Loss of community:

Intermediate social structures and their decline

(references in the introduction below are to the quotations which follow)

The following trends are apparent in Britain today:

  1. There is decline in intermediate or mediating structures in our society (c.f. Boyle, Hardy, Williams, Bauman, Milbank): 'British society is thus at once polarised and homogenised. The great institutions that gave it depth and complexity fade away. Instead we have on the one hand the undifferentiated mass of individual 'consumers', and on the other hand the legislative and executive power of central government…' (Nicholas Boyle). Today Churches are not alone in losing the commitment of their members. Britain is losing its traditional wealth of voluntary associations and voluntary service, which 'give strength to its freedom' (Drusilla Scott on Michael Polanyi) and contribute to the public good.

  3. While some issues excite great moral passion today, there is a declining regard for moral virtue rooted in Christian faith. In many areas moral requirements tend to reduce to those imposed by formal, contractual rights and responsibilities. Moral values are less appreciated as a matter for each individual to uphold freely and responsibly, which permeate all life; rather the requirement of particular 'moral' action is understood to cut in where law and legislated rights demand it. This trend is linked with burgeoning litigation and a corresponding growth in insurance, the remarkable expansion of health & safety legislation, and the hotly debated enlargement of intellectual property rights.

  5. 'Loss of canon': driven by concern for equality and suspicion of elitism there has been a decline in the role of 'canon' in popular engagement with scripture, literature, and other resources of tradition. Acceptance of an agreed corpus of wisdom is less in evidence providing a framework for individual participation and evaluation. Also related to this decline is loss of regard for the wise discernment exercised by the experienced practitioner. Whereas good practice by (for example) doctors and teachers requires them to judge their own (and each others') practice drawing upon tacit wisdom, today there is increasingly an assumption that such practice is explicable, quantifiable and accountable readily without reference to this. It seems that a valid concern to resist self-interested elitism is not finding its necessary complement in an understanding of the role of the tacit in good practice.


Towards a Christian appraisal of these trends

These social trends can be seen as deriving from the vision of the Enlightenment, which is carried forward today (alongside 'postmodern' developments) with renewed impetus through advances in information technology and the decline of Christendom 'archaisms' (c.f. Boyle, O'Donovan, Hardy, Berger, Bauman).


The Enlightenment vision, with its loss of transcendent reference, does not uphold the individual or the state in their essential relatedness to each other under God. Instead it tends to absolutise either the individual or the state, the one at the expense of the other, while intermediate, informal, relational associations grow weaker (c.f. Hardy, Milbank, Berger). Until recently, this has been less marked in Britain than in Europe (c.f. Boyle) It has been argued that this tendency reflects and embodies in a practical way the marginalisation of God. (c.f. Hardy, Milbank).

According to a Christian understanding, the individual and the state are not polar opposites but are each to be understood by reference to relational, interdependent human life within a community of love and mutual service which is grounded ultimately in God and in response to God's covenantal love (c.f. Newbigin, Hardy). Properly, both the individual and the state draw nourishment from such moral community under God; the primary role of such community can never be replaced by enlarging choice for the mass of individual consumers on the one hand or expanding legislation by central government on the other.

If this appraisal is correct, what are the implications for Christian witness in British society today?



Nicholas Boyle

(We) have seen a sustained assault on all the intermediate social organisations, the autonomous and semi-autonomous institutions, the constitutional checks and balances, that lies between central government and individual citizens, that protect them from direct, and always potentially arbitrary, central interference, that give shape and substance and continuity to their lives, a focus for loyalty and a place of engagement with other citizens that is not simply an extension of the market-place - the fabric of society, in short…

British society is thus at once polarised and homogenised. The great institutions that gave it depth and complexity fade away. Instead we have on the one hand the undifferentiated mass of individual 'consumers', and on the other hand the legislative and executive power of central government organising those same masses, but as workers, into employment and unemployment and enforcing its will, in the last analysis, by the power of the police.

'Understanding Thatcherism', in Who Are We Now?, 1998, p18, 21


Lesslie Newbigin

In the one case, freedom is pursued at the expense of equality; in the other, equality is pursued at the expense of freedom. Both derive from the Enlightenment vision of human beings as autonomous individuals with innate and equal rights to pursue self-chosen ends to limit of their powers… I believe that the Christian view of God's purpose for the human family is different from both of these and arises from a distinct belief about what human nature is. From its first page to its last, the Bible is informed by a vision of human nature for which neither freedom nor equality is fundamental; what is fundamental is relatedness. Man - male and female - is made for God in such a way that being in the image of God involves being bound together in this most profound of all mutual relations… Human beings reach their true end in such relatedness, in bonds of mutual love and obedience that reflect the mutual relatedness in love that is the being of the Triune God himself.

Foolishness to the Greeks, 1986, p.118


Daniel Hardy

In the highly developed societies of present times, Christians cannot offer only transcendent symbols which illuminate and inspire;… They must respond by developing social structures in which people may become fully human in interaction with God….

Most social practice in the modern West has drifted towards a polarisation of the formal (the civil state or the large-scale religious organisation) and the fragmented (the individual, whether as citizen or as faithful), with a correlative de-emphasis of units more informal and local…

What has largely displaced these more informal units… is as much the notion of the individual as that of the state; the proponents of each have subsumed the notion of society into their own conception….. It is either 'Societe, c'est nous!' or 'Societe, c'est moi!' Society is the state or individuals, not such informal units.

…these movements are not theologically neutral… conceptually they require the marginalisation of God as Christians understand him; to suppose [that they are normal] undercuts the presence in human social structures of the social coherence which is embedded in God's very being and work, together with the deeper and more varied form of human rationality which that presence implies.

'God and the Form of Society', in D.W. Hardy and P.H. Sedgwick (eds),

The Weight of Glory, 1991, p.132, 135


Zygmunt Bauman

The 'melting of solids', the permanent feature of modernity, has therefore acquired a new meaning, and above all has been redirected to anew target - one of the paramount effects of that redirection being the dissolution of forces that could keep the question of order and system on the political agenda. The solids whose turn has come to be thrown into the melting pot and which are in the process of being melted at the present time, the time of fluid modernity, are the bonds which interlock individual choices in collective projects and actions - the patterns of communication and co-ordination between individually conducted life policies on the one hand and political actions of human collectivities on the other.

Liquid Modernity, 2000, p.6


John Milbank

Linking these… is the repeated refrain of 'intermediate associations' which variegate the monotonous harmony of sovereign state and sovereign individual. Together, all these themes belong to what I want to call 'the advocacy of complex space', which seems to me to be the key distinguishing mark of Christian social teaching in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (..) insofar as it in any significant way distances itself from modern social reality.

One (..) decisive element of contrast between enlightenment simple space, and (..) complex space, must be mentioned. The former is 'secular', the latter is 'sacred'. In the first case religious authorisation or providential intervention is moved to the margins: God commands the absolute sovereign… or else God/Nature co-ordinates our desires behind our backs, through the operation of the capitalist market. But in the second (..) case, every act of association, every act of economic exchange, involves a mutual judgement about what is right, true and beautiful, about the order we are to have in common.

'On Complex Space', in The Word Made Strange, 1997, p.271, 279



Peter Berger

Modernisation brings about a novel dichotomisation of social life. The dichotomy is between the hue and immensely powerful institutions of the public sphere (…) and the private sphere…The (ensuing) progressive disintegration of mediating structures constitutes a double crisis, on the level of individual life and also on a political level. Without mediating structures, private life comes to be engulfed in a deepening anomie. Without mediating structures, the political order is drawn into the same anomie by being deprived of the moral foundation upon which it rests… it is confronted with the necessity of substituting coercion for moral consent.

'In Praise of Particularity: the Concept of Mediating Structures', in Berger, Facing Up To Modernity, 1977, pp.170, 173-174.



Rowan Williams

(asked: 'Are we bound for a culture in the West in which Christianity will be a counterculture?)

'That's a hard one to answer. In one sense, clearly, Christianity is not going to have the public place it has had. I think the opinion-formers in our culture (if you go by the broadsheets) are just amazingly ignorant now of Christianity…But I think the real issue may go a bit deeper: it's about how people actually live together… The problem is not so much that people don't want to belong to churches as that they don't feel they want to shoulder the moral responsibility for community. Now that's not just about a sense of community, it's about people actually saying, 'I want to carry a vision for the community'. And that's getting rarer - so it's not just a problem for the churches… So what I find most baffling as I look forward is not quite knowing what our public life is going to be like if all these intermediate realities ebb away.

interview in Third Way, February 2000



The Principle of Subsidiarity: Pius XI

This supremely important principle of social philosophy, one which cannot be set aside or altered, remains firm and unshaken: Just as it is wrong to withdraw from the individual and commit to the community at large what private enterprise and endeavour can accomplish, so it is likewise unjust and a gravely harmful disturbance of right order to turn over to a greater society of higher rank functions and services which can be performed by lesser bodies on a lower plane. For a social undertaking of any sort, by its very nature, ought to aid the members of the body social, but never to destroy and absorb them'.

Quadragesimo Anno, 1931



Oliver O'Donovan

The flowering of an idea comes when it assumes a structural role that determines what else may be thought. Its origin is never contemporary with its flowering, nor are its organisational implications apparent to the minds that first conceived it. And so, as historians may point out with perfect justice, the eighteenth century was actually formed far less by the 'Enlightenment' ideas that we associate with it than by the older tradition of religion ideas common to Christendom... It is we who find the Enlightenment ideas particularly important, because it is we who have seen them grow to form a matrix within which everything that is to be thought must be thought.'

The Desire of the Nations, 1996, p272


Zygmunt Bauman

'Wild cultures', says Ernst Gellner, 'reproduce themselves from generation to generation without conscious design, supervision, surveillance or special nutrition. "Cultivated" or "garden" cultures, on the contrary, can only be sustained by literary and specialised personnel. To reproduce, they need design and supervision; without them, garden cultures would be overwhelmed by wilderness'…. The emergence of modernity was such a process of transformation of wild cultures into garden cultures…

Legislators and Interpreters, 1987, p51


Drusilla Scott

Some countries are particularly rich in (..) voluntary associations for all manner of purposes… A state that has this rich variety of independent associations has a strength to its freedom… It is significant that the beginning of the Nazi domination of Germany was the destruction of such association. Society was atomised, social structure destroyed and trust between people broken down. 'There was no more social life, you couldn't even have a bowling club'. Men had to choose between solitude and the mass relationship of a national organisation. It was a failure of perception that let this happen… There is a test, Polanyi says, 'which proves that all such groups effectively foster the intrinsic power of thought:… these circles.. are feared and hated by modern totalitarian rulers.'

Drusilla Scott, Michael Polanyi, 1996, Chapter 6: Truth and the Free Society


Vaclac Havel

It would appear that the traditional parliamentary democracies can offer no fundamental opposition to the automatism of technological civilisation and the industrial-consumer society, for they, too are being helplessly dragged along by it. .. this static complex of rigid, conceptually sloppy and politically pragmatic mass political parties run by professional apparatuses and releasing the citizen from all forms of concrete and personal responsibility…

What then is to be done?… Above all, any existential revolution should provide hope of a moral reconstitution of society, which means a radical renewal of the relationship of human beings to what I have called the 'human order', which no political order can replace. A new experience of being, a new rootedness in the universe, a newly grasped sense of 'higher responsibility', a new-found inner relationship to other people and to the human community - these factors clearly indicate the direction in which we must go.

'The Power of the Powerless', in Living in Truth, 1986, p116-118