Arthur Roche: New ferment of ideas and old certainties

SINCE the election, there has been a new ferment of ideas in Britain. The Prime Minister continues to advocate the "Big Society" (recently at Morrisons headquarters in Bradford) which, with its emphasis upon local people acting together for the common good, has much to commend it.

Ironically, the sense of solidarity which he seeks to inculcate has emerged in a powerful way in the student protests against the increases in tuition fees agreed by his government.

Soon the debate will begin in earnest over which form of voting is best in accord with the values of democracy that Britain has upheld for so long.

And all this is taking place in the context of a public demand for greater transparency following the MPs' expenses scandal, although there is also now a lively debate about how far transparency should go in the wake of the ongoing revelations from WikiLeaks.

In the background to this clash of ideas there is, I sense, growing anxiety. The number of people without jobs is rising: nearly one in 10 of those eligible for work in Yorkshire are now unemployed.

Food bills have increased significantly. The terror threat remains a constant, something that we are especially conscious of in Leeds, the site of the bomb factory for the 2005 tube bombings. There is concern for the welfare of our children in the light of the degradation of the environment.

At this moment, the Church has a particular role to play. Drawing on her unique centuries-old tradition of reflection on man's identity, she proposes principles against which ideas concerning public policy can be judged. She also offers sure consolation to alleviate worry which can otherwise paralyse people and corrode relationships within society.

All of this is expressed, I suggest, in the simple but profound crib scene which churches throughout our county offer for viewing during this season. To stand and look at this scene is to engage in a political as well as a religious act. The viewer is publicly associating himself with the truth about man which it shows forth. "What is man that you keep him in mind?" the psalmist asked hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. The cave at Bethlehem provides the answer: man is inexpressibly precious for God has clothed himself in our humanity.

This has consequences. Each human person has rights. These proceed not from a legal consensus; they are God-given. The first right is the right to life. How extraordinary it is that we as a society collude in a vicious word-game: the happily pregnant mother speaks naturally of the "baby in the womb"; the abortion industry, in an attempt to dehumanise, speaks only of the "foetus".

Other rights follow, and they are carefully articulated in the Catholic tradition. Adults have a right to work so they may maintain themselves and those who are dear to them. They have a right to receive an education so that they may attain to that level of personal development which reflects their dignity. They have a right to know the truth in order that they may discover the purpose of their lives and live accordingly. That truth has a religious dimension: man has an eternal destiny.

For man's true dignity to be upheld, the Church has to be allowed to speak in the public square. She too has rights, and these too are God-given. Increasingly, these rights are being questioned. A radical secularist mindset has emerged among some opinion formers. They consider that the Church speaks from a particular and wrong-headed perspective and that the so-called insights she offers should be simply ignored.

This view, which seems to have gained strength in recent years, is radically inconsistent in two respects.

Firstly, how can we as a society really seek to promote solidarity, to render our democracy more vital and to foster a culture of transparency if we deliberately exclude from public discourse an interlocutor whose value is acknowledged by the vast majority of the citizens of our country? Secondly, how can we seek to build up our local communities unless we first of all acknowledge the historical context in which they have developed and which has given them their specific cultural shape and moral texture, to acknowledge, in other words, the rootedness of our great British civilisation in Christianity?

This faith, which I share with hundreds of thousands of Yorkshire men and women, reveals the full measure of our human dignity. To those who reject it, I say simply and respectfully: show me how your vision is better.

The right reverend Arthur Roche is the Bishop of Leeds.