Thursday, 12 June 2014

#TrojanHorse, #BritishValues & troublesome faith

In the wake of OFSTED's publication, this week, of a series of weirdly incongruous reports on Birmingham schools (and nurseries) in the spotlight of the so-called 'Trojan Horse' investigation (downgrading a secondary school from 'Outstanding' to 'Requires Improvement' in a matter of months; slating a Nursery school for not including, in its Behaviour Policy, an alertness to "identifying and minimising extremist behaviour"), David Cameron has seized on the opportunity to argue that schools should be teaching and promoting 'British values'. And in case anyone was wondering, these values include "freedom, tolerance and respect for institutions".

Now, I think there's a real case, and opportunity, for a 'big conversation' here in the UK, particularly in England perhaps, about the kind of 'common ground' we (and I use 'we' knowing that that 'we' spans differences of class, ethnicity, faith, culture, age and much more) want to claim to inhabit, and to offer as a common heritage to our children. And I would be surprised if a British Prime Minister didn't air his or her opinions about what such 'common ground' might look like. But I do seriously think that David Cameron's 'values' miss the mark with a quite drastic naivety, if not something more sinister.

There is something unsurprising about an Eton-educated Conservative Prime Minister telling us that we should respect the institutions of the State, but I struggle to find a way of understanding it that doesn't make it sound like an order. Or perhaps it's a desperate plea? I'm not a great historian, but my sense of British history is that any respect we've ever had for institutions has always had a sense of irony about it (if not downright cynicism), and certainly in the last few decades that irony has slipped towards a very justified suspicion, if not contempt. Politicians, press, bankers, police, and yes, the Church too - all have revealed not just fallibilities, but to a greater or lesser extent systemic prejudice, greed, self-protection, abuse and corruption. Relationships of 'respect' have broken down significantly, and not because 'the British public' have somehow simply become less 'respectful'.

At the same time, with more than a little (unacknowledged) irony, we hear of Conservative MPs filing complaints to the Charity Commission against Oxfam, of all organisations, for 'getting political at home' when they should, apparently, be getting on with their proper job of 'feeding people abroad'. And we've heard more from the Trussell Trust about the angry threats from the heart of the Department for Work and Pensions to 'close them down' if they persist not just in feeding the hungry, but in asking why they are hungry in the first place. And of course at the heart of the 'Trojan Horse' investigation is an intense suspicion, by central government, of a whole collection of schools and their governing bodies, within a wider sustained attack, financially and politically, on Birmingham as a Local Authority. 'Respect for institutions' is, it seems, something we are expected to be rather selective about.

From a Christian faith perspective, I find myself with at least two pressing thoughts.

First is a sense that people like Cameron - and here he may well be representative of 'government in general', as exactly the same could be said of New Labour - fundamentally misunderstands and distorts what faith 'does', as they cast it in instrumentalising language. Faith, they seem to think, teaches (or should be teaching) 'freedom, tolerance, and respect for institutions'. Faith builds (or should be building) 'social capital' in our neighbourhoods and wider society, understood as helping people 'get along together', avoiding uncomfortable things like 'extremism' and 'rioting', and maintaining the social, economic and political status quo. The trouble for people like Cameron, is that in real life faith might sometimes do those things, but it also, often, does rather more awkward things like:
- opening up spaces for people to express strong emotions (anger, frustration, cynicism, weariness, fragility, to name but a few)
- promoting quite 'counter-cultural' (i.e. to marketplace or government) norms, values and 'rules' for living, such as self-emptying, forgiveness, transformation, risk-taking and openness to learn from others
- intentionally accepting those who have been rejected elsewhere
- challenging what others – including creators of theories - accept as the norm, as part of a critical rather than an uncritical consensus
- fostering the responsibility to be prophetic in situations of injustice, and a 'politics' that goes far beyond representative democracy

My second thought returns to the question of 'institutions'. For Cameron, Gove et al, it seems the only real institutions are those of the market and the State, with the latter as servant to the former. 'Society' is imagined as what William Cavanaugh calls a 'unitary' or 'simple space', characterized by a duality of a powerful, centralized, hard-boundaried State on the one hand, and individual, property-owning, competing consumer-subjects on the other. In contrast, Cavanaugh offers a picture (drawn perhaps from an over-idealized reading of Medieval Europe), of 'complex space', where "authority was often marked by personal loyalties owed in complexly layered communal contexts", where "social space was completely refracted into a network of associations" not simply 'intermediate' between state and individual, but with their own particular 'ultimate loyalties'. The role of the church, Cavanaugh argues, is to "at every opportunity, 'complexify' space, that is, promote the creation of spaces in which alternative economies and authorities flourish." The nation state, he says, "is neither community writ large nor the protector of smaller communal spaces; rather, it originates and grows over against truly common forms of life... the nation-state is simply not in the common good business."

The 'Trojan Horse' saga is a product of, and an excuse for deepening, the British state's stripping away of 'intermediate' associations and institutions (such as governing bodies and Local Authorities) in favour of the kind of 'unitary, simple space' that Cavanaugh describes so forcefully and - I think, in our current context - convincingly. But it also highlights the misunderstanding - whether naive or wilful - that 'faith communities' can be, or should be, understood, treated, instrumentalised as such 'intermediate associations' themselves, rather than mediating a quite different form of sociality, and a quite different form of authority: for Christians, the God who calls not 'servants' but 'friends', who 'puts down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the humble and meek', who 'feeds the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty'.

- C Baker & H Skinner, Faith in Action: The dynamic connection between spiritual and religious capital, William Temple Foundation, 2006, pp.12-13
- William Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy: God, State and the Political Meaning of the Church, 2011, pp.19, 32, 41-42

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