Response to Milbank

My recent thoughts on the Church of England – see 2 posts down – provoked a response from the leading Anglican theologian John Milbank. He said they were ‘typically peculiar and unrooted’.

In fact, to call Milbank a leading theologian is understating things. I doubt that any British academic has had such an influence on his or her discipline in recent decades. In the mid 1990s he was the key founder of a movement called ‘radical orthodoxy’. With huge erudition, and enviable fluency in French postmodern theory, Milbank and others attacked liberalism in both politics and religion, drawing on Marxist as well as Catholic thought. They dominated Anglican theology, mainly through intimidating sceptics into silence. They have also influenced politics a bit: Milbank’s pupils include Philip Blond, founder of Respublica think-tank, and Adrian Pabst, theorist of post-liberalism, who is admired by Danny Kruger MP. 

According to Milbank, ‘liberal Catholicism in the C of E never meant acceptance of political liberalism…Anglicanism has historically been far more Tory than Whig, but Hobson wants to claim Whig Anglicanism as normative.’

This summarises the difference between me and him very usefully. He sees ‘political liberalism’ as a bad thing. He idealises the ‘integralism’ of the pre-liberal era, meaning the integration rather than separation of religion and politics. This surely makes him a marginal reactionary figure, you might think. But the whole trick of post liberalism is to present such thought as edgy and brave not reactionary but ‘postmodern’, post-secular’.

I have half-admired Milbank’s work for years – he was one of my teachers when I was a postgraduate in fact. His polemical pugilistic style is a welcome contrast to the dullness of most academic discourse. But he and his movement have enjoyed far too much respect. It’s partly the fault of more liberal theologians: cowed by the post-liberals’ erudition and self-belief, liberals have shrugged and withdrawn from the fray. No one wants to be dismissed as a dated liberal who doesn’t get it.

Well I’m proud to be a Whiggish Anglican, meaning one who affirms the liberal state as a good thing. The alternative is to idealise a theocratic model of religion. Milbank and co laugh when accused of this – we’re just harmless academics, they say, not blood-stained inquisitors! But it is not entirely harmless to pose as a defender of this old model, and disparage what is good in our politics. 

In a sense he’s right, though. The Church of England has never got off the fence and drawn a line under its early phase which was indeed integralist, because the unity of religion and politics was still taken for granted in Tudor times. It has never clearly articulated its affinity with the liberal state. That’s the task for our day.