Prosperity, liberty and chocolate

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F

eeling oppressed? Low spirits? You may think it's just the usual winter blues, an attack of seasonal affective disorder, but the Church of England has a very different diagnosis. A speaker at the General Synod last week made the boldly unfashionable suggestion that what this country needs is a lot more monks and nuns to counteract our "sex-mad age", an idea which was warmly endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey. The Archbishop commended "poverty, chastity and obedience - a threefold protest against the tyranny of materialism, sexual idolatry and unbridled individualism which oppress so many today".

Somehow, I find it hard to imagine Dr Carey receiving an enthusiastic response on many doorsteps if he turned up and announced: "Great news! I want you to be poor, celibate and do what you're told. Interested? Sign here." People who live in palaces should think twice about recommending poverty, a state which, far from being character-forming, produces relentless misery and anxiety. My family comes from a poor, working-class town in the north of England, and my parents' accounts of their childhoods, and what I know about my grandparents' histories, has left me in no doubt that poverty is to be dreaded.

There is plenty of evidence, from the Government's health surveys, that being poor reduces your life expectancy and exposes you to all sorts of diseases. Yet, especially for people on the right who have not experienced it, it is as if poverty comes with a little halo. It takes someone as crass as Dr Carey to suggest it is actually a state of grace, but I also detect an ambivalence when secular neo-conservatives talk about the problems of the poorest members of society. They bemoan the plight of single mothers, for example, but suggest solutions which have little to do with providing resources, and everything to do with prodding them into an approved way of life.

Poverty can be alleviated by practical measures such as raising the minimum wage, ensuring the availability of public housing at reasonable rents, and providing high-quality education so that the next generation is not condemned to struggle as their parents did. What the right tends to advocate, instead, is that the Government should promote traditional marriage, which comes close to defining poverty as a punishment for anyone who does not scuttle into the shelter of the nuclear family. There is something comically misguided about this: the poor ask for bread, and what they get offered is husbands. I suppose the alternative, which Dr Carey might like to pursue, is to encourage single mothers to discover a vocation and become nuns.

His observations are a timely reminder, given that we are about to have a surfeit of Christianity during the millennium celebrations, that it has a singularly joyless outlook. I have never understood people who are proud of not liking sex, as though self-disgust and an aversion to the body - which the Church has always had in spades - are something to boast about. (St Jerome, advising a widow who was thinking of marrying again, muttered sternly about dogs returning to their vomit.) I have always assumed that the convent offered the only means of escape, in the Middle Ages, for women who feared the prospect of being perpetually pregnant, but one of the 20th century's greatest discoveries is effective contraception. Celibacy, like refusing to eat chocolate, has never made much sense to me and I can't help wondering about people like Dr Carey who advocate it. (As well as living in a palace, he is married with four children.)

This brings me to the final item in his litany: obedience. On the rare occasions I went to church as a child, before I was thrown out of the Brownies and turned to a life of dissipation, I was mystified by the authoritarian nature of the personage we were praying to. Did he have an inferiority complex? Today, when the argument that we should be citizens and not subjects is finally gaining ground, the divine right of gods or monarchs can hardly be taken for granted; on the contrary, one of the big ideas which will shape our polity in the 21st century is human rights, which is based on an assumption of equality.

I could be wrong, and readers all over the country may already be packing their bags and knocking on the doors of religious orders. I hope not, unless they are thinking of joining that wonderful institution in San rancisco, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. In fact, there is a strong case for arguing that poverty, chastity and obedience, far from being virtues, are rather dismal vices. Personally, I don't think you can go wrong if you cultivate prosperity, sensuality and liberty. And eat lots of chocolate.

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