George Walford: The Higher the Fewer

The Inquisition destroyed the bodies of its victims (or had the secular authorities do so) for the good of their souls. For its first cenury or so, while still enthusiastic (and still feeling itself insecure) the Anglican Church followed suit. Later it stopped going to such extremes, but it long set the spiritual above the material, working to nourish the soul rather than the body. Lately this has been changing. Christian churches traditionally provide charity for individuals needing it, but for some generations now, especially since about 1900, the Anglicans have been moving past charity towards reduction of inequality, urging that, the material condition of the poor generally be improved. Freedom, the anarchist journal, quotes the Easter sermon of the Archbishop of Canterbury (they call it an addled Easter egg): ‘a very substantial minority are cut off from a reasonable share of opportunities, hope, status and prosperity.’ His lordship’ concludes with the assertion that Christians could ‘never rest content with such a state of affairs.’

The bible is a large and complex book which can be used to support a wide range of beliefs and, in any case, the Anglican Church is not committed to a literal reading of this foundation document. We would not say that the Archbishop should not have made these remarks. They do, however, mark a departure both from the main theme of the New Testament and from the traditional practice of his church. These both put the spiritual before the material and both of them incline towards the belief that temporal suffering is good for you, improving your chances in eternity. From this root come flagellation, monastic poverty, and a range of other practices. Although the Archbishop is not making a new departure he is giving material well-being a priority greater than it has traditionally received in the institution he heads.

His princely style uses no term as crude as ‘poor,’ but this recognisably denotes the group he speaks of. There are an awful lot of them (somebody once remarked that God must have loved the poor or he wouldn’t have made so many) so naturally this change of direction has won the Church greater support. Except that it hasn’t. As efforts to improve the condition of the poor have absorbed more clerical energy Church membership has declined.

It looks as though the redirection of attention may have caused the decline, and this suspicion grows stronger when we find the same pair of changes in the American churches closest to Anglicanism, with some of those who have left saying they did so because their church had changed its approach in this way: ‘from the 1960s onwards, mainline Protestants ceased to be self-satisfied and became concerned for ‘the other America’ – the America of the poor, the ghettos and the minorities.’ Our source goes on to quote Jeremy Rifkin’s account of the

Church officials were accused by parishioners of ignoring their primary responsibility to attend to the personal spiritual needs of their congregations, preach the scriptures, and bring converts to Christ. . . .The upshot was loss of mainline church membership and, for many, a turn toward the evangelical churches to answer the personal need for spiritual guidance and/or spiritual refuge. (Kepel G. 1994 The Revenge of God Cambridge: Polity Press 109 / 110)

These reactions go against reformist expectations, but they find a ready explanation in the concept of the ‘ideological pyramid.’ Only in the upper levels, at the stage of reform and above, do ‘the poor’ (or ‘the workers’) come to be seen as a social category which can be affected, perhaps even eliminated, by social action. To the thinking of the lower ideological levels (rich and poor alike) these appear either as separate people, their condition a consequence of bad luck, laziness or inability, or as an ineluctable fact of life: ‘The poor ye have always with you.’
The Church members and officials displaying these social concerns have moved their institution up the pyramid, towards the ideologies of socialism and communism, and in doing this they have moved it away from the big numbers.

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John Keats (No, not that John Keats, although his writing does nothing to dishonour the name) wrote You Might as Well Live; the life and times of Dorothy Parke‘ (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979 [1970]). The title uses the conclusion of her poem dismissing ways of committing suicide, and the taut compression of Keats’ writing matches up to the standards set by his subject. He shows Parker displaying, in the crossfire of conversation among wits as well as in her short stories and verse, an ironic two-sidedness that brings dialectic into personal relations. By the time two lovers finally commit themselves to each other: ‘Lady, make a note of this: / One of you is lying.’

He also brings out the unsuitability of such an approach for the three- dimensional activities of eidostatic society. In verse and short stories it came across, but not on stage; for all her writing skill Dorothy Parker repeatedly failed there. Theatre has to be tragic or comic; a play that leaves the audience not knowing whether to laugh or weep does not enjoy a long run.

Priestess of the wisecrack, Dorothy Parker went out on a high note, leaving instructions to play at her funeral Bach’s ‘Air on a G String.’

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Those trying to show that society as a whole is moving towards common ownership and free access take one beating after another. For example: ‘by the end of the Nineteenth Century Kropotkin cited “water supplied to private dwellings, with a growing tendency towards disregarding the exact amount of it used by the individual” as an example of what he saw as the growing general belief in the principle of free access.” The same article goes on to report that since the water supply industry was ‘deregulated’ in 1989 the number of households having their supply cut off for non-payment of bills has increased enormously, reaching 21,000 in 1992. It concludes by noting ‘how far we have gone backwards since Kropotkin’s optimistic assumption.’ (Freedom, 28 May)

This regression has provoked complaints, but no public outcry, suggesting that ‘growing general belief in the principle of free access’ is an illusion. The eidostatics, much the larger of the two great ideological classes, either ignore or oppose this principle and show no intention of changing their attitude.

from Ideological Commentary 64, June 1994.