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Archbishop's lecture celebrating 60th Anniversary of the William Temple Foundation

Wednesday 5th November 2008

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, delivered the final lecture in a series celebrating the 60th anniversary of the William Temple Foundation.

A transcript of the lecture follows:

From Welfare State to Welfare Society – the contribution of faiths to happiness and wellbeing in a plural civil society.

It's a very great privilege to be invited to speak on this occasion, marking not only the sixtieth anniversary of the foundation, but also the centenary of William Temple's ordination as a deacon.

The title given me is comprehensive enough to keep us here for a couple of days, so I'll attempt to limit its scope just a little. And I'll begin with the word welfare itself. We know that in the last couple of decades welfare has often become not so much a concept that we think about in itself, but a word tagged onto something else, frequently something rather negative. 'Welfare dependency', for instance, is one of those pairs of concepts that shadow much of our political discourse. During this lecture I want to address the question of how we properly define welfare and well-being. But as one way into that I want to look first at why the association of welfare and dependency is thought to be a bad thing, and what has gone wrong with our understanding of the word 'welfare', if that is the kind of association it first arouses in us.

I suppose that the problem could be epigrammatically put in terms of the old joke: 'If we are put on earth to be good to other people, what are the other people put on earth for?' That's to say that for some people, thinking about 'welfarism' – let's qualify it in that way – seems to carry about with it the assumption that humanity divides between the 'do-ers' and the 'done-to'. And when people identify a problem about dependency, it's because they very rightly and reasonably say that human dignity is not simply about what is owed to us and what is given to us, it's also about what each has to give. In what I say this evening I want to explore something of the theological background to thinking of human dignity in those terms, and how that does indeed leave us eventually with a far richer concept of welfare than simply ambulance work, gap-stopping and damage limitation. And to help me in this task, I turn to William Temple.

Stephen Spencer in his very interesting monograph: William Temple: A Calling to Prophecy, quotes (p 70) from an unpublished article now in Lambeth Palace Library, in which Temple sets out to define what he means by a welfare state: 'If the state recognizes in every citizen something superior to itself, we get the conception of the welfare state according to which the state exists for the sake of its citizens, both collectively and individually.'

Now that is a very searching and a very fruitful definition of what a welfare state might mean. The state exists for the sake of its citizens, but there is a deeper dimension to that than simply saying that the state has the duty to provide for its citizens; it's more that the state recognizes in the citizen 'something superior to itself'. That's not an immediately transparent formula, but I take it to mean something like this: the state deals with human beings in their fullness, in their capacity for creativity, self-motivation and self-management. That is, the state deals with human beings in their freedom, not just in their need. And if the state recognizes in human beings that dimension of creativity, of capacity for self-management and self-motivation, the state as Temple believes it ought to be will recognize in each person a unique contribution to a corporate enterprise. And by the time you've granted that, you've already somewhat dismantled the notion of the state itself as a monolith. You've already begun to see the state as the broker of different kinds of creativity: the state as negotiating with its citizens, not as a single block, a pseudo-agent providing for them. And to talk about human welfare only in terms of how needs are to be satisfied in emergencies, is precisely to be tied to the kind of passive account of humanity that Temple wished to avoid.

So if there is indeed a problem not with welfare but with welfarism, it seems to be in this kind of area. Welfarism is often used as a kind of abusive shorthand for that approach to human issues, problems and challenges which in the end—with the very best of intentions—strips human beings of their agency, their initiative, and their creative capacity for dealing with themselves and one another in collaboration. We need to get beyond such a potential division of humanity between the agents and the patients; the ones who do and the ones who are done to. We need to have an account of justice and well-being which take entirely seriously human freedom and human interdependence, the human capacity for internal change and movement, the human as subject.

So much by way of framing the problem: these are some of the anxieties that have been raised in association with the concept of welfare as it's developed, and some of the associations that the unpleasant word 'welfarism' has in many people's ears. What I've suggested so far is that Temple himself clearly thought the opposite of this, and it's that opposite vision which now we need to explore a little further. But before doing so, let me just add one note to this introductory observation.

In the Eighties when welfarism was so much a term of abuse, some people seemed to think that the alternative was to give people power and initiative through the market, to make them independent agents as purchasers. A moment's thought ought to tell us that this is not an answer to an underlying problem. It shrinks human agency to one particular mode and it certainly doesn't take us out of the polarity of the do-ers and the done-to. What its practical results are, if the market metaphor takes over the whole of our social thinking, I don't need to elaborate on because I think that the negative effects of that hardly need spelling out to an audience such as this! So if we are looking for an alternative to an over-dependent picture of humanity, then the market is not the only alternative: but exploring what is will take a while, and still needs more work than a lot of social thinkers have given to it.

Let me step back a little and ask what it is about the perspective of religious faith that specifically begins to help us in addressing this question. Perhaps the first and most significant issue here is that religious faith assumes that human fulfillment is something that an agent, a human subject, owns -- that is, something that is genuinely theirs, which is connected with the choices they make, the lives they live. Human fulfillment is the condition of human life when your happiness is not being defined for you by the power or agency of someone else. The religious perspective assumes that each of us is answerable for himself or herself; answerable for their relationship to that reality which is utterly non-negotiable, transcendent and universally real: God. Different religious traditions approach this in different ways; but every one of them still does take it for granted in some way that fulfillment – happiness if that's the appropriate word here – is about taking responsibility for where and who you are before God.

I've avoided, so far, speaking of the human individual doing this, because religious traditions also insist that, to do this 'taking of responsibility' before God, we need to be thoroughly embedded in corporate practices and common life (and I'll come back to that in a while). But when all is said and done about that, it remains true that the religious conception of what it is that fulfills humanity is one that has inexorably to do with the sense that 'I am an agent', 'I am answerable for myself'.

Larry Siedentop, in his very interesting book on Democracy in Europe (Penguin: London 2001) (e g pp 194-5) some years ago noted how very deeply this religious, and as he sees it specifically Christian insight, finds its way into the foundation of the sense of what Europe is about. And he criticizes contemporary, secular liberalism – writing, himself, as a secular liberal – for its failure to explore this basis in religious conviction of liberal conviction; this basis in the sense of being answerable. For the religious believer, human happiness and fulfillment is not and can never be, a commodity provided by another; something defined by a collective for you, something dictated by power outside you. It is something shaped, negotiated, discovered by agents with other agents in a flowing together of freedoms. There is one very bad way of understanding welfare, which has to do with fostering the illusion that the state has a duty to make the individual happy. If my reading of what Temple's vision is about is correct, once again the absolute opposite is true. Welfare is not about someone else's responsibility to make me happy. Welfare is about releasing the self for well-being, to shape and discover that well-being with other selves and other agents.

Sometimes the most effective tributes to religious conviction come from the unlikeliest sources. And it's very interesting when a non-religious analyst like Larry Siedentop makes the kind of observation that he does. And I note another comparable, recent expression of this in a most interesting recent book by the American, Jewish philosopher Susan Neiman called Moral Clarity: A Guide For Grown-Up Idealists (Harcourt: Boston MA, 2008). In this book she tackles a number of what she thinks of as grave misunderstandings in the glib, secularist worldview: though she's still very critical of religion. But she notes the way in which some secularists very readily say, 'Oh, the religious person wants to yield their responsibility, they want to be relieved of the burden of making choices and being themselves. That's why fundamentalism is attractive: you're dealing with people who have given up on the struggle to be a self.' Here's what she has to say about that: 'Secular observers view fundamentalism as a way of making believers' lives both easier and more passive. It's a view that's both condescending and dangerous. It doesn't grasp the fundamentalist appeal. Its religions offer rules that make some decisions easier and no doubt that's one reason that many people are drawn to them. But there are deeper reasons that must be faced head-on. It turns out that part of what people often want is responsibility for their lives. Religion doesn't only make people passive by shouldering some of the burdens of decision; it makes them feel more active as well. The window of transcendence it opens onto the every-day, is an injection of spirit into a world of sluggish torpor' (p 94).

'Religion doesn't only make people passive'. I think we might want to put it rather more positively than that, and say that religion is profoundly about making people active. Active, not busy or obsessional; active not anxious; because active on the basis of, and in harmony with, an agency believed to be eternal and triumphant: the agency of divine love. Religious faith properly understood, as Neiman reluctantly grants in that passage, is at the very least one element in keeping us attentive to the need to understand human dignity in terms of human agency: the need to recognize that this is part of a proper definition of human flourishing.

This requires something of a shift in the focus of much of our thinking. To think in terms of the state and the individual as two self-contained units facing one another - that seems a very inadequate way of characterizing where we're moving to here. If authentic religious faith is something to do with understanding well-being in terms of agency being released - in negotiation; in conflict and harmony with other agents - then of course the social units which matter will not simply be vast, large-scale, political ones. We need to think about those networks in which negotiation—the shaping-together of human dignity—actually happens.

Here I pick up a use of the word pluralism which is perhaps not all that common these days, but which was once, very properly, very significant in British political thought – think of theorists like Harold Laski. 'Pluralism' in this sense is not an observation about ethnic or religious plurality in society. It describes a society in which a number of interlocking, intersecting communities (some voluntary and some not so voluntary) of interest, concern and intention, build up the actual density of social life. In these intermediate communities, as the American political theologian Frederick Herzog used to call them, we learn what it is to experience our human dignity in terms of an agency discovered along with other agents. We discover cooperation. Religious communities are of course not the only communities that speak for cooperation; but in a world where social pressures very often drive decisions to a higher or more global level; where local communities are more and more denuded of power; where there's always a tendency to look for top-down solutions; and where in the international scene, a global market—at least until very recently—appeared to trump the freedom of democratically elected governments - in such a world, the maintenance, robustly and clearly, of communities of faith as an indispensible part of the spectrum of cooperative communities, becomes of great significance.

Admittedly, the cooperative political tradition associated with one strand of British politics is one that has had a chequered career. There is one way of telling the story of twentieth-century socialism which could present it as a battle between the Webbs and the Morrises - that is, the Sydney and Beatrice Webb model (the Fabian model in its early days) of highly controlled social provision: and that other tradition (a little more anarchic) looking back to William Morris and his circle, which was far more about agency, creativity and at times anarchy, or 'anarcho-syndicalism'.

In many aspects of the post-war settlement in Britain, it feels as if the Webbs won. And even if the Webbs didn't wholly win, those trends and currents in modern thought driving towards top-down solutions proved irresistibly attractive to people right across the political spectrum. I think that in our society at the moment we still need a robust defence of the non-Fabian, the pluralist, vision of what a just society might be: a society in which what I call the interlocking, intersecting communities would all have a role in shaping the common good: where these communities would all be potential partners with statuary and government agency, with the ultimate goal not simply of solving problems or meeting needs, but equipping citizens. I think it is only with a robust sense of what the cooperative tradition is about, what the pluralist model is, that one can actually have a proper sense of what citizen means. (I refer to my initial quotation from Temple, and the phrase Stephen Spencer picks up, concerning the state recognizing something in the citizen.)

Some of you may recognize in this a particular strand also in Anglican thinking; a strand anchored in the work of John Neville Figgis, at the beginning of the twentieth century. He was a figure who had considerable influence on Laski and others. His systematic writings are very slight but his output overall offers a remarkably coherent, positive and suggestive picture of what a pluralist cooperative society – and for that matter a pluralist and cooperative Church might look like. It is Figgis who very interestingly notes that you cannot be a cooperatist in your politics and an authoritarian in your ecclesiology or vice versa.

Mark Chapman of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, has developed this vision very effectively; first in a book called Blair's Britain: a Christian Critique (DLT: London 2005) and more recently in a follow up – Doing God: Religion and Public Policy in Brown's Britain (DLT: London 2008). Here we find a development of that vision of what Figgis along with others called the 'community of communities' as the basic Christian political model: the community of communities, the network of networks, standing with, alongside, the state, not 'franchised' by the state or controlled by the state, but representing that – as Figgis would have seen it – inalienable liberty of the agent, the citizen, to work cooperatively and live and understand cooperatively. At the end of his book on Blair's Britain, Chapman has this to say about what we've lost and what we might need to see revived: 'A revival of the idea of functionalist democracy pioneered with the Whitley Report at the end of the First World War, could transform social relationships and participation. It will be interesting to see [this was written in 2005] if some of the new government initiatives like Network Rail or Foundation Hospitals have the courage and vision to realise Harold Laski's tantalizing idea of giving workplace groups real power against the supposed sovereignty of the omni-competent state. As he [Laski] put in 1921 'The railways are as real as Lancashire. And exactly as the specifically local problems of Lancashire are dealt with by it, so could the specifically local problems of the railways be dealt with by a governing body of its own. A massive increase in the principle of democratic governance with partnerships of users, workers and owners, could give the non-governmental sector a real clout, but would at the same time threaten the oligarchic 'right to manage' and other such undemocratic slogans. This would be to take the stakeholder idea seriously.' (Blair's Britain pp 96-7) I won't comment for now on the particular examples he chooses but the point, I think, is clear enough.

Now this is where we need to turn very briefly to a few thoughts about the other and more common sense of pluralism, because there are questions looming up on the horizon here which can only be dealt with in that context. When we use the word 'pluralism' (as I said earlier) we're normally these days referring to the plurality of ethnic and religious communities in our nation at the moment. Pluralism goes very often with 'multiculturalism' as a word that's thrown around rather unintelligently in debate about the kind of society we are. What I think the political pluralism I've been speaking about suggests is something like this: some communities in which we find our identity are communities we are born into, or communities that we don't regard simply as transient associations. They may be ethnic or linguistic communities. They may also be religious communities which are not best seen as just voluntary associations on the secular pattern. But those belonging in such communities draw their identity from other kinds of association and cooperation as well. No one is simply a Welsh speaker, let's say. If you're a Welsh speaker, you need to say things in Welsh; and when you start saying things in Welsh you say them with other people who may be interested in corporate planning and shared agency with you. Likewise, approaching the public sphere as a person who belongs to a religious community as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, or Buddhist: you approach it not as someone whose entire horizon is determined by that identity, but as someone who brings that identity into a negotiating process. And I think this ought to help us a little bit in finding our way through the quagmire of current quarrels about multiculturalism and pluralism (of the other kind) in this country.

Very often both defenders and critics of multiculturalism seem to speak as if the given fact were that communities were impermeable. They were what they were, they are what they are, and that's it: therefore you deal with them as blocks. You deal with them slightly nervously, trying to find ways in which you can minimize the damage they might do and trying to subordinate their particularity to a particular model of public reason. But what if you thought of communities as constantly interacting and changing one another? I have in the past used the term 'interactive pluralism' to describe what I think is the healthy state of a democracy – one with communities which give strong identities to their members; communities which may be very different from mere passing associations out of common interest, but nonetheless are capable of challenging one another, impinging on one another, making demands of one another, negotiating with one another, and finding together what is good for them. And it's on the basis of this that I still believe very strongly in the case that has been made for faith schools within the statutory sector - because these oblige religious communities to do some negotiating with others: to do some negotiating with the actual needs of a local community of a very varied kind; negotiating with nationally agreed educational standards and processes of accountability. I think in the long term this is for the good of everyone. And that sense of communities which are actively impinging on one another, dialoguing with one another and modifying each other's expectations in that process, is part of what makes an argumentative democracy, and I think argumentative democracies are good democracies. The worst kind of democracy is what you might call a consumerised democracy, where somebody decides what your options are. If my earlier account is right, then a consumerized democracy is exactly what doesn't make you happy and doesn't speak to human fulfillment.

So, in thinking about well-being, welfare, and the role of religious communities in a highly complex society and culture these days, my emphasis would be on these two elements: first of all, the sense in religious conviction of being answerable for yourself, so that human well-being is about agency - being able to exercise the appropriate, the possible, the fulfilling levels of agency that you can, along with others whose free agency likewise you want to affirm. And second, I would want to underline the role of religious faith and communities of religious conviction in this environment, on the grounds that it is those communities in which the habits of agency, the expectations of creative negotiation are actually matured. I've said that I don't think that religious communities are the only ones that nurture such a vision of what the human is. But at a time when so many traditional forms of corporate life and common life are increasingly under threat, the guaranteed persistence of religious communities which are not, in that sense, vulnerable to the popular vote becomes more and more important.

Now this is not simply a communitarian laissez faire picture of society. It certainly is not saying, 'let a thousand flowers bloom in total isolation from one another, never mind the collisions that occur': and it's not saying that we can do without the state. The state remains crucially significant in two ways: first and very obviously – and I refer you to Mark Chapman again -- the state 'brokers' occasions of conflict or rivalry. The state is that body to which, in practical affairs, communities defer to help them sort out potential areas of overlap and conflicting priority. It's not only the state which does that, but that is one of the reasons that the state is there. But second, and in a way anchored to that, the state is also the institution that guarantees the 'bottom line' of liberty and dignity for all citizens. That is to say the state is the source of law. And without the sense of a law in relation to which all stand, guaranteeing for all particular liberties and a particular kind of dignity, we would indeed have a kind of dissolution into competing tribalisms. When earlier this year I gave a somewhat ill-fated lecture on the subject of law, one of the points I was trying to make was precisely this: the state remains the longstop guarantor of certain liberties, notably the liberties of those whose dignity may not always be affirmed very visibly by particular religious communities: women, for example. The state is indispensable as the guarantor of law. And yet the state in the operation of law is -- not for any complex ideological or philosophical reasons but just practically -- always involved in dealing with the actual practice of the communities that make up the state. For some of those communities, that practice involves elements of religious law. The state has to decide how far it can affirm or endorse those practices, and how it can most creatively and positively cooperate with them. That is to say the state in guaranteeing the law doesn't just assume that every citizen is related to the state and nothing else. The difficulty I was trying to open up was the difficulty about precisely how the state best works as a legal state with those intermediate communities of which the state is actually made up.

So we do need a discourse of law and universal law, and the implication of that is that we do need a discourse of human rights. That's another issue which would take a long time to explore, but I simply put down those markers as a way of noting that to speak about the state in terms of interlocking communities is not to yield the pass on certain issues of legal privilege, legal liberty and human rights.

I began by looking at the negative associations that 'welfare' has unfortunately acquired - associations to do with dependency or passivity, acquired, inexorably, by a process in which the provision of well-being and the guaranteeing of citizen's security have come to be seen as almost exclusively the business of large-scale bureaucracies. The alternative to this is not a market model in which the ideal is to make everyone a purchasing agent; the alternative is to understand a little bit of the sheer depth and complexity of the human agents who are at work in all of this. And to have that lively and vital sense of human agency, one needs as part of the mix that sense of being answerable for oneself to and before the transcendent which is essential to religious commitment. A N Wilson in his recent book Our Times, ends his final rather scarifying chapter about the decline of British society by noting that while it may be true that you don't absolutely have to have religious belief as a foundation for beliefs concerning human dignity, uniqueness and liberty, it's remarkable how quickly those things disappear if religious belief moves off the scene. I'd want to say something similar, rather more strongly. That rooted sense of where the consciousness of responsibility comes from and which relates that consciousness to the religious awareness of a person, is indisputably one of the great motors/engines of the sense in modernity at large – not to say post-modernity – that the agent's liberty and uniqueness matter politically. Take that away and one of the main supports of such a vision undoubtedly disappears. There are other sources and other supports for such a vision but very few anywhere near as powerful, for the simple reason that, in the nature of the case, the religious perspective affirms that the dignity of the human agent is rooted in something utterly, radically, outside any changes of fortune or fashion or power in the human world as we know it. And that has to be the most drastic thing which can be said about human dignity, that which makes it not open to renegotiation or redefinition in any sense.

But I've also been underlining the fact that the health and creativity of small-scale intermediate communities is an essential part of democratic well-being and therefore a part of human happiness itself. Communities in which creative interaction is learned and in which agency and unique agents are taken seriously become essential building blocks in the creation of a properly interactive democracy, and a society in which it is assumed that people will constantly be arguing with, and cooperating with their neighbours for the good that they share.

Many centuries ago, when St Augustine wrote his great treatise on The City of God - the first systematic account of what a Christian social philosophy might look like - he said that the moral priorities, the spiritual vision and the well-being of the family came from the well-being and the moral clarity of the society in which it was placed. Translating that into terms that might make a little bit more sense to us today, I think this means that well-being is something which humans experience in public as well as in private. There is a very proper demand for, and expectation of what I'll call 'political happiness'; that is to say the sense of being able to make a difference in the public sphere. The kind of philosophy which I was caricaturing at the beginning, in terms of welfarism, is precisely what stands in the way of that kind of political happiness. It assumes that you can make a difference to other people but it doesn't necessarily assume that those 'other people' are then made capable of making a difference to you: and that's the weakness, the problem. So, the movement from welfare state to welfare society is perhaps as simple as saying that we understand well-being as something exercised not simply in terms of the state's responsibility for my happiness, but something learned and realized in human-sized communities with specific challenges and specific goals, in which people's dignity and distinctness is underlined, building together a framework in which we can indeed make a difference in our society as a whole. A 'welfare society' is a society in which people experience well-being. That well-being is experienced partly in relation to their ability to act and to act cooperatively. In that vision I believe religious conviction in general and Christian conviction in particular continues to have a unique and indispensible role. That, I believe, was the vision which animated William Temple's sense of what a society might properly be if it wished to be a moral society. That, I believe and hope, is the vision which has animated this foundation for the last sixty years.

© Rowan Williams 2008

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