Wednesday, 3 November 2010

‘Big Society’ and theology – a reflection from All Saints Day

Luke Bretherton in his article in the Guardian (‘Big society and the church’, helpfully identifies two competing anthropologies (understandings of what it means to be a human being) going on in government rhetoric: what he calls the ‘Big Citizen’ – a continuation of Thatcherite modernity’s individualist, choice-focused worldview – and the ‘Big Society’ understanding of the person enmeshed in social relationships and commitments (‘whether in families, unions, or congregations’) as ‘the condition of individual flourishing’.

But from a Christian theologically standpoint, and perhaps Bretherton felt he couldn’t say it in the Guardian, there is a third, and quite distinctively Christian, anthropology, that understands the person as most fundamentally ‘en Christo’ – receiving their identity ‘in Christ’, bound up in, as Rowan Williams puts it, ‘solidarities they do not choose’: in loving responsibility to all their neighbours (even enemies, and especially the poor and excluded) ‘in Christ’, but also detached from their worldly allegiances and demands to the extent that those relationships, institutions, allegiances and demands are not Christ-shaped (or ‘kingdom-shaped’, we might also say). This is one of the insights the church rediscovers and celebrates on All Saints Day, among other times.

Jesus’ talk about ‘family’ is a prime example of this, as in the gospel words with which we in Hodge Hill finished our All Saints celebration on Monday night: ‘Jesus asked, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" And pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."’ (Matthew 12:48-50) Interestingly, I imagine our Muslim sisters and brothers might say something very similar.

The challenge for the Church is to embody and demonstrate this Christological anthropology – to form authentically ‘ecclesial persons’, to resist within its own life the temptation to underwrite either of Bretherton’s two alternatives, and to live out this ‘Christian difference’ in their worldly, political lives.

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