Monday Books; In search of Christian values

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AS ALAN Wilkinson reports in the penultimate chapter of Christian Socialism, surveys show that the Prime Minister's Christian commitment is one of the best known facts about him. This book is written to describe and evaluate the distinctively socialist strand of Christian social concern, which goes back in this country to the early days of the 19th century.

I encountered this tradition when it was at its most publicly influential, in the middle of the Second World War. As a boy of 17, I attended the much-reported 1942 meeting in the Albert Hall when Archbishop Temple and Sir Stafford Cripps launched an overtly Christian campaign for moral and social renewal after the war. In that same year Temple, as Archbishop of Canterbury, published a Penguin Special on christianity and the social order. It sold 139,000 copies and was re-published in 1976 with a foreword by Sir Edward Heath. Temple said that the widespread sales were because "everyone is planning the good world which we hope to see when the war is over".

At the end of the war, while still serving in the army in India, I also was looking forward to this "good world" when Attlee was elected Labour prime minister. I rejoiced in the opportunity to implement the Beveridge Report, and to carry forward a vision of social organisation related to Christian and humanist understanding of community and mutually responsible citizenship.

Beveridge attended Balliol College, Oxford, at the beginning of this century with William Temple and the noted Christian socialist teacher and writer RH Tawney. Tawney made a notable (though critical, for he was no utopian) contribution to Christian socialist thought in a series of books such as The Acquisitive Society, Equality, and the classic Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. The public and political influence of this Balliol trio was at its height in that postwar enthusiasm, which I shared, for Christian socialism and a welfare state. Since then, much has changed. As reported by Wilkinson, in the 1980s I found myself confronting Thatcherism for its idolatrous belief in the free market and its offensive refusal to face the task of providing effective transitional care for the victims of capitalism's "creative gales of destruction" (even if that destruction was necessary, and in the long run hopeful). Wilkinson locates all this in an interesting and detailed account of the many-stranded developments of Christian socialism in the UK. He is wisely critical, prudentially concerned with a proper assessment of some aspects of Victorian values and the values of the market, reasonably doubtful about some aspects of New Labour, and with a sharp eye for the romantic Utopian tendencies in much Christian social thought.

He also reports some quotable remarks, of which my favourite is that of the Reverend Samuel Barnett, who founded Toynbee Hall in the East End in 1884. He argued that the state should help make society more equal by redistributive taxation. Barnett was wont to remark: "God loveth a cheerful tax-payer." Clearly a text to be commended to Messrs Blair and Brown.

In The New Politics, Paul Vallely has edited a competent account of the social teachings of the Popes, from Leo XIII in 1891 to John Paul II's seven documents between 1979 and 1995. The editor contributes a stimulating survey by way of introduction, a strong concluding chapter on "John Paul II and The New Millennium", and an epilogue "Towards a New Politics - Catholic social teaching in a pluralist society".

The latter ought to be required reading for all men and women who see their faith as inescapably involved in social and political action. This essay - and indeed the entire book - provide powerful philosophical and moral points of significance to all humanists who search for universally shareable, and realistically hopeful, values. In between are chapters moving chronologically through the papal writings from six experienced writers, including the director of CAFOD on "Looking out on the World's Poor" the director of the Catholic Institute for International Relations on "People before Profit" and Clifford Longley on "Structures of sin and the free market". Taken together, they build into a remarkably sustained argument for an authoritative approach to social problems.

Alas, they do not settle the issue of how any religious body or person can claim to be right on vital issues when all churches and their representatives have obviously been wrong in the past on aspects of thinking, morals and actions. But both books highlight the fact that we Christians have something vital both to say, and to live up to. They challenge Christians to contribute more effectively to keeping our 21st-century world open to a sustainable, shareable and hopeful future.

The reviewer was Bishop of Durham, 1984-1994