call his air. So, too, of light. But it has not been found possible to do this.

Unhappily, it has been found possible in the case both of land and water, and we have tended to respect claims made by owners of land, and water flowing through or beneath it, in a way which subordinates the general interest to the private interest of those owners. I am not persuaded that the right way to deal with this question is by nationalization of land, but I am sure we need to assert the prior interest of the community respecting land and water with a vigor of which recent political history shows no trace. Here, supremely, the principle of the old Christian tradition holds good, that the right of property is the right of administration or stewardship—never the right of exclusive use.

The present treatment of land and the buildings placed on it strikes me as perfectly topsy-turvy. If a landlord neglects his property and it falls into a bad condition, which is an injury to society, the rates upon that property are reduced, while if he improves the property, and so does a service to society, his rates are increased. But if the rates were levied on the land itself, not on the buildings placed on it, there would always be an inducement to make the property as good as possible in order that the best return might be received from it.

I think we should welcome the proposals of the Uthwatt Report. They aim at a combination of the advantages of public ownership and ultimate control with private initiative. But we must see they are not whittled down by concessions to vested interests.

Wants Incentive for Service

You see, I am going on the supposition that what we have to do is not to expect that men will guide their conduct always by the motive of service instead of self-interest, but rather to so organize life that self-interest prompts those actions which are of greatest social service.

In the case of money, we are dealing with something which is handled in our generation by methods that are extremely different from those in vogue a century or half a century ago. When there was a multitude of private banks, the system by which credit was issued may perhaps have been appropriate, but with the amalgamation of the banks, we have now reached the stage where something universally needed—namely, money, or credit which does duty for money —is become, in effect a monopoly.

It seems to me a primary political principle that wherever you have something which is universally needed, but which is governed as a monopoly, that monopoly should be taken over by the state. The private issue of new credit should be regarded in the modern world in just the same way in which the private minting of money was regarded in earlier times. The banks should be limited in their lending power to the amount deposited by their clients, while the issue of new credit should be the function of public authority.

This is not in any way to censure the banks or bankers. They have administered the system entrusted to them with singular uprightness and ability and public spirit. But the system has become anomalous, and, as so often happens when an anomaly has persisted through a long period of time, the result is to make into the master what ought to be the servant.

But that leads me to my last point. Whatever you may have thought of my earlier points, this at least is one which is the Church's direct concern. When all is said, the trouble with our social life is sin—that strange perversion and fatality of human nature as a result of which, if we are not guided by trusting to the grace of God, we convert our very blessings into curses.

Let us never suppose that by any external rearrangement of the ordering of life we can establish either justice or good will. Sin, which now expresses itself in an unlimited acquisitiveness for wealth, can just as easily express itselfin grasping and manipulating the levers of power in a collectivized society.

Cites Duty of Church

It is true that some orderings of society seem to suggest and encourage self-seeking, which others suggest and encourage fellowship, but even the latter can be perverted by the sin and selfishness of men, and the primary duty of the Church in the social field is to call her citizens to recognize that civic no less than individual action stands under the judgment of God; that they are responsible to Him for it, and that it can truly prosper only if they submit social, as personal, life to the redeeming love of God in Christ.

To do this, we must relate our social life to worship, and worship to our social life. We must appreciate afresh the meaning of the Eucharist where we offer to God the fruit of man's labor exercised upon God's gifts of bread and wine,representing all economic wealth, that we may receive it back from Him, charged with His own grace and power and shared in perfect fellowship.

Our highest act of worship is the symbol of the truly Christian social order. But we have been blind to that aspect of it and need to recover our sensitiveness. When worship is once more the consecration of life, and all life—industry and commerce, no less than friendship and the family—is the corollary of worship, our Church will again truly live and Society will be the fulfillment of our dreams.

One danger is here, very insidious, which must be warded off. It is that we shall try to make God the means to our ends, the instrument of our plans. That is sheer disaster. We dedicate ourselves to this enterprise in His name, believing it to be His will, in the hope that through it He may be glorified in drawing the people into that fellowship which is the counterpart of His holy love.