Church of England

#PastoralLetter (3): a plea for religious liberty in an era of secularity


Having responded to the Preface of the Pastoral Letter from the House of Bishops “to the people and parishes of the Church of England for the General Election 2015″; and also to their first section, ‘Who is my Neighbour?’, we continue with the Bishops’ exposition of the relationship between ‘Christian faith and political activity’, which is a strong theological, missiological and constitutional exposition of the raison d’être of the Church of England:

6 Some people, including some in the positions of influence in the media, politics and elsewhere, claim that religion and politics cannot mix. They assert that religion belongs solely to the private sphere and must not trespass into the realm of political or economic life. Although this is often treated as a universal truth, it is a view largely confined to the modern-day European context. In previous centuries, and in most parts of the world today, it has been accepted that religious belief of its nature addresses the whole of life, private and public. It is not possible to separate the way a person perceives his or her place in the created order from their beliefs, religious or otherwise, about how the world’s affairs ought to be arranged.

All but the most aggressive secularists will agree with this, and certainly natural conservatives. For the Christian, faith must be both publicly proclaimed and lived out in spirit and in truth: it is not a matter for the closet but for the world. When politics yields unjust laws which oppress (as it sometimes does), the Christian ought not to be prohibited by virtue of his faith from entering into the realm of controversy. What is important to note, however, is that there is nothing in the training, education or intellectual attainments of the bishops which better qualifies them to pontificate on politics than the average voter. But they may, in a free society, certainly do so – so long as they remember the sanctity of their vocation to save souls above the more agnostic inclination to march alongside striking workers.

Interestingly, this is the Bishops’ first mention of ‘Europe’, and they are critical of the political dogmatism (“universal truth”) of an asserted secularity in its political functions and economic life. Here we have the first allusion to an episcopal blessing upon the tradition of continental Christian Democracy.

7 The claim that religion and political life must be kept separate is, in any case, frequently disingenuous – most politicians and pundits are happy enough for the churches to speak on political issues so long as the church agrees with their particular line. But Christian engagement with political issues has to go deeper than aligning the church with one party, policy, or ideology.

This is the point upon which many Conservatives feel the Bishops are not quite being even-handed. The political issues which the Letter raises and seeks to address most robustly are identifiably those which most occupy those on the left (as highlighted in the response to ‘Who is my Neighbour?’). If the Bishops choose to highlight their own idiosyncratic Guardian-informed priorities but ignore the concerns of millions of Daily Mail-reading others, they must explain why. Why is environmentalism worthy of episcopal intervention but not abortion? Why highlight concerns about aggressive economic capitalism but not the systematic erosion of national sovereignty? What the Bishops choose to mention and what they decide to omit may be seen to constitute the foundations of a political agenda, which becomes an abuse of their freedom and an abdication of the responsibility to become all things to all people – whether socialist, liberal or conservative (all lower-case). Whether purposeful or accidental, the Bishops communicate a message on faith and morals which inclines toward collectivism rather than individualism. Both, of course, find scriptural footholds. But given the corporate nature of the messenger (and the known, openly left-wing allegiance of the communication teams of both Church House and Lambeth Palace), it is no surprise that many Conservatives increasingly view the Church of England as another parliamentary bench of opposition.

8 Observers of the global scene will recognise that religion, far from withering on the vine as urbanisation, industrialisation, wealth and education increase (the theory of secularisation), has a growing public profile and cannot be ignored as a political force. Without a grasp of the power and meaning of religion, it is impossible to understand the dynamics of global politics today.

This is an important point which meets with considerable agreement. Pervasive soulless materialism and the arid dialectic of scientific positivism, far from satisfying the human thirst for knowledge, have revived many of the pre-Enlightenment arguments about the meaning of existence, the nature of truth, the primacy of freedom of conscience, the sources of civil authority and the Law of Nature. Globalisation has not killed God, but it has certainly challenged some parochial conceptions. It would be interesting to hear more from the Bishops about which forces they believe to be particularly influenced by religion today. It is a complex but hugely important subject.

9 Some of this resurgent religion has been harmful. It is a mistake to imagine that all manifestations of religion are essentially similar or always benign. But the challenge to politicians is to understand how faith can shape communities, nations and individuals for the good. The answer to “furious religion” (that is, the religious impulse turned in on itself or used to justify oppression and conflict) is not to marginalise religion in general or see religious faith as some kind of problem. It is to acknowledge that religious commitment is extraordinarily widespread and that people of faith within all the historic traditions have much to offer to a vision of a good society and a peaceful world.

The first sentence is an undoubted allusion to what has become known in the vernacular as ‘Islamism’ (though, more accurately, Saudi-Salafism), but not exclusively so. Properly mindful of extremist elements in all religions, the Bishops are careful to stick to the generalities. But while they are correct on their substantive point – that it is quite wrong to throw the Christian baby out with Wahhabi bathwater – it is not at all clear why they bring other religions into their thesis at all (even if not by name), as by so doing they complicate their argument. There are significant theo-political differences between Christian and Islamic theology (to name but one) which would manifest in quite different political exigencies. Political Islam, in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood (to name but one), is experiencing (and causing) global upheaval in the contemporary context. Faith may indeed “shape communities”, but does not the Christian faith yield a superior regular tetrahedron?

And why do the bishops here deploy the neutral language of a multifaith polity (which is not neutral at all) instead of making the case for the transformative power of Christianity (which is their preserve)? If “furious religion” is to be mitigated or extinguished, it is surely muscular Christianity which ought not to be marginalised as the national expression of religious identity, or subjugated to the benign liberal banalities of multicultural inclusion and equal fruit. Christianity is established for a purpose, and that purpose is to proclaim the name of Jesus and to manifest the love of God – to free the captives (individually) and to foster peace and reconciliation (in community). Not all  “resurgent religions” are allies in this pursuit: where they are, the Church must embrace them as blessed partners; where they are not, the Church must call out the evil.

It is not ‘religion’ of reason or recent opinion that makes the good society, but the historic vision of the old paths which were revealed to us by God through Christ. The episcopal task is not to foster “religious commitment” or to exhort “people of faith”, but to (re-)discover and expound the true theological foundations of our national political commitment. Certainly, this may not be expressed today as it was in the nineteenth or any preceding century, but cultural sociology changes words and meanings, not divine truths or natural laws. If the Church is to involve itself in the business of government – as it should – and if Christianity is to influence our national politics – as it must – then the Bishops must discern the effects of (post)modernity upon their own apprehensions of theology: they must grapple honestly with the sometimes corrosive premises of liberalism and radicalism, and differentiate more transparently between the partial philosophies of socialism and conservatism (if possible, apart from the recommendations of their Socialist advisors and/or chaplains). To do so is not to sully the gospel, but to scrutinise the political paradoxes of our era with timeless truths and transcendent thoughts. The Church of God’s people must be free to enter the political fray, but the Bishops might better appreciate their own theological provisionality and dispensability when they adopt a broader political spectrum and consider a longer historical perspective.