The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have written a three page letter about the UK election to be disseminated this weekend. Such letters, this one at short notice, can be mildly considered on a Sunday, or they can be studied. This review, or critique, chooses to do the latter and is longer than the original letter, simply because the English Churches must do better than this.
First, is the question of the audience. It is to “the Parishes and Chaplaincies of the Church of England”, but it is also vaguely and really predominantly to the general public and media. They are not the same. What the Church of England has to say about the election should be a national concern and then there is the question of where Christians stand. The first paragraph invites us to renew our love for God and our neighbour and pray for those seeking and in political office. It seems innocuous, but the problem is exactly that. It is innocuous. Actually a high proportion of the population do not love and trust God, and they do not feel beholden to their neighbours in a variety of ways and circumstances. Rather than a vague hope that this Christian faith and ethos is shared, the truth should be recognised that it is ignored or contended in UK life and politics. God does not get another mention in the letter. There is no suggestion that the government of God over human life, benign though it is, or Christian understanding of the state, should concern us politically.
The second paragraph suggests we have an obligation to set aside apathy and cynicism and to participate in the election, and encourage others to do the same. It could be by putting on a hustings, volunteering for a candidate or voting. If Christians are just cynics and apathetic, we start from a pretty poor base. The Archbishops invite us to participate without reference to any party or issue in a benign way; mere participation for any party seems to be enough and no particular views are challenged.
The First Three Values.
Then comes a typical sentence. “The Christian virtues of love, trust and hope should guide and judge our actions, as well as the actions and policies of all those who are seeking election to the House of Commons and to lead our country.” Well, is the country, “our country”, Christian or isn’t it? The idea that Christian virtues should guide all involved in politics, whether they are atheist, consumerist, Muslim or secular is either an affront to democracy, which suggests that people are free to be guided by their own set of values, or these virtues are vague, and vaguely meant. Probably it is the latter. And what is the content of Christian love, trust and hope? They are focussed on God, but now God is not mentioned. These virtues are not the same. Christians are not called to trust anyone. We are to be as innocent as doves and wise as serpents. Jesus warns against trusting all kinds of people. Herod is “that fox” and the prophets repeatedly expose those who are false in their political dealings. There are false prophets, wolves in sheep’s clothing, hireling shepherds who do it for the money rather than proper care. There are leaders who do not practice what they preach. Rather than a vague trust, Jesus teaches discernment, especially of political leaders. “Beware the yeast of the Pharisees;”it gets into the whole loaf. And hope? Yes, hope in God and Christ as the Way, but not hope in the nation, in things working out, in bad producing good. These values might not do the job they are supposed to.
The Next Three Values.
Then follows a call in relation to this election, vague, coded and written not to offend anyone. There are deep and profound (deep and profound?) questions of identity. This probably means identity as a state, because Great Britain and Northern Ireland are mentioned. “We are in such a time.” Ah, this is an oblique reference to Brexit, without daring to mention the word, because it might upset some. Then there is reference to our “shared British values.” which must have at their core “cohesion, courage and stability.” Of course, whether British values are shared is a core issue, and whether they are British, is similarly important, and whether cohesion, courage and stability are especially Christian is a further question. Perhaps the values coming from Christianity are not shared as the number of practising Christians falls. Perhaps many of our values, including the better ones come from elsewhere in the world, and even in Europe. Since far less than 1% of the world’s Christians are British, Britain is not particularly the source of Christian, values, principles or faith.
“Cohesion”, we learn, is what holds us together. It is cohesion which gives us concern for the weak, poor and marginalised, for the common good, aid and other things. This is not good enough. Cohesion is more problematic than that. The strong cohere against the weak, the rich against the poor and particular interests against the common good. Cohesion is not able to address the legitimate and illegitimate sources of interest. Further, rather than being Christian, this probably echoes Theresa May’s assertion that the country is united under her when it patently is not.
“Courage” is even weaker. We learn it “includes aspiration, competition and ambition”, an odd collection of values. Suddenly, under “courage”, trade, migration, peacebuilding, development, the environment, innovation, finance, education, productivity and helping the poor come in with a mish-mash of half-formed policy aspirations. Not only it is un-thought out, a kind of moral wish list, but often meaningless. “Courage demands”, we are told, “a radical approach to education” Is this Mr Gove, de-education or Leninism? We have no idea.
“Stability”, we learn, is a Benedictine virtue. However, it might have been resurrected to chime with Mrs May’s mantra of “strong and stable leadership. Again stability is presented as involving a mish-mash of reconciliation, setbacks, sustainability, housing, health, education, marriage and family. This presentation of values is not particularly Christian, vague, presents vast policy areas in a short phrase, is without diagnosis, evidence or informed reflection. It is of poor quality as political guidance.
We are then presented with the statement. “Contemporary politics needs to re-evaluate the importance of religious belief.” This seems a more positive direction, though it is perhaps time to be clear in public debate that “religions” are radically different, that secular faiths like capitalism, consumerism nationalism and even scientism have their own religious focus in forms of self worship, that Christianity and Islam have big differences of faith. But the next sentence is even more bold. “The assumptions of secularism are not a reliable guide to the way the world works.” This could be a critique of contemporary economic theory, or a wider debate. But it turns out to be the Church of England defending its own patch. We are told, “Parishes and Chaplaincies of the Church of England serve people of all faiths and none.” The letter moves on from religious “service-delivery”, a unnecessarily commercialised phrase, to seeking an improvement in religious literacy and then comes a very sad sentence. “The religious faith of any election candidate should not be treated by opponents as a vulnerability to be exploited.” What? Are we so much in retreat that election candidates cannot answer for their faith as part of their candidacy, indeed as often the main part. That is what the letter looks forward to, but why is it not here?
The event which prompted this comment may have been Tim Farron’s failure to answer the question, obviously set to trap him, of whether homosexuality is a sin. Tim responded with Sunday School level answers in a failure, matched within the Church of England, to address gender and sexuality properly. Our failure should not be protected, and given the Gospels are full of Jesus responding to questions asked to trap him, Tim Farron needs to wise up a bit.
The letter then continues with general religious reflection and worry about “further secularisation in the public realm”. The problem is that talking about religions in general makes this contribution vague. There is a nod at “religiously motivated violence” and addressing it, and the refugee “conversation” is addressed by looking at the costs than some incur, and equally sharing them. But this highlights the mealy-mouthed responses. We are having a “conversation” about refugees while perhaps ten or twenty thousand come, while the German Christian Democrats, led by Angela Merkel, welcome a million, because they are suffering, homeless and obviously need help, and Christianity requires us not to pass by on the other side when people need help. That signals the depth of our actual British Christian failure.
Then occurs a sentence which sums up the failure of this letter. “These deep virtues and practices – love, trust, and hope, cohesion, courage and stability – are not the preserve of any one political party or worldview, but go to the heart of who we are as a country in all its diversity.” It does not matter what your views are, in party terms, or in terms of worldview, we as a country in all its diversity practising these virtues can hang together. There are some problems with this. First, parties and people disagree about these and other virtues. Second, the rosy picture of national unity conveyed by the Conservative Party at this election, ignores the disunities within the UK, over Brexit and among many different groups who for good reasons do not have trust or hope. More deeply, this sentence conveys that national virtues are the basis of British society. This is not true for much of British politics. The UK pursued an illegal war on the basis of a lie in Iraq which has contributed to millions of lives being destabilised. The poor are being impoverished while the rich get richer. Health and care services are threatened. We are arming and selling arms on a large scale, and corruption is appearing in our banking and other sectors. This vague hope in national virtue will not do. More than this Britain’s Brexit exit raises the problem of British Nationalism, or more accurately English nationalism, the idea that we really do have to be separate from our European neighbours. The Archbishops’ letter mentions no other countries and seems to participate in this British fixation.
Many Anglicans vote Conservative, are part of middle Britain and voted Brexit and this letter seems to reflect this “constituency”. It upsets no-one, raises no issues or contentious matters, smoothes with the rhetoric of the likely next government of the UK, mainly talks religion in general, and will soon be lost in the hurly burly of media election spin. Of course, the Archbishops are better than the letter. We all have off days. But the benign, middle of the road, general religious speak of this letter, which does not engage with any political issues with faith, conviction or analysis contributes little to public life. It is amateurish, marginal and locked in its own inoffensive language.
Sadly, it is a symptom of a bigger problem. The Church of England rarely engages politically. It is happy if it can have a few bishops in the Lords who can again marginally commentate on some ethical matters. Slowly it is being pushed into the irrelevant backwater that actually it has long occupied. Despite some courageous people it remains the liturgical support of the establishment, inoffensive but irrelevant to public life, and deeply committed not to confronting any issue which might offend anyone, especially the establishment.
This contrasts with the Christian faith. First, Jesus has, and insists on, a range of titles which have deep political significance – the Son of Man, the King of the Jews, Messiah, Prince of Peace, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Second, Jesus’ confrontations with the rulers of his day – Herod Antipas, the Sanhedrin, The Temple Party, Jewish nationalists, Pilate and the Roman Empire occupy much of the Gospels. Third, the Old Testament presents God’s interactions in the national formation of the Jewish people, the formulation of their laws, and with the empires of the eras. This is further emphasized by a tradition of prophets who spoke to the rulers and people of their own and other nations. Moreover, there is scarcely an issue – war or peace, poverty, the nature of law, healing and care, education and community about which the Old and New Testaments do not speak, albeit in different cultures from our own. More than this, the national and colonial leaders of Jesus’day found it necessary to get rid of him, because of his danger to their ideologies, ways and interests. Further, Jesus main message was of the gentle rule of the Kingdom of God, or the Government of God, in human life and states. These teachings and understandings have been reflected in Christian history worldwide in all kinds of ways we cannot explore here, and there is no suggestion that these emphases might be less relevant today. Yet they do not emerge from the Church of England establishment.
The Anglican Church at present addresses this deep Christian engagement with a few bishops who do politics in their spare time alongside their full-time pastoral jobs. It largely ignores those who do, think or work at politics unless they attain status. Moreover, it has allowed its own version of “religion and politics do not mix” to dominate its ethos. The Christian faith is pushed into church attendance and individual cultic belief, rather than full life Christianity before God including politics.
This might not matter immediately were this election not such a crucial one. We face poverty, refugees, acute personal and mortgage debt, an emerging housing crisis, health and care underprovision, the possible departure of Scotland from the UK, Brexit negotiations, our relationship with the Trump administration, a growing environmental crisis even now met by denial or indifference, difficulties in Europe and tens of millions in failed states, often without homes and as refugees. Electoral manipulation and corruption seems a problem in a range of so-called democracies Dangerous military moves are being made, along with a surge in the selling of arms. Earlier patterns of God denying politics included Fascism and State Communism, both inadequately addressed by the Christians of those eras in their early stages.
The time has come for the Church of England to be fully professional, in both senses of the word, its approach to politics. It needs to gather those who are thinking and doing Christian politics and articulate the needs of the times. This involves a radical shake up of personnel, far less reliance on the bishops and archbishops, and a recognition that the present hierarchy are handling sex, gender, political, economic and military issues far less adequately than the Church should. Address it now, or the legitimate marginalisation will grow worse.