The Archbishop of Canterbury got another Honorary Doctorate this evening. This time it was from King’s College London and he was given it after he had delivered a typically robust lecture on the ‘Big Society’ in a small and globalised world.

The lecture – entitled ‘Big Society, Small World’ – was the 2011 Commemoration Oration and pulled in a large and mixed audience. The guy next to me clearly had no interest in the lecture and, judging by his constantly turning head and distracted look, little comprehension of Rowan Williams’ argument.

I am not going to attempt to summarise Rowan’s argument – you have to read the text and concentrate. He does offer a sentence in his introduction which does the job, but it demands definition and explication… which is, of course, what the rest of the lecture does. He says:

A politics, national and international, of local co-operation and ‘mutualism’, rooted in a sense of political virtue and appealing to human empathy…

But, in it he raised some questions that go beyond the immediate ‘Big Society’ conundrum and challenge the way we see  and shape (wittingly or otherwise) society. Try these, for example:

  • We need to ask where power is located – where the levers of change and control lie in society. “And this in turn generates a crucial set of questions about political ethics or political virtue: if we need to explore where power lies, we need also to explore what we want power to do and why.  It is in this context that discussion has been developing about – for example – the proper definition of wealth and well-being, about individual and communal goals, about the sort of human character that is fostered by unregulated competition and a focus on individual achievement, and about where we derive robust ideas of the common good and the social compact.”
  • We need the language of character and of virtue; “and no amount of exhortation to pull our weight in society (big or otherwise) is any use without some thinking about what kind of people we are, want to be, and want others to be; what are the habits we want people to take for granted, what are the casual assumptions we’d like people to be working with?”
  • We allowed ‘freedom’ to be defined as “essentially a state in which you have the largest possible number of choices and no serious obstacles to realising any of them.  And politics has accordingly been driven more and more by the competition to offer a better range of choices…  But as our current debates seem to indicate, we have woken up to the fact that this produces a motivational deficit where the idea of the common good is concerned.”

We then get an exploration of empathy, character, human rights, civic responsibility, institutions, the humanities, localism, international development, micro-credit, farming in Zimbabwe, the proper role of the State and theology. It is dense and searching and deserves serious consideration. He concludes:

My concern is that we use this opportunity to the full – and particularly that we do not treat the enthusiasm around some sorts of localism simply as a vehicle for disparaging the state level of action to secure the vulnerable, nationally and internationally.  It is welcome that there is a concern to think about relocating power; but, as we have seen, for this to work well depends on being reasonably clear as to what you want power to do – which includes the ‘backwash effect’ of serious localism in re-energising national and international policy, to the extent that it is building real civic virtue.

This lecture seems to me to push the debate about the ‘Big Society’ in a direction that has theological and philosophical depth whilst identifying the key questions that demand intelligent answers if the ‘Big Society’ is to mean anything useful in reality.