identity politics church christians
Ecumenism

Identity politics in the Church is just sectarianism writ small

It all began last week with a tweet from the always provocative and interesting Canadian academic Jordan Peterson. Listening to the constant denigration of the intelligence of those who support President Trump, he gave way to one of his occasional fits of uncomprehending irritation, reminding the more militant critics of Trump supporters that they were talking about 50% of their fellow citizens. I have no doubt he has similar views on the other side.

This struck me as a timely reminder. There is much to object to about President Trump; he can be boorish, impetuous, repetitive and a braggart, yet those who voted for him (and some who did not) cannot help noticing significant progress on the Korean peninsula, a booming economy, and more women, black and Hispanic people in work than ever before, to say nothing of the soaring stock market and record tax receipts following tax cuts, thereby offering another piece of evidence in support of the counter-intuitive ‘Laffer Curve’ theory of taxation policy.

Against this, his opponents at CNN seem obsessed with a 2006 affair with the porn star Stormy Daniels, yet I seem to recall that many of the same critics fought to defend President Clinton in office, arguing that lying over sexual misdemeanour was no reason for a presidential resignation, notwithstanding a power imbalance between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky not dissimilar from that which brought Hollywood disapprobation in the case of Harvey Weinstein.

Perhaps the most significant development last week, however, was polling evidence that following a willingness to give the President a hearing by members of the black community like Kanye West  and Candace Owens, there had been a surge in Trump’s poll numbers amongst African-American voters. That may be increasingly psephologically significant.

My favourite US commentator Thomas Sowell is adding an intellectual force to that movement, observing that “Racism is not dead. But it is on life-support, kept alive mainly by the people who use it for an excuse or to keep minority communities fearful or resentful enough to turn out as a voting bloc on election day.”

What is true in the USA seems to find an echo in the UK. Notwithstanding significant disarray in the Cabinet over Brexit, not only can Mrs May take some comfort from the recent Local Government election results, but Euroscepticism outside of London, coupled with the anti-Semitism problem in the Labour Party, seems to have opened up a five-point gap in the polls to Mr Corbyn’s disadvantage: the shift appears to be strongest amongst anti-EU folk in socio-economic groups C, D and E. Apparently they do not like to be told they are ignorant racists. Who knew?

Last week saw pro-Remain journalists beginning to sense that such passionate divisiveness is unhelpful. Both Matthew Parris and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown began to confess that their dismay at the electorate’s decision over Brexit may have reached an excessive personal level. They confess their obsessive grief in terms not dissimilar to the ‘Bush derangement syndrome’ (currently ‘Trump derangement syndrome’) which afflicts many in the USA.

Neither are we in the churches immune from excessive partisanship and all the unbalanced criticism and apologetics that go with it. Whatever her intention, Angela Tilby has caused a stir with her expressed concerns over an ‘Evangelical takeover’ of the Church of England. Her words were largely measured, but articulated a tension which cannot be denied. We in the churches have our own version of identity politics, and whilst it is perhaps inevitable that folk who think in similar ways, read similar books and are attracted to certain styles of worship should gravitate towards each other, we need constantly to remind ourselves that preference, inclination and association may not always congruent with how God sees things. My experience may shape, even perhaps define how I see myself and my role in society and the Church, yet even as I and other lost sheep congregate together, St Paul warned us of the folly of attachment to party politics.

When the General Synod of the Church of England was discussing whether we might accommodate the transgender community with the provision of a re-naming liturgy, I spent a delightful evening with my local Youth Transgender Support group who agreed to meet me and inter alia walk me through the various sub-sets of gender identification. As we went through the multiple permutations on offer, they empathised that this must seem very confusing to me.

“Not at all,” I replied. And I explained that when I was elected to General Synod I was given a form and invited to say where I stood on the spectrum of Churchmanship: was I Traditional Catholic, Modern Catholic, Complementarian Evangelical, Liberal Charismatic… etc., etc. There were about 16 options. I looked in vain for ‘Normal’ but that didn’t seem to have made the cut. As I explained the differences between these factions, I watched my new Transgender pals’ eyes glazing over, and we reached our first accord. We were equally bemused by the complexity of ‘the other’ and began to sympathise with each other.

Yet in his superb article on the foundations of Anglicanism – Latimer and Ridley are Forgotten – which you must read, Peter Hitchens explores the confused origins of Anglicanism, and how we became Catholic and Reformed and subsequently infused with Protestantism. Plainly, ‘Messy Church’ did not begin in the modern era.

He highlights the historic importance to Anglicanism of its liturgy, which he loves, and to which many of varying traditions can nevertheless assent. However, what he does not explore is the fact that the diversity of identity surely comes from the second early pillar of Anglicanism – access to the scriptures in one’s own language. With the sacred texts made available to all, Jack and Jill were as good as their masters; each was able to read the Word of God and form his or her own opinions unmediated by orthodoxies propounded by king or pope.

Like Adam and Eve’s access to knowledge of good and evil, this was both a benefit and a curse: the foundations of a theological Tower of Babel were thereby laid. We disagree because we can, and the stronger we assert our identity politics the further we move from the unity symbolised in the bread and the wine, which already too many hesitate to share with their fellow sinners.

After an interesting week I tentatively offer the thought that, whether we are looking at US politics, the Brexit controversy or our own church divisions, it might be worth remembering that identity politics is just sectarianism writ small. We should be very wary of the former if we do not want to fall into the latter, which we can all probably agree is never conducive to unity.