Frank Field MP
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Seeing the Established Church as a Serious Political Player: A call for a Social Highway Code

16 February 2017
Commons Chamber

Seeing the Established Church as a Serious Political Player: A call for a Social Highway Code
Frank Field, Hensley Henson Lecture, Durham University, 16 February 2017

This lecture consists of six parts. First, I list the assumptions on which the lecture is built. Second is the pleasure of returning to Durham. Third, I recall the greatness of Hensley Henson and what he learnt in Birkenhead. Fourth, I examine Henson’s volte-face on Establishment. Fifth comes the stress on the political capital still held by the Established Church, even though this institution is much diminished. Finally, I end with a plea for Establishment to bring together all the main religious faiths and Humanists operating in this country to try and hammer out a new Social Highway Code. 

Let me begin by listing for you the many assumptions on which this lecture is based. There was a time when practically all of them would have been hotly contested. I hope not now. Hope, after all, is one of the Christian virtues. I’d be happy to field any questions about the lecture afterwards. 

The assumptions are: 
Free societies, if they are to remain free, need to have an agreed set of rules. If these rules cease to be practised, societies fall into great social disruptions. We are now in such a position as the Christian ethic ceases to command support.  Reconstructing a Social Highway Code is crucial. Bringing together all the world religions practised in this country, and the Humanists, is a first move to hammering out that Social Highway Code. The Church of England is in an ideal position to use its Establishment role to do so and might thus provide its last gift to the English nation. 

The Established Church position, though much unnecessarily weakened, does play to the advantage of those who wish to make more effective the Church’s political role in our society. 

This holds even though we have seen a marked decline in Christian adherence and the Christian language becoming a barrier to rather than a conveyer of meaning. 

As the Victorians heard the roar of the sea of faith leaving our shores English Idealism played a key role in safely transporting much of the ethical honey from the Christian hive to a new home that equally emphasised the importance of ethics in public conduct. That honey needs again to be taken to a new hive and used from that base. 

Much of the initially moved honey went into establishing from the middle of the nineteenth century what our fore-brothers and sisters would call a respectable or peaceful kingdom. Both the churches and the trade unions played a key role in bringing forward an exceptional period in British history. Britain as a consequence became a self-policing society. 

Despite the dissipation of much of the Christian capital in this country, there remains a strong ethical pull in the souls of many of our inhabitants. That ethic can best be summed up as an urge to do good.

An equally important assumption was not only the ethical change occurring in individuals but this transition into, as Gladstone called it, a ‘gentler time’ was accompanied by rising living standards.[1] Rising living standards can make any task easier to achieve. 

Let me stress here another assumption. I am not arguing that Britain has always been a peaceable kingdom and that the worst of today’s behaviour is an exception to the rule. Far from it. For most of our history, our country has displayed a beastliness, coarseness and violence. This culture was put into reverse by the rise of this good or respectable society. This society has lasted for only a short time in our long history. We are now reverting to norm unless there are countervailing measures. This lecture is concerned with one set of such measures. 

Underlying this lecture is also an assumption about the methods of political reform and the one which I favour. The first approach is categorised as mechanical. It centres on doing politics through institutions and from above as being the quickest way to strike wins. Opposed to this approach have been those reformers, including myself, who know the value of using institutions, but who also believe even more strongly that unless an ethical revolution is wrought in the individual citizens themselves, institutional reform, from above, in the end comes to nought.

It is in re-establishing this good society that the Established Church has a key role to play and in so doing emphasising an ethical approach rather than a mechanical approach to reform. This task is more urgent as we are witnessing and continue to witness the balkanisation of that respectable and peaceful kingdom. This balkanisation takes me on to the final set of assumptions underpinning this lecture. They are: 

We cannot expect to have happy families in a society where there has been a vicious melt-down of semi-skilled jobs bringing home family wages. The rise of single-parent families was, I believe, originally economically driven. There were far too few semi-skilled jobs and young males of marital age for them to play their traditional role bread-winner. Add in that the Welfare State paid more to parents living apart and a vicious cocktail was in the making that economically drove families from ever forming. Before long, this economic force was then overtaken in importance as the rise of single parent households became culturally driven - i.e. for many it became a new norm. 

There has been a sharp increase in the numbers of families who have lost the basic core of parenting skills, or who see the need to acquire or practice them. Some one-parent families of course never lost these skills, but these skill-losses now go well beyond the numbers of one-parent families and into the heart of families more generally. We are falling out of love as a country with our task of nurturing children. 

Likewise with the rise of individualism and a culture of immediate gratification, the wide-spread corrupting influence of an explosive drink and drug culture on the safe nurturing of children, and the loss of civility in our society, has been ignored for too long. 

There has been a continual irresponsibility by all of us in not renewing the social capital that transmits those values that burnish the type of characters we wish to see flourishing in our society.

While there may be some differences in what the great religions teach about the good life, I believe there is a huge agreement here on which to capitalise, and to begin to form what I will call a new Social Highway Code. 


I wish I could adequately convey the pleasure I gained when Julia Stapleton’s email arrived inviting me to give this lecture to honour one of Durham’s great bishops. Any diocese that can boast of having Hensley Henson and Michael Ramsey as bishops, and within a space of 13 years of each other, should thank Providence for the blessings bestowed upon them. To pay honour to one of these great prelates, and the one that did politics in a recognisably traditional way, is an opportunity that a politician who wishes the Church to increase its political influence in our society would be foolish to put to one side.

There are a number of other reasons for my pleasure at gaining an invitation that brings me back to Durham. I was here in 1993 to give the University’s Bernard Gilpin Pastoral Lectures. These lectures became the basis of a book that presented Labour with a programme owing much to the Idealist tradition in English politics. It is that tradition that Julia herself has done so much to capture, understand and report on when this tradition more obviously pushed forward at the very frontiers of British politics. 

I hope, though, that my reason for acceptance to come back to Durham goes beyond these personal pulls. Hensley Henson was one of those larger than life figures that strode across the stage as I read my way into the politics of 20th-century England. A series of lectures that are associated with Henson allows me to salute the work in which the University is now engaged in harvesting more of the value of the extraordinary Henson diaries. That the next stage in this study needs to bring together a team of minds combining the political, ecclesiastical as well as the skills of an historian of ideas would have more than puzzled Henson. Indeed, given the extraordinary range and power of this largely self-taught mind, it would have flummoxed him. The price we now all too often pay for knowledge is that it comes from an ever greater specialisation whereby we risk losing the big picture. Whatever one thinks of Henson, missing the big picture, and his role in it, was not one of his faults. 

Providential’s smile 
There is yet a further reason for my wishing to come and praise Henson. By the time he was a young man, Providence’s smile on him was becoming marked. 

Henson always saw himself as an outsider, even when occupying a great See like Durham, and in an age when bishops were taken much more seriously by the wider population than they are today. But there was reason enough for Henson’s complex. Henson, to put it mildly, had a wretched childhood.[2] His mother died early, when he was only a little over six, and his happiness died on that day.[3] Only later, when he was Vicar of Barking, did Henson invite his Lutheran step mother to keep house for him, and only then did some sense of a contented household return.[4] The loss of his mother had tragically an impact that was to help shape Henson’s life in an indelible way. 

The death of his wife Martha drove Henson’s father, Thomas, ‘into a narrow and sadder religiosity; [and a] darker vision of the human race’.[5] With Thomas becoming a member of the Plymouth Brethren,[6] the childhood purgatory into which the Hensons’ children were plunged was such that a description of it would have been ‘worthy of the pen of a Dickens or a Bronte’.[7]

Thomas was against Henson going up to Oxford.[8] To Oxford Henson went, but he had had almost no schooling worthy of the term and almost no financial support. Henson could not qualify by any normal route. He therefore became an unattached student known then as a troglodyte. Henson’s separateness and loneliness increased, working away intensely on his own in his Cowley lodgings. 

During the last two terms before finals Henson paid for a young clergyman to help him prepare for those key tests. How he picked the person we know not, as his famous diaries do not begin until he was in Birkenhead, in May 1885.[9] But this tutor, Edward Watson, turned out to be in a league of his own, and here was yet another example of Providence smiling on the vulnerable Henson. Watson became a friend as well as a coach. 

Henson’s final papers put him in the first class, and so clearly that a history tutor suggested he sit the All Souls examination. Henson did so and gained a similarly startling success. He was elected. 

Henson in Birkenhead 
Henson had accepted a financial responsibility for supporting Thomas’s family. As money was short, despite this fellowship income, Henson took a six-month contract to tutor the ‘indolent’ son of William Rathbone.[10] Rathbone was MP for a North-Wales constituency and the head of one of Liverpool’s great merchant families. Edward Watson had by this time moved to Birkenhead and it was from this base in April 1885 that Henson undertook two tasks, apart from starting those diaries. There was his tutoring, of course, but it was in his second task that Henson, who was never one to undertake an activity half-heartedly, found a zeal for his heresy-hunting in the town. This activity was not without its irony for, once Lloyd George had appointed Henson Bishop of Hereford, the boot was firmly on the other foot. This time the heresy-hunters, including most of the bench of Bishops, gave Henson every bit as good to what he’d handed out in Birkenhead. 

Henson learned two lasting lessons from his time in Birkenhead. The first was to discover the poor, a totally different experience, of course, from discovering poverty. The second lesson was the importance of Establishment for thereby in this country the gift of an endowed ministry.

Henson’s initial views on Establishment were entirely shaped by his Birkenhead experience. Birkenhead residents, Henson observed, freed from poverty could pay towards the costs of the chapel of their choice. No such option was available to the abject poor. They needed an endowed ministry that guaranteed them free access to a place of worship. Henson therefore saw the campaign to disestablish as an attack on the poor’s rights of citizenship. 

Birkenhead taught the same two lessons to me but, unlike Henson, I shall develop the case for Establishment Mark Two, re-interpreting for England the concept coming up to almost ninety years after Henson’s Pauline conversion and seventy years after his death.

Central to Henson’s thinking was the existence of God that was revealed in both the Old and the New Testaments. An especially strong pull on Henson’s heart was his pride in being an Englishman and it was this pride that led him to find not only his spiritual, but also his physical home in the Church of England. It is from these new moorings, as well as what he had learned in Birkenhead about the poor, that Henson viewed the world where the Established Church was a given, and a very important given, in the social, economic and intellectual firmament. That extraordinary twin commitment to an Established Church was not to last.

Henson’s great conversion
I cannot stress enough that in the run-up to his ‘great conversion’, as I shall call it, there were few more trenchant public supporters of Establishment than Henson. But when the seeds of doubt were sown they grew rapidly. These seeds were political. The first ever Labour government was elected in 1924. Henson now began to think through the role of a majority Labour government and its possible impact on Church preferment. Given Henson’s politics it was I suppose inevitable that he was appalled by this Impact of Labour to use Maurice Cowling’s title.[11] But more was involved. Henson became concerned about a Left Wing government deciding who should then occupy the princely places in the Church’s hierarchy. Henson feared the all-powerful state. He was soon to become one of the great sirens rallying opposition to the danger of totalitarian regimes such as the one that was fast emerging in Germany. 

Yet, that said, the diary entries also signalled a warning of how easy it is for the most gifted of people to all-too-easily deceive themselves, and this lesson holds whether we are part of the laity, political or clerical class. On this issue alone Owen Chadwick’s work shows the possible richness of the diaries for they lay bare the true position for Henson’s dramatic volte-face on Establishment that stunned participants in the political debate on the Prayer Book Measure. And please let me remind you again that in the decades in the run-up to this Measure beginning its parliamentary journey there were few greater public proponents of Establishment than Henson. 

The Prayer Book Measure made modest amendments to the established liturgy. Six months before the measure began its parliamentary journey, Henson poured out into that diary his anguish that ‘I cannot endure the possibility of the Crown Patronage in the hands of a Labour Prime Minister’.[12] Not, mind you, in the hands of any political party, but just the Labour Party. Then, as the revised Prayer Book came nearer to its parliamentary launch, Henson recorded ‘I could almost wish that Parliament would reject the Prayer Book Measure, and thus give a fair and ample plea for advocating Disestablishment, for the prospect of the Crown Patronage in the hands of a Labour Prime Minister is terrible indeed.’[13]

So there we have it. The huge campaign Henson mounted on the defence of the Church of England’s independence as a primary bulwark in protecting the poor’s right to worship without cost now counted for little. Henson was off on an even greater cause: how vital it is for a free society to maintain the independence of its great bodies from government direction so that they can speak without fear or favour. Henson therefore argued that he was concerned with the Church’s right for self-government and to be free of a parliament that was no longer an active Christian body. But thanks to those diaries, and to Henson’s double honesty, in recording his thoughts and then not exercising them, Henson’s motives couldn’t have been more different from his public statements. But those diaries also illustrate the complexities of the human heart – complexities which we are unlikely fully to grasp about our own record until that great last day of judgement. 

Establishment’s political capital 
Let me leave any attempt to the understanding of the complexities of Henson’s mind and bring to centre stage the importance in today’s politics of Establishment. For despite the failure then of Henson’s mammoth campaign for a ‘hard’ disestablishment, to use current Brexit language, a ‘soft’ disestablishment has continued on and off ever since. And still, like so much of English constitutional miracles, Establishment survives and, although in a much weakened form, it still offers the Church one of the best ways from which to organise and operate its mission to the English people.

Next, a further reality check. I write these passages mindful of the bleakest prospect of the survival of Christianity in this country that any Archbishop of Canterbury has ever laid out before the public. Only three years ago, George Carey, a previous Archbishop of Canterbury, asserted that the Church of England ‘is just one generation away from extinction’.[14]

Of course we should not sit back and wait for that scenario to happen. Who knows how the Holy Spirit is speaking to us? My view is that it is always best to work hard for the objective one wishes and not to sit idly by and pretend the Holy Spirit will work out its wonders without a real effort on our part. The Holy Spirit seems to find it easier to carry out its work if we have laboured long and hard in the heat of the day in the vineyard. 

That has been the robust response ever since Archbishop Welby had ecclesiastical power transferred to him. Counteraction to ensure that that doomsday scenario does not occur has been at the very centre of Archbishop Welby’s mission. But George Carey’s statement sets the scene for Establishment politics. We are practising our political craft NOT from a position of strength but of considerable weakness. Having a weak hand in politics makes Providential luck operating on our side that much more important. 

You will have noticed that I have taken your acceptance of many of the assumptions that underpin this lecture – so much so that I have felt it unnecessary to draw your attention to them. We are now entering more difficult territory. 

One of the central assumptions underpinning this lecture is that Establishment may have been balkanised, the Church of England may face extinction within a generation, Christian language has become a barrier to meaning, and yet, in the human mind there exists the strong urge to do good and to promote the good society. To walk justly and to care for the poor are far from spent forces. 

For those who believe that Christianity espouses many, and perhaps all of the great verities, and who believe that these verities ought to play as dominant a part as is possible in the shaping of British politics, as I do, will see Establishment in a very different light, either to Henson’s original or his reformed views. I shall argue that the Establishment today remains a political gift which the Church in England must not squander further. Above all the politics of Establishment should be practised to maximum effect knowing that such politics will be a very different activity to when Henson practised this craft with such skill.

Let me draw on the journey whereby Providence set me down in Birkenhead, 94 years after Henson found himself in the same town on the same side of the Mersey, to help illustrate the changed position of English religion and why this spells out a different form of Establishment politics. 

Here I want to stress what I have never argued. I do not believe that the country that I love has always been that ‘green and pleasant land’ in Blake’s language. From what we know from a people’s history, and the diaries and letters of foreigners visiting our shores, it has for most of its existence been characterised by violence and brutality. But I argue that through this Dark Age, there began to emerge at around the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851 a different, prized society. The decades following that great exhibition were also characterised by a period of economic growth whereby the fruits were more equally shared than before and the skilled working class began to experience real rises in living standards. Please note the role that I see to rising economic living standards to the emergence, maintenance and spread of what I call the respectable society and the continued rise in living standards is one, and only one, of the conditions on the underpinning of civility as we have known it in this country.

Towards the end of his long life, Gladstone commented on the remarkable change that had occurred during the period of which I am talking. In a fantastically detailed article he listed all the legislative changes that occurred, believing that these changes had unlocked the ability of the human heart to do good. At the conclusion of this extraordinarily long audit, Gladstone remarked on what he believed to be the fundamental transformation that occurred during his time as a politician. He described living through this extraordinary transition ‘into a gentler time; the public conscience has grown more tender, as indeed was very needful; and that, in matter of practice, at sight of evils formerly regarded with indifference or even connivance, it now not only winces but rebels’.[15]

This transition from a rabble society, that Gladstone described, to more wholesomeness in public and private life, was affirmed by Geoffrey Elton as late as 1984. Elton in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge prefaced the quotation with the remark that he was part of a refugee family who had attempted to live in most countries of Europe before finally settling in England. And why did they settle here? They did so for one overwhelming reason:
I know very well that [this country] is not a realm of unfailing virtue and goodness. That doesn’t alter the fact that it managed to produce a form of existence which is freer of the sins against one’s neighbour than any other community has attained… It excels in having come to terms with the fact that people in large numbers need both to be conscious of one another and to leave one another alone.[16]
Gladstone’s review dates the start of the warming of the heart of the country, Geoffrey Elton comes as that peaceful society was being broken up. These two dates mark the very short period in our society during which our respectable, self-governing society lasted.
One of the political difficulties my thesis has faced by some who think I am arguing that this gentle, thoughtful, self-governing society existed from time immemorial. So let me stress again, it hasn’t. It was made by the will and effort of men and women over a very short number of generations started in the middle of the nineteenth century. Its reign was relatively short. 

There is, sadly, another key assumption I wish to stress. This respectable society has long been under attack and we have left it increasingly defenceless. Our society has failed to appreciate, unlike our Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian ancestors, that human character is not settled from one generation to another. Worse still we are all recidivists at heart. The more recent changes that we are witnessing, and which prove so depressing, are more disturbing than they might otherwise be, for we are witnessing the British character returning to norm.  The present cause of our discontent is not an outbreak of a unique deviancy among the population.

Let me give you one example that summarises this cycle, reflecting on what Gladstone observed by his comment in ‘the transition to gentler times’.[17] The violent crimes against the person are for me the index which shows the growth of civility or incivility in a society. The act of physically striking out at another human being puts these crimes in a category of their own. So what do the data tell us, taking this as an index of civility? It has been compiled from data over time through different sources but its compilation has never been successfully undermined. The data shows that crimes against the person began to fall from late Victorian times and did not begin to rise until the very early 1960s. But even up to two years ago, and taking into account all the problems of using data over such a long period of time made up from different sources, one could assert with some confidence that the number of violent crimes now against the person in my constituency, and in most constituencies, were greater than all the violent crimes against the person in the country as a whole both at the turn of the century and in 1950.

It is from this societal rubble that the politics of Establishment has now to be exercised. And perhaps I shall disappoint you with the nature of the politics I am going to describe. For political activity has become a genuine journey for me. When I began thinking about politics in the sixth form, and then at my university, I thought of it in the grandest of terms. I was one of those Fabian mechanical reformers if ever there was one. One would get elected to parliament. One would somehow mysteriously begin to help shape policy. Parties will win elections. Through that hard work in hammering out policies would begin a new life as proposals move through the legislative stages of our parliament. Handles would be pulled and the desired results would follow. Although, as time went on, more and more of us realised that, while handles could be pulled, nothing much happened. 

Such politics of course continues to fascinate me and in which I fully participate. But rather like the description that Father Faber has of God’s love, that it is broader than man’s mind, I now see politics as a much, much broader activity. And I want to illustrate that in how I see the politics of Establishment might best operate today as a re-flowering of the ethical tradition in English politics. 

I have cited the doomsday scenario of George Carey, sounding the possible wipe-out of the Church of England within a generation. I don’t dispute that that might be the scenario awaiting us. But we must not take it as given. Rather, I wish to assert that there remains in the human spirit an urge to do good, to live well, to meet the New Testament requirement to love oneself and one’s family first and ones neighbour as oneself. Here we still have an enormous reserve of what I call social capital on which the Establishment should attempt to work its political magic. 

A call for a Social Highway Code
The Britain, and particularly the England, that I grew up in is much changed and has been particularly changed by the arrival of Commonwealth citizens coming to their mother country. While many of these newer citizens practised Christianity, the next wave of immigrants practised other great world religions. Likewise, the Humanists have established a foothold. The Muslims, with Sikhs, with Buddhists, and with Hindus, challenged our culture, not least by sheer numbers, but it is a challenge which overall has been positive. And this leads me to the last assumption underpinning this lecture. It is that, while these great world religions differ in the way they are practised, and in the Muslim religion, how they respect women is at variance to all the other great world religions, although not, sadly, how too many non-Muslim women are treated in this country, these religions nevertheless share an overwhelming corpus of ideas about what it is to live in the good society. Moreover, these are religions which believe that the good society has to be lived rather than preached, although all of them know that the spirit of their religion finds it easier for the human soul to accept a vision of that good society, if woman and mankind themselves do the hard work of teaching what the basis of the good society is. 

Here Establishment politics has a key role purely and simply because of the role of Establishment. While such unfairness was attached to the Establishment status before and in the run-up to and during so much of Gladstone’s lifetime none of the Christian denominations see the Church of England’s Establishment carrying privileges to which they would object. Rather, many of their spokesmen are locked in opposition to the more silly of Church reformers who still see disestablishment as a fundamental aim. They now wish to share in the protective wall that Establishment offers them in both their practice of their religion as well as in their political activity. 

In practice this means that the Established Church can initiate activities around which the other Christian denominations, world religions, and Humanists, can more easily coalesce than if such initiatives began by one of these players themselves. That is not to say of course that the position of the Catholic Church has not been transformed in this country and their emergence as a lead political player should not be recognised. But this welcome development does not I believe undermine the point I am now making. 

What then might be seen as the agenda for Establishment politics that faced one of the great challenges of our society which centres on the overthrow of those civilities which politicians, Church-leaders and the laity generally, have taken for granted as the great reforming zeal of a respectable society swept to the margins those forces which elevated greed, selfishness and incivility and which made the operation of the good society near impossible. I stress of course that these forces were swept to the margins of society. They were never eliminated. And back they have come. 

Some of my younger constituents have little idea of the prize which they have lost, and yet they still long to be part of and help build that better or common good-based society. For my older constituents, its loss is one of a constant grief. Those who came here as strangers, and are now fully part of our society, still suffer from the shell-shock of what was often seen as their mother country operating a culture so alarming that they have yet to find words adequately to describe it. They remain appalled that the vacuum left by a culture that was dominated by self-respect, and the respect one offered to others, is being filled by one of instant gratification which is all too often organised around drugs, drink, money and sex. 

It is this longing amongst the young who have experienced so little of the respectable or good society, and us golden oldies who are only too aware of what we have lost, that provides the fertile ground on which the seeds of Establishment politics can be sown and the sower can wear Establishment clothing if that is so wished. 

I don’t doubt for a moment the difficulties Archbishop Welby will have in scoping the time for such activity. Who could have thought when he was elected as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury that his daily toil would be increasingly dominated by dealing with the horrors of past and current child abuse cases? But that now is a given for him, and despite the need to rise to this challenge as he has done, there is still a need to prevent that scenario occurring as was so clearly illustrated by George Carey only three years ago.

Part of preventing that scenario has been the way Justin has been reorganising the Established Church’s mission resources. And it is in this framework that I make a plea that a growing part of his mission time must go to the leadership of showing a commonality of values underpinning the good life which we share among the religions practised in this country. 

I see the new Establishment politics as about undertaking the safe movement of the Christian honey that was once moved by the Idealists for safe-keeping, now to be moved to a much more ecumenically-based ownership, with ecumenically being given a definition to cover all the world’s great religions that are practised here, as well as the Humanists. By honey, I am talking about those clearly expressed Christian beliefs which were transcribed into an Idealist language so that the very meaning of Christianity was not presented in language which became a barrier, rather than a conveyer of meaning and a language which fitted in with the grain of British radicalism. The next move of the honey needs to go to a new hive and here is the next stage of Establishment politics – at least for me. That move needs to be conducted in the first place by a working party which is composed of all religions and the humanists.

With the breakdown of civility and the rise of a contract-based society, I asked a group of fifteen year olds in Birkenhead what six things they would wish to see in their school contract. I asked them not to cheat, as each of the answers was correct. I was stunned by the replies. All of them put amongst the six that they wished to know how to be good parents, how to make lifelong friendships, and, if they got a job, how they would keep it. Many of these young people had had no experience of being nurtured adequately, let alone of what good parents were. Many of these young people were inadequately fed, for example. I asked one lad who had been recently fostered what it had been like. He replied that as a matter of fact it was warm and there was food in the cupboard. Here is an illustration, against all the odds, that the wish for the good society is still alive in our hearts. 

But contracts there are and contracts we need at the current time. Of course the aim of our activity is to make the rules of society or contracts an affair of the heart. So that we have such an agreement on how we should behave that we don’t have to pause even to think how we should respond. The much practised contract becomes, by dint of sheer effort, an affair of the heart. 

The beginnings of this exercise must be undertaken from the great religions that are now practised in this country. I am not trying to shove responsibility on to them, but merely to draw attention to the enormous opportunity there offered. Politicians don’t want to get involved in this area of character. It has been left to the big society in the past and they would much much prefer the big society to take over that leadership role once again. So here is yet another one of my assumptions that, while there are some differences in how the great religions in this country including the Humanists see the good life, they agree overwhelmingly on the basis of what that good life is and, more importantly, that the good life can only be spread by, in the first instance, people living the good life rather than preaching it. 

In starting this exercise the Established Church is in a pole position purely and simply because there is no religion in this country of worth that thinks the Established Church shouldn’t use its position to draw together ecumenically the great religions and to use that position to begin to hammer out key manifestos. 

It’s clear the manifesto I see as the one that is most urgent for the religions to begin to tackle. It is how we again re-make a self-governing society. That self-governing society must be both ethically driven and thereby ethically shaped. That task cannot be accomplished by politicians. It must begin with the leaders of the main faiths in this country and the Humanists, and again I stress the point that the body best placed that must initiate such a programme to maximise its chances of success is the Established Church, because it is the Established Church. And again because I think this initiative would find it easier to sow on fertile soil I am I beginning in some small way to try and see how easy or difficult it is to stage this exercise in that one corner of the country where Providence has kindly washed me ashore, in Merseyside. Invitations have gone out to the representatives of the leading religions in Merseyside including the Humanists to come together to begin what I have called the writing of a new Social Highway Code. We don’t believe people should be able to drive a car without mastering the Highway Code. So too we shouldn’t, surely, believe that people should enter into society without knowing what the rules of the game are, if our ideal of a self-governing society is to be achieved. 

Our aim will be, I hope, to prepare for the very basis which the Established Church might consider the starting point for a new chapter in Establishment politics. If our line of enquiry is successful, if we can establish very early on that:

All codes to be effective have to become affairs of the heart if they are to be lived out automatically without thinking; 

For the great religions and the Humanists there is so much that we agree upon;

All the major religions practising in this country could subscribe to a Social Highway Code;

This will have given us the agenda for the first meeting of a new chapter of Establishment politics. 
So the plan is once again to move what was once exclusively Christian honey, moved by the Idealist to somewhat secular hives, back to a more ethically run hive system. There then will be what I regard as a more difficult task, namely, how then do we, once a new Highway Code is hammered out, gain wider acceptance for it and also, and here is where institutional politics come in, for the new Highway Code to be embedded in our society. That will of course come back to our schools who are much overburdened with trying to make good the balkanisation of families in this country. But it would be a task which they, I believe, would welcome because it would give them greater protection. They would be teaching in those primary and secondary schools a Social Highway Code which came with the backing of all the major religions and Humanists and others of good will. It would also come with the backing of Parliament for what that is worth. But of course it would prevent any serious challenge to those teachers who now feel under attack when they try and teach by maintaining a set of moral values which puzzle many parents. ‘I am teaching what society has agreed I should teach.’


So there you have it.

I am advocating a combination of the old high politics aimed at ethical change and domestic politics at a grassroots level. 

The high politics falls to the Church of England – maybe its last chance to be treated as a serious initiator of major social change. The grassroots politics belongs to the nation – representatives of all the major religions and the Humanists.

The Establishment position of the Church of England may give it the authority to bring together the other Christian denominations, representatives of all the other faiths operating in this country, and the Humanists, to see what common ground there is for building what I call a new Social Highway Code. 

Free societies depend on an intrinsic order which their citizenry instinctively understands and by which it supports and abides.

That sense of order – so crucial to the establishment of the peaceful respectable society that Gladstone witnessed being established, and which Geoffrey Elton found attractive when he came to these shores in the post-War period – is being Balkanised. 

There is no agreed map or compass, or as I call it a Social Highway Code, which can be safely taught as a contract in our schools, in our Sunday schools, in our mosques, in our temples, and wherever largish numbers of young people gather. 

The aim of the Social Highway Code is to provide an agreed social contract that people can teach, both by rote and by living it through their own lives. As any code is rolled out, feedback will be crucial in the code’s development and thereby its life.

It would have a huge force when bringing anti-social behaviour orders, for example, before the courts in that the courts would know what society expects as the basis of the good life. 

In a small way, in Merseyside, where Hensley Henson was washed up 94 years ago, we will begin that task again. 

[1] William Gladstone, ‘”Locksley Hall” and the Jubilee’, Nineteenth Century 21 (January 1887) p.17
[2] Owen Chadwick, Hensley Henson: A Study in the Friction Between Church and State (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983) pp.2-3
[3] Idem. p.2
[4] Idem. pp.5-6
[5] Idem. p.4
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] ‘A father who deprived his children of school, lest their minds and morals be corrupted, and who himself had no experience of a university, would think a phantom Oxford to be the cess-pit of England’, idem. p.13
[9] Idem. p.26
[10] Idem. p.26
[11] Maurice Cowling, The Impact of Labour 1920-1924: The Beginning of Modern British Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971)
[12] Chadwick, p.203
[13] Idem. p.204, italics added
[14] Steve Doughty, ‘Church “is on the brink of extinction”: Ex-Archbishop George Carey warns of Christianity crisis’ The Daily Mail, 18 November 2013
[15] Gladstone, p.17
[16] Geoffrey Elton, ‘The History of England’, Inaugural Lecture, Cambridge, 1984, in Geoffrey Elton, Return to Essentials: Some Reflections on the Present State of Historical Study, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) p.113
[17] Gladstone, p.17


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