Church of England

#PastoralLetter (1): The patronising episcopal 'should'


There are only two possible outcomes at the next General Election: either David Cameron will be Prime Minister, or Ed Miliband. Nigel Farage will not be Prime Minister; nor will Nick Clegg. It is highly likely that one (or both) might form sort of coalition with either David Cameron or Ed Miliband. It is also possible that Alex Salmond might lead a sizeable rump of Scottish Nationalists into coalition with Labour. It isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that the DUP or UUP might also collude with the Conservatives to form a government, perhaps with a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement. We might even see Sinn Féin take their seats in Parliament for the first time to form a grand Labour-SNP-Sinn Féin coalition to extirpate the United Kingdom for good. Whatever the permutations of alliance or amalgamation, either David Cameron will be Prime Minister, or Ed Miliband. Barring an act of God (such as, for example, the sudden ascent of Alan Johnson or another bout of Tory regicide), there can be no other outcome.

Speaking of acts of God, let us turn to the House of Bishops Pastoral Letter “to the people and parishes of the Church of England for the General Election 2015”. Having dealt with some of depthless reporting and disinformation (which is continuing), this episcopal thesis merits a considered response to each section, even to each paragraph, not least because we are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This is, after all, the first Pastoral Letter issued by the House of Bishops of the Church of England, and it doesn’t say nothing. But nor does it say a very great deal at all about some of the seismic issues of the day, preferring instead to pussyfoot around a political moral minefield in the hope that the faithful might mistake professed neutrality for meh. There’s no point keeping gallons of lukewarm bathwater just because there happens to be a baby in it. That’s what plugholes are for, down which a baby will not fit.

Our first consideration must be the (brief) introduction. Its brevity is pleasing, though it belies the long-winded manifesto to come. Philippians 4:8 is a good start (even in the NRSV). As for the rest:

How should Christian men and women approach the General Election to be held on 7 May 2015? This letter from the Church of England’s House of Bishops is addressed to all members of the church. And, as the Church of England strives to be a church which seeks the good of all the people of the country, we hope that others, who may not profess church allegiance, will nevertheless join in the conversation and engage with the ideas we are sharing here.

This letter is not a shopping list of policies we would like to see. It is a call for the new direction that we believe our political life ought to take.

You might think that this hardly merits any discrete analysis at all, but since it prefaces the entire magnum opus there are observations to be made, and the hope is that throughout this series each comment thread might contain some nuggets of considered insight to contribute to the national debate which the Bishops invite. They want people to “join in the conversation” whether or not they are church-goers, which is consonant with the Church of England’s statutory pastoral duty to all people in every parish, irrespective of their religion or belief. The Church “seeks the good of all the people of the country”, and so this Letter must logically seek to nudge us toward considering the lesser evil in the looming General Election.

But there is a problem with the opening sentence. “How should Christian men and women approach the General Election..?” The Letter is addressed to the Church – that is, to all Christians – but dispatched to the church. How should Christians approach the Election? It is patronising and paternalistic from the outset, not least because Christian men and women aren’t easily bidden to approach anything political in a particular way – especially in the Protestant tradition – and who are these Anglican bishops anyway to tell Roman Catholics and Quakers how they should approach their politics when the House of Bishops can’t even agree about matters of religion? And what about those Christians who do not vote – either by denominational tenet or out of disillusioned dissent?

This episcopal ‘should’ is like the benign paternalistic Tory ‘ought’. Some might be appreciative of a bit of dogmatic direction, and yet a wiser exhortation might have been less magisterial. But having posed the question, it isn’t clear at all from the rest of the document that even Anglicans are told what how they should approach the Election – that is, beyond active participation. Still, we must be thankful that the the Letter is addressed to Christian men and women. In an age of androgyny and muddled assertions of sexual identity geared towards a spectrum of gender expression, at least the Bishops sustain the polarised orthodoxy of ‘male and female he created them‘ (though, having pointed this out, expect it to be modified for Pastoral Letter 2020).

It remains to be seen whether the invitation to “join in the conversation and engage with the ideas we are sharing here” is a genuine offer of dialogue. Do the Bishops intend to respond? Will they begin by acknowledging or answering why their Socialism is barefaced while their Conservatism, if it exists at all, is hidden and unspoken? Over the coming weeks we will see more than a few examples of apparently inviolable episcopal presumptions and premises, not to mention one or two (as yet unconceded) unforced errors.

The Bishops inform us that this Letter “is not a shopping list of policies (they) would like to see”, and yet it kind of is, not least in its conscious eschewing of left-right polaritisation and the inculcation of a ‘Red Tory’ or ‘Blue Labour’ approach to democratic politics. They prefer the consensual to the divisive: clear blue water brings disharmony and pain. “It is a call for a new direction that we believe our political life ought to take.” This is, with respect to the Bishops, a distinct policy; an overarching approach to the jungle of government and the art of statecraft. For if you control the direction of the media by which our political life is lived, you can discern utterances, dominate discourse, censor dissention, manage messages and manipulate outcomes. How should Christians view this?