How Primitive Sociology is Killing the Church of England

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”).

In other words, nobody wants to be a member of a club that’s so inclusive that membership means nothing. This is especially true of religious organizations. Haidt and other social scientists have found that “costly religious rituals” that demand things of you, which they initially viewed with enlightened Western skepticism, are actually one of the crucial elements of building and sustaining moral capital.

That act, building and sustaining, is very difficult, because moral communities are exceptionally fragile—much easier to destroy than to create. If you are trying to change an organization and don’t consider the possible unintended consequences on moral capital, disaster tends to follow. This is why, Haidt writes, liberal reforms so often backfire and communist revolutions usually end in despotism.

And in this particular case, we’re dealing with an institution that’s built almost exclusively on the kind of moral capital with which the Archbishop is unwittingly fooling around.

Historically, the British have been geniuses at building moral capital. When Mr. Collins blunderingly spoke to Mr. Darcy without an introduction, or when Henry V said winningly that “We are the makers of manners, Kate,” Austen and Shakespeare’s British readers knew the significance of the implications. They were part of a nation that survived for centuries with a minimal police force and an unwritten constitution because of the strength of their social and moral infrastructure. The C of E, with its Book of Common Prayer, was built on moral capital more than any other religious institution in the world.

This is why the idea of “using the language of East Enders, not Shakespeare” struck me (I’m aware it was a dig at Roger Scruton). Obviously, it’s important for people to understand what’s going on—but holding up a major shaper of the Anglican moral ecosystem as the bad guy nicely illustrated the dated sociology going into the recommended changes.

When Roman Catholics talk about tradition, they really mean the authority of the Church—yet even they have found that tinkering with the Mass has profound and far-reaching long-term consequences (see Vatican II). When Anglicans talk about tradition, they tend to mean ages old practices that have gained legitimacy through a kind of cultural survival of the fittest. Leaders might come and go, but the heart of Anglicanism is a community that knows its identity through the theology in its worship; through the practices that build and sustain its moral capital. Tinkering with it, especially by removing its substance, is never merely aesthetic—it’s tinkering with the Anglican existence.

This article was originally published on Virtue Online.


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  • January 15, 2014


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