John Sentamu and the church's USP

The archbishop of York’s presidential address to the Synod has the wrong emphasis, it seems to me – though I’m hardly qualified to comment, as someone who is only indirectly connected to the Church of England, and so has little right to comment on what it should be doing into the future. Then again, that I’m only indirectly connected is, in a way, the point.

Sentamu stresses the material contribution the church should make to the country by virtue of its established status; and the moral underpinning it can provide to the common good. My complaint is not against that work per se. Rather, I suspect he misses what is the church’s unique selling point, or better, unique contribution, which is not to material but to spiritual wellbeing.

Many other organisations and institutions fulfill the material imperative at least as well as the church – many better – so it can partner with them. Many do the moral imperative too – again some better, not least if your concern is with, say, the equality of women or gay people: the church is in catchup mode here.

But what the church might offer is a resource for a nation not of hungry mouths but hungry souls – to borrow from Marx, alienated from themselves, and so seeking heart in a heartless world, seeking soul in a soulless condition.

I think western Buddhists understand this. Buddhism in this country doesn’t try to major on the justice piece. Instead it focuses on the psychological and spiritual – in the process, capturing people’s imaginations so widely that even the Guardian recently carried a supplement on mindfulness. That’s what you could call a missionary success.

Perhaps what has happened is that the church has confused its own internal problems with the problems the country faces. It needs to sort itself out, and do the moral catchup. But the wellspring of its life does not stem from the common good but from the spiritual dimension that is simultaneously so misunderstood in the modern world and, I think, so widely sought too. Do justice, for sure, but teach us how to walk with the divine first.