The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down

‘AS GOES MAINE, so goes the nation’ runs an old American psephological saw. But better take the social pulse of the nation (perhaps of the Western World) from the success, or otherwise, of the city of New York.

Anyone who travelled on the New York subway in the eighties, or strolled of an evening in Central Park (one of the great examples of nineteenth century Romantic landscaping) knows to what depths the city had sunk. New York was a mess – and in parts it still is. Public spaces had been imperialised by private vice, and in huge tracts of the city, the NYPD seemed powerless to impose its writ. New Yorker cartoons portrayed the honest inhabitants of the city cowering behind the multiple locks and security devices which vainly defended their apartment blocks.

How had this come about? How had the vibrant city celebrated in Burrows and Wallace’s magisterial volume Gotham, come to symbolise the end of the road for contemporary urbanism?

As we can now clearly see, the dehumanisation of New York was the result of deliberate social and economic policies. What was often described, gleefully, in the academic press as ‘the implosion of the modern city’, was in fact the product of the social engineering of the very people who were celebrating its demise. It was the social theorists of the sixties and seventies (who created the myth of an ‘underclass’, deliberately or even unwittingly exploited by their more prosperous fellow citizens) who were, almost single-handedly, responsible.

Though these people certainly did not invent the idea that ‘property is theft’, they activated it in a radically new way; not through revolutionary action, but through waves of middle-class guilt. Criminals were portrayed as the ‘victims’ of society; law and order was emasculated to accord with prevailing sentiment; and social security payments became over-generous and wholly undiscriminating. The result was chaos – a city from which families and businesses fled; where, in vast areas, single parents or single people predominated; and where murder reached an appalling high. The only beneficiaries of what was a supposedly enlightened social policy were the Careocracy (which administered it), and the Academocracy (which provided its ideological support). On its fringes, partying while Metropolis burned, were the inventors and perpetuators of artistic deconstructionism and Black Panther chic.

In the 1980s, for the first time since the 1740s, the population of New York ceased to grow; and had it not been for the significant influx of benefit-seekers, it might well have declined. What had been promised, by the Careocracy, was something approximating the New Jerusalem. What resulted was something very like Beirut.

The good news is that New York is now a changed city ;not perfect – as the depressing failure to revivify previously elegant open spaces like Washington and Union Squares demonstrates – but growing and thriving once more. I know people who have moved into Harlem (admittedly on the Central Park fringes, alongside St John the Divine) because they value the quality of life! Even Tony Blair and Jack Straw send people to ask Rudi Giuliani how it was done.

NY, NY, nevertheless, remains a searing example of what can go wrong when well-meaning ideologues are given too much rope.

How like, you are saying, the life of our own dear Church!

The thirty years of my ministry have been lived out in what I call The Era of Panaceas. Since the first rumble of gravel on Dover Beach, Anglicans (more even than other English Christians – Methodists always excepted) have been expecting, imminently, what Thomas Hardy (and A.N. Wilson) have called The Funeral of God. The ghost which has haunted the neo-gothic tenement of Anglicanism has been the Ghost of Numerical Extinction. Every big thing the CofE has done, in my ministry, has been done out of fear.

Ecumenism (and Methodist Reunion, in particular) explicitly appealed to the fear of decline in numbers, money and influence. Reunion would ‘restore the Church’s credibility with young people’, claimed the preface to the final Report, in a scarcely veiled reference to fears that the next generation would seek its religious goods elsewhere.

The liturgical renewal of the sixties and seventies, with its infantile misunderstandings of the nature of religious language and of specialist speech registers, was floated on a simplistic populism: a ‘modern’ liturgy would staunch the outflow (and in particular, be attractive to the young).

The ordination of women was said to be required by a doctrine of ‘relevance’. In a speech of hyperbolic extravagance at the General Synod, Ronnie Bowlby claimed it was ‘the only way, in our generation, to defend the doctrine of God’. It was even claimed that it was necessary to arrest the flow of young women leaving the Church!

All these things may have been admirable and desirable in themselves – that is not my point – but they were done out of fear. They were done because it was claimed that they would arrest a decline which seemed otherwise inexorable. And they have not delivered the result which was promised. Eight years on from women’s ordination attendance figures were so unfavourable that the Office of Statistics decided not to release them.

The lesson of these two cautionary tales – of New York, New York and of the Church of England – is a gospel lesson. It is that guilt and fear are bad masters; seldom, if ever, leading to rational or useful action.

One can understand the guilt-driven social policies of New York in the eighties. Good honest folk and upstanding burghers were somehow persuaded that the poverty and squalor around them were their fault and that they needed to make a sufficient concession to those who were their victims. Leniency in the courts, no-go areas for the police, and spiralling social security payments were the result. But they aggravated the very problems they sought to alleviate.

Only when intelligent compassion replaced guilt as a motive for action was an improvement seen. Work-fare replaced dole-fare, zero-tolerance entered the no-go areas, petty crime diminished dramatically, and the annual murder rate dropped from 2000 to 700.

But how are we to understand the persistence among establishment Anglicans (after decades of ignominious failure, the Decade of Evangelism most notable among them) of the policies of fear? With the statistics staring all of us in the face, it is surely rank folly to prescribe ‘more of the same’. What needs to be altered is the culture of fear itself.

Loss of numbers, revenue and influence may well be inevitable, in the present climate. God may be calling the Church of England to be smaller, or even to cease to be. And that might even make sense.

What does not make sense is a vision of the secular world around us as some sort of ravenous beast, to whom the occasional practice or dogma must be sacrificed, like virgins to a dragon, for the salvation of the rest. Down that road lies gradual depletion and final dereliction. Better die fighting manfully, than die the death of a thousand petty concessions!

But there is a more excellent way. Which is fidelity to the tradition, whatever the worldly consequences. ‘If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you’.

And that way is also a way of hope.

‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God
and his righteousness
and all these things will be added unto you, allelu, alleluia!’,

as that irritating song rightly, if tritely, puts it.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.