Editorial: April 2021
Among the sectors most affected by changes in consumer spending as a result of Covid-19 has been the cosmetics industry. In the United Kingdom, sales are normally around £2.5 billion a year, but who needs expensive lipstick and make-up when wearing a facemask? Estimates of a reduction in sales approaching 70% are tempered a little by increased expenditure on skincare and hair products. Most people want to appear reasonably well groomed on Zoom.
The plight of the cosmetics industry is unlikely to be one which will lead to episcopal tweets of concern or cause much reflection in learned journals on the effects of the pandemic. It’s worth remembering, though, that the glamorous assistants in beauty departments on the high street are, like many who work in this sector, mostly female and very modestly remunerated. The closure of 124 Debenhams stores has had a devastating impact on them.
I only became aware of this issue as a result of guest editing this copy of Crucible. While liaising with Tim Weatherstone about his article on beauty I saw “the beauty industry” referred to in a national newspaper. Increasingly the world of cosmetics is called the beauty industry, and its practitioners are beauticians. There could be no better illustration of the way that the concept of beauty has become a very limited one indeed in Western society.
Our disregard for beauty in theological and ethical discussions is, as Tim Weatherstone seeks to illustrate, mistaken, especially when beauty is no longer dismissed by some scientists and mathematicians as simply a subjective feeling unrelated to real knowledge. As Weatherstone points out, it was not only logical positivists who once thought beauty unimportant and devoid of significance. Karl Barth did so too, and he does not seem much like a natural ally of A.J Ayer. One of the most profound ethical challenges we face is to see beauty in those people and places whom many in our society dismiss as unfruitful or unsustainable.
This edition of Crucible was not planned with any theme in mind. Intriguingly though, in his article, Charles Wookey, the CEO of Blueprint for Business, says that businesses need to attend to the reality that their organizations “form or deform people by the quality of relationships they create”. In other words businesses make the world more beautiful when they attend to their social purpose. This frequently also better serves the generation of goods and services, and thus profits. Wookey concludes his article by quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins’ reflection that “Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his”, sentiments the author describes as “beautiful”.
It was assuredly not beautiful when the Church of England decided to remove ethics entirely from the syllabus of theological education for those training for ordination. Michael Leyden’s article reflects upon this almost unimaginable turn of events in 1959, which continued for the first half of that seminal decade in the last century, the sixties. Ethics, and especially personal ethics, were scarcely irrelevant then. As Michael Leyden traces, however, much good did come from the eventual reintroduction of ethics into the theological training curriculum and the efforts to make sure it was taught well and creatively. The Society for the Study of Christian Ethics owes its origin to this revival of interest. A multi-disciplinary approach in teaching ethics is now normative. Leyden is not alone in wanting to wrench an understanding of ethics away from being almost wholly concerned with issues and hard cases. “Christian ethics” he says “is bigger than crises”. Instead it is about “how to live well” by creating “theologically textured space within everyday life” shaped and moulded by liturgy, Word and sacrament, materials which “have significant moral value: they describe creaturely reality and God’s vision for human flourishing in Christ”. The expansiveness of this vision of Christian ethics at the heart of discipleship has a beauty about it too. It sees the Christian life as one lived with a profound seamlessness in relation to the whole of the created order.
The inhabitants of New London in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are beautiful, secure and free from diseases and worries. No pandemic for them. Swallowing their Soma pills whenever the slightest anxiety strikes ensures their well-being is immediately restored. As Jan McFarlane and I explore in our joint article the emptiness of this world free from pain and suffering is evident. Much of what is commonly assumed to be a beautiful life turns out not to be so beautiful after all. That was the conviction of Neil Postman, the American scholar who wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death as long ago as 1986. He was sure Huxley’s vision was coming about, and that Western society was entertaining itself to death, drowning in a swelling tide of trivialisation. He had no remedy to offer, although he was captivated by the way ancient Israel eschewed images and believed God “was to exist in the Word, and through the Word”. But are we amusing ourselves to death, as Postman suggested, or does the Word made flesh challenge both his assumption and the response of Christians to our predicament?
Perhaps there are some threads between these disparate offerings, after all. At present our world seems very disconnected and divided, increasingly deaf to reason as well as religion. The makers of the recent series of Brave New World for television found no place in their narrative for Huxley’s cult of Henry Ford. Ford (“Our Ford” to replace “Our Lord”) is a messianic figure in the original Brave New World. But the complexity of Huxley’s vision had to be simplified and his subtleties ironed out in an age of unreason as well as irreligion. In our era of fake news and conspiracy theories the very currency of debate is debased. So it may be an encouragement that articles commissioned independently for Crucible do interweave, more than I expected, an indication that seeing the world and the ethical task through a Christian lens may lend some beauty to our observation in difficult times.
Graham James was Bishop of Norwich from 1999 to 2019.