Mission-Shaped Church: A Critical Commentary and Analysis

2.2 Materialism, Consumerism and Corporatism

What are the fundamentals of the society in which we live and which provides the context for our griefs? The most obvious cause for concern, surely replicated in the cities of the Roman Empire, is subsumed under the banner of consumerism, is the materialism of our society. Yet, as a church, we surely have deep problems with this analysis. Far from being identified with the oppressed, the people from the producing countryside rather than the consuming centres of Roman administration, most of those in the Church of England are not of the poor but of the comfortably off to such an extent that this in itself can constitute a barrier to mission.  Secondly, as an institution we have set our face firmly not only against secular socialism (which, with the benefit of hindsight may well have been wise) but also against Apostolic redistribution. Our performance on economic and social justice issues is poor, even, for example, compared with the Roman Catholic Church which is so often caricatured as a creature of the establishment, of the wealthy and powerful. Thirdly, and at a different level of argument, we are in danger of being simultaneously personally materialist and dualist, enjoying the worldly gifts which God has given whilst dismissing these as a snare and a delusion. The Apostolic Church, still living in the direct oral tradition of the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection was alive to the dangers of dualism so ubiquitously and beguilingly on offer from Gnosticism.

The first two points are easy enough to demonstrate. As a Church we were so totally sclerotic at the time of the industrial revolution that Engels knew more about the working class than did the vicars in Jane Austen, a situation that largely prevailed through most of the 19th Century, exemplified by the fusty churches and vicars in Dickens, the worldly and other worldly (in the worst sense) clergy in George Eliot and the more nuanced but still depressing analysis in Trollope. As an established church we have found it very difficult not to be a church of the establishment; that is why Faith in The City came as such a shock to the political system. The Apostolic Church, on the other hand, was markedly non establishment and it might be argued that it began to decline in integrity after the conversion of Constantine. It could certainly be argued of the Church of England in particular that it suffers all the disadvantages of establishment without enjoying any of the usual advantages.

At first glance, the third point is much more difficult to deal with because to speak up for social justice, to affirm the rights of all beings to material goods, is to affirm the goodness of materialism. I will suggest later that dualism is inversely correlated with Sacramentality.

The problem with condemning materialism in general and consumerism in particular is that these are superficial distractions from our real targets which are disproportionateness, selfishness and the failure to love one's neighbour in an undifferentiated, corporate sense. The Apostolic Church rapidly struggled to a position where it could understand love in a wide variety of contexts, working its way through the debate about circumcision and other Judaic practices, accommodating 'awkward customers' like Paul, embracing patricians and slaves and surviving political persecution. 

Not altogether surprisingly as we are all God's creatures, almost everyone who has these ills pointed out to them recognises the correctness of the analysis. The degree to which there is an inverse ratio between wealth and generosity has already been noted - which, incidentally, raises the question of what a middle class church can say about generosity to a working class neighbourhood - but there is also a strong philanthropic impulse in the UK psyche demonstrated through responses to emergencies like the Indian Ocean Tsunami but also in faithful support of the voluntary sector both in terms of finance and volunteering. It might be argued, and many of those who suffer most argue it most strongly themselves, that materialism is an escape from the apparent futility of life. If that is so, then it is not our mission to bemoan materialism so much as to extol spirituality. In other words, the way that the Report sees the problem, subconsciously dualistic and spiritually pessimistic, is to look through the wrong end of the telescope; people are not materialist because they are anti spiritual but because they know they are intrinsically spiritual but cannot find a way of living or expressing what they need. This, as the Report freely and trenchantly acknowledges, but only at one point, is a fault for which the Church must repent. It is not society that is to blame but ourselves.

As always, it is much more important to understand why people do what they do than to judge precisely the rightness or wrongness of what they do; motivation is more important than action in ethical analysis. Fear and alienation frequently lead to disproportionateness (what might more glibly be called excess) and insecurity leads to selfishness.  It is sad that we are unable to maintain the attention of the spiritually eclectic or unfocused but it is even more unfortunate that we are unable to give hope to most of those who find that their lives are so empty that they turn to alcohol and drug abuse. 

The roots of corporate failure are much more difficult to analyse. The fundamental characteristic of consumerism, good and bad, is choice. Not only do people choose what television programme they want to watch, they also increasingly choose their friends and the level of commitment they are prepared to give and take. They are therefore spared the burden of learning to live with and love all kinds of people who are different, not immediately attractive or who are net consumers of time and all kinds of personal and community resources: people who do not buy their round in the pub; people who make a lot of noise but complain about the activities of their neighbours; people who always tell you their woes but never listen; people, in other words, who are unrewarding. The essence of corporatism is to develop structures which help us to deal individually and collectively with difference and differential input/output between units (in this case people). As a church we are instinctively corporate in this broad sense because as Christians our over-riding characteristic is love; and yet, we are steadily and publicly dismantling our corporatism in poisonous disputes over inclusivity. How credible is it for those threatening to withdraw funding from their Diocese or threatening to renounce the authority of their bishop to urge corporatism on an unchurched neighbourhood? How credible is it for those who will not accept women or gay priests to urge a sense of community, a respect for difference, upon those who are inclined to go their own way, condemned as selfish consumers? In spite of what adherents will understand from a theological perspective, to the outside world Forward in Faith and Reform look like extreme expressions of consumerism and individualism, the very opposite of charity exercised within a corporate context.

This discussion properly raises the question of the balance between corporatism and individualism; and we should look at this at two levels in the context of the Report: first, materially; secondly, ecclesiologically. The material case is easy enough to handle. In the immediately post Pentecostal era it might have been possible for a community to hold all goods in common but throughout history people have found this extremely difficult. It is possible to argue that the essence of civilisation is deferred gratification and the establishment of redistributive mechanisms to mitigate our lack of generosity and this is why an organisation like a church which believes in deferred gratification (even unto death) is in a prime position to advocate redistribution. The balance may vary but this mechanistic approach recognises the importance of being individual and corporate.

If anything, in the environment of church, the greater danger is an excess of ecclesiological individualism. As we noted in the context of a discussion of the difference between Breaking New Ground and the Report in Chapter 2. The Church's flight from corporatism into factionalism cannot be disguised through diplomatic communiqués, even as elegant as the Windsor Report (The Anglican Communion Office, 2004). Contrary to the caricature of Anglicanism as a quintessentially comfortable expression of church which allows a wide degree of latitude in all matters except for those which are Credal, to treat all brothers and sisters with equal respect regardless of their interpretation of ethics and doctrine outside the Creed is a profoundly Apostolic and uncomfortable way of living. Yet Anglicanism based on Hooker is an ecclesiological prize of great value. As long as we persist in behaving like individuals under the accommodating roof of our broad church we will deeply damage our ability to reach out, to be truly Apostolic. There is obviously a debate to be had about the extent to which any individual must behave corporately or individually according to conscience but in reality this is almost always a false dichotomy; the conscience of the individual ought to urge corporatism, always bearing in mind that in spite of many exhortations about individual conduct (not least in respect of women in the church and homosexual practice), St. Paul was typical of his Apostolic age in urging the primacy of ecclesiological unity.

We must be careful in condemning material consumerism not to indulge in spiritual consumerism. The Report referred to 'church shopping' as an attribute of the spiritually fickle but it might also be a dangerous attribute of the spiritually fanatical. It might further be argued that, in spite of its clear opposition to 'Church shopping' that is what fresh expressions are explicitly offering.

Because the Church has been concerned since the 1960’s with the retention of youth within its ranks it has accidentally fallen into an incorrect analysis of the problem it faces.  The 1960’s have been correctly characterised of youth rebellion post war conservatism.  In many ways this protest was ethically positive and constituted and institutional but not a moral threat to what the Church stood for.  Children reared in the 1980’s, however, were much more conservative than their parents and rapidly adhered to the Thatcherite materialist, individualist stance exemplified by her phrase: “there is no such thing as society”, to which Faith in the City was the Churches response.  The generation of youth in the first decade of the 21st Century largely resembles its parents and these two generations stand in stark contrast with the youth of the 1960’s.  The Church is therefore not facing institutional rebellion wage from a moral standpoint but is facing mass defection by amoral materialists.  If this analysis is correct, we will not regain the adherence of youth by sentimentalising its concerns and its dilemmas.   In an era of unprecedented disposable income there is no easy way of combating materialism but there is enough evidence of altruism in such instances as the response to emergencies like the Indian Ocean Tsunami and in the constructive engagement of Jubilee 2000 to indicate that if people are confronted with harsh reality and well formed proposals they will be prepared to think and respond.  Our ‘soft soap’ approach to youth has deservedly failed.

So much for that reference in Acts to holding our goods in common and its implications for individualism and corporatism. Now we must turn to how relevant these positions are to the esteem with which we are held in society.