Rowan Williams Cardiff WalesLent 2021

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The nature and limits of the authority of the state, the relation of religious bodies to the law of the land, the failure of traditional churches to connect either with serious intellectual and artistic culture or with the more deprived elements of the population, the tyranny of narrow ideas about knowledge and certainty, fuelled by crude ‘scientism’ – all of these are poignantly familiar themes for us at the present time, themes made more vivid and immediate by aspects of the communal trauma of the Covid-19 pandemic. John Neville Figgis was already wrestling with these issues just over a century ago; and perhaps one reason why he is still so patchily recognized and studied – not least in his own church – is precisely that his horizons were so broad and his treatment of such matters so bluntly unconventional for his own day. He is of course a writer who shares many of the unexamined attitudes of his day as regards race and gender; but what strikes the reader is his ability to ask questions that all too few were asking at the time. He takes for granted that the European nations have some sort of ‘civilizing mission’, but excoriates in the most uncompromising terms the brutal alliance of imperialism and capitalism that was destroying indigenous societies across the world – the abuses whose most appallingly extreme example was the Belgian administration of the Congo, but which were encouraged or condoned by a good deal of the British Establishment in the context of its own colonial policies. He deplores the decline of public morality and decency, but savages a social system whose working practices are a major driver of family and individual breakdown. Long before we started worrying publicly about the cost in mental health terms of results-obsessed education and feverish working timetables for the more ambitious and prosperous, Figgis was picking over the evidence of increasing levels of suicidal depression and alienation among young people, and challenging depersonalizing and mechanical views of both labour and education.

Figgis is remembered chiefly as a political thinker, one of the seminal voices in the evolution of ‘associational’ or ‘pluralist’ views of the state. In a scheme which is difficult for both conventional leftists and rightists to domesticate, he combines a fairly minimal and sceptical view of the state’s authority with a strong repudiation of individualism and a complex and sophisticated defence of the liberties of those primary communities and systems of affiliation in which we actually learn political virtues. For him, our commitment to the state is something that develops out of the multiple political, cultural and religious identities we inhabit, some chosen, some not; loyalty to the state is not belief in a sacred political abstraction, but trust in a system that is meant to hold a workable balance between existing communal forms of belonging. If Figgis can sometimes sound like the eighteenth-century statesman and political philosopher Edmund Burke in his affirmation of the importance of tradition, he can equally anticipate the vigorous discussion of the overlap in Britain between ‘Red Tories’ and ‘Blue Labour’ in recent years. Running through all his work is the immense influence of his teacher, Lord Acton, and especially of Acton’s thinking about freedom – not as a laisser-faire principle, but as the liberty of reflective human persons to sort out their common life in intelligent debate, with all being enabled to play a constructive part. In Figgis’ view, the state can and should provide a ‘long-stop’ legal framework, but the reality of the common good needs to be worked out in a diversity of local and specific forums. The convergences with (and occasional tensions with) aspects of the Roman Catholic social vision that was being articulated in Figgis’s lifetime by Pope Leo XIII are notable.

But Neville Figgis deserves to be studied also as an apologist. His concern for freedom and for the uniqueness of the person is deployed in spirited argument about how far this or that fashionable philosophical or scientific system supports or undermines our obstinate moral intuitions about the reality and significance of our agency, how far it does justice to the agency and moral claim of others, not least those who are too readily seen as either superfluous or naturally subordinate in a world of privilege and inequality. He is forthright about varieties of ‘progressivism’ – not least in theology – that never connect with these grass-roots challenges. The ‘personalist’ emphasis of his argument sits well with his discussions of the kind of certainty we can expect in matters of faith. He skilfully draws out the way in which tradition, trust, education in simple shared perception, and the sheer cumulative force of lived experience condition our conclusions, in contrast to the superstitious belief in the unfettered capacity of an individual mind to reach cast-iron conclusions by using simple ‘rational’ tools. Something of the twentieth-century German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer on the positive role of ‘prejudice’ in learning seems to be foreshadowed here.

Rather more obvious is Figgis’s debt to John Henry Newman, particularly the Newman of the Grammar of Assent: coming to belief is a matter involving the entire subject, shaped by its relationships and history, and a merely intellectualist approach will never deliver conclusions of any transforming significance. Figgis’s long review in 1912 (an appendix to The Fellowship of the Mystery) of Wilfred Ward’s biography of Newman is a fascinating insight into his understanding of Newman’s importance in Church and culture alike. More lighthearted – and more mordant – are his comments on some kinds of historical revisionism and the futility of assuming as axiomatic the wrongness of all inherited perceptions of historical figures: where there is a reasonably solid consensus about a person or event, we may take it that it has survived largely because it makes sense to people who have some right to be trusted. Privileging isolated bits of evidence to overthrow a defensible received view is beginning on a slippery slope leading either to relativism or to fanaticism. And it all has to do with misconstruing what the appropriate kind of certainty looks like in diverse forms of mental and emotional life. It is a discussion that has bearing not only on the historical fantasies that bedevil the understanding of Christian origins (The Da Vinci Code and the like) but also on the powerful contemporary phenomena of ‘denialism’ and conspiracy theory.

Not that Figgis is in any way a defender of ‘received wisdoms’ as such. One of the most distinctive themes in his writing is that Christian faith is not a lightly spiritualized iteration of what All Sensible People believe. It is a distinctive revealed truth, and its authority is such that it leads people to take steps that imperil their security and reputation for the sake of the service of the incarnate God. There are scattered but telling allusions to some of his own struggles prior to leaving a comfortable clerical and academic career to join the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield in the industrial North of England. The future of the Church cannot depend on its ingenuity in adapting to the spirit of the times and the essentially self-serving morality of Edwardian bourgeois society; the historical accident of the Church’s establishment by law should not mislead us into thinking that there are given natural affinities between the Christian and Catholic faith, on the one hand, and the prevailing mores of the English nation, on the other. He is unashamedly the champion of a Christian practice in which sacramental worship, monasticism and the distinctiveness of ordained apostolic ministry define the community’s identity. But it is hard to see him as in any obvious sense a clericalist: he insists that a commitment like his to pluralist, participatory models of human sociality cannot coexist with centralization and authoritarianism within the Church – hence his consistent critique of modern Roman Catholicism and the practices of papal government.

The essays in this invaluable collection cover these and many other issues with freshness and clarity. They introduce us to a figure whose stature has often been overlooked, a serious public intellectual capable of searching discussions of Nietzsche, Henry James and even the young Bertrand Russell, yet who was also a powerful and arresting mission preacher; an independent theorist and scholar who gave unquestioning priority in his life to the service of the Catholic Church and to a vision of that Catholic Church that did full justice to its distinctive, prophetic, universal identity as the vehicle of God’s justice for the forgotten and oppressed. I hope these studies will rekindle enthusiasm for one of the Church of England’s most unusual and original thinkers, whose vision is as pertinent and as demanding now as it was at the beginning of the last century.

Rowan Williams

Cardiff, Wales, Lent 2021

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