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There’s a saying to the effect that leadership consists of working out where the people are heading and then marching in front of them. This is presumably the notion of spiritual, ecclesiastical and indeed political leadership endorsed by the M.P. in whose judgment the ‘Church of England now stands to be left behind by the society it seeks to serve, looking outdated, irrelevant, and frankly eccentric’ because the General Synod narrowly voted against consecrating women bishops. Also by the P.M., in whose view ‘it’s important for the Church of England to be a modern church in touch with society’ (although he balanced this by saying that ‘we have to respect individual institutions and the decisions they make’). There are sensible arguments to the effect that the Synod got it wrong, for various senses of the word ‘wrong’, but that isn’t one of them; it draws no meaningful distinction between cases where society at large has got things right and is worth learning from, and cases where social trends are worth challenging. The outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury (whom I have seen lecture in the past, and was more impressed by then) took a subtler line: his concern was about being ‘not intelligible to our wider society... [and] wilfully blind to some of the trends and priorities in that wider society’.

Nevertheless, the official script has been written, and we duly hear from the Second Church Estates Commissioner (also an M.P.) that ‘if the Church of England wants to be a national church, then it has to reflect the values of the nation’, for otherwise it ‘simply looks like a sect’. (Presumably non-Established churches and religions are free from this requirement. Would the Commissioner call Roman Catholicism a sect? Call Islam a sect? Call Islam a sect without being considered undiplomatic at best?) I don’t think one has to be a churchgoer to respond (though some laity certainly have) that even an Established Church, and for that matter a nation, had better have principles besides rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.

What would things be like, for example, if artists thought that their vocation was to ‘reflect the values of the nation’? (I mean, besides the aesthetic slumps of various Poets Laureate.) The question is rhetorical, because the answer is known already:

Upon emigrating to the United States in 1978, [conceptual artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid] searched for an American secular religion on par with Marxism, and found it in the pseudo-science of public opinion polling. In 1994 they undertook a massive and hilarious project to determine the statistical attributes of America's most favorite and least favorite works of art, and painted to suit. The results — a ‘dishwasher size’ bluish landscape with a family, some deer and the figure of George Washington (Americans said they liked historical figures in their art) was contrasted with a nasty ‘paperback size’ bit of angular abstraction. [...] Three years later, the artists extended their research to music, and with musician Dave Soldier, polled 500 people on their preferences on everything from instruments to lyrical content. The result, created with Soldier and lyricist Nina Makin, must be the two most relentlessly designed songs in the history of popular recording.

The language of ‘values’ (always plural) and ‘relevance’ sounds wonderful until you try to apply it: not only to find out what people think their collective ‘values’ are, but to see these realised in some sort of coherent form. People do not necessarily carry around scrupulously updated shopping lists of ‘values’ in their heads: even moral philosophers don’t, and I suspect the same is true of clergy. The things people do value do not come guaranteed to form a cohesive set of attitudes neatly ‘relevant’ even to each other. And even if they did, popular sentiment would remain capable of error. That’s part of why leadership is necessary, and that’s why we have problems when lawmakers talk as though helmsmanship in a changing society were reducible to following a Gantt chart.

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