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How Primitive Sociology is Killing the Church of England

Megan Eaves

Brian Brown - Humane Pursuits - published on 01/11/14

Why "the language of east enders, not Shakespeare" is actually dated, not modern.

The latest development from the Church of England is that the Archbishop of Canterbury has recommended changes to the language used in baptisms. Some concerned Anglicans have pointed out that this has been done by removing all language of theological significance—so if the changes are approved, you could be baptized an Anglican Christian without actually believing anything Christian. Supporters argue that the changes are merely aesthetic and will make the baptism easier to understand. You can read the Daily Mail link above for the arguments on each side; I need not repeat them here.

What I thought was interesting was a phrase the supporters of the changes are using: that they wanted to use the language of East Enders, not Shakespeare.

You see, one doesn’t need biblical arguments to question the wisdom of the new changes. This choice of phrase provides an excellent vehicle for examining, sociologically and psychologically, why it’s amazing the Archbishop’s office thinks these sorts of changes will help the Church.

There’s extensive anecdotal evidence the church could have considered, of course. For some decades now, many British Anglican and American Episcopal leaders have tried to get somebody to show up at their church services by emptying them of any content that could be divisive or off-putting—it’s a sort of 1990s liberal approach, that views sectarianism as primitive and universalism as the future.

Obviously, it has far from worked. The trouble with it is that social scientists have proven it utterly and dangerously wrong.

These days, most educated people are familiar with the concept of “social capital” made famous in Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone. It’s the social ties and norms of reciprocity, trustworthiness, etc. that come from them—the social strength that makes a community work.

But as moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt of NYU has brilliantly charted, social capital only works if it’s in tandem with something else: moral capital.

Moral capital, according to Haidt, refers to:

“the degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.” (The Righteous Mind, p. 341)

Any society worth joining has elements of moral capital. From the high school chess club to sports team fan bases to fraternal organizations to communities and nations, moral and social cohesion are maintained through shared expectations of what it means to be a member and what it requires of you. To use an American analogy: nobody would consider you a real baseball fan if you didn’t come to games, wear your team’s colors, know its players and coaches and history, despise the rival team, and understand the unwritten rules players and fans observe during a game (the British used to call them “manners”).

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