Church of England

#PastoralLetter (4): sowing old seeds cannot produce "new politics"


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?’; and the second section ‘Christian faith and political activity’, we turn now to..

Actually, this has become such an unutterably tedious exercise – trying to respond thoughtfully to rather obvious statements of incarnational truth interspersed with interminable motherhood-and-apple-pie theological precepts – that it is bothersome to waste any more time or life contemplating such revelatory assertions as “Christians take sin seriously” and “Our nation faces deep divisions”. The Bishops affirm: “It behoves all people, including politicians, church leaders and opinion formers, to ‘think it possible that you may be mistaken’ – to use the words of Oliver Cromwell.” So, cutting out the bulk of the middle section, this will be the final response to their very, very long Pastoral Letter, not least because even those who bothered to read it have long forgotten its glimpses of worth.

It is worthwhile probing the episcopal acknowledgment of humility: “We do not set ourselves up as possessing superior knowledge about the state of our world or the detailed policies that would make it a better place.” Because that is precisely what they do in paragraph 120:

At this election, we can sow the seeds of a new politics. We encourage voters to support candidates and policies which demonstrate the following key values:
• Halting and reversing the accumulation of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands, whether those of the state, corporations or individuals.
• Involving people at a deeper level in the decisions that affect them most.
• Recognising the distinctive communities, whether defined by geography, religion or culture, which make up the nation and enabling all to thrive and participate together.
• Treating the electorate as people with roots, commitments and traditions and addressing us all in terms of the common good and not just as self-interested consumers.
• Demonstrating that the weak, the dependent, the sick, the aged and the vulnerable are persons of equal value to everybody else.
• Offering the electorate a grown up debate about Britain’s place in the world order and the possibilities and obligations that entails.

This section “encourages voters to support”certain policies, which, they say, will “sow the seeds of a new politics”. It is a very specific exhortation, and the “key values” by which the Bishops encourage the faithful to discern the candidates are clearly set out. The problem is that they are all framed in what may be viewed as traditional leftist thinking of the Christian Socialists: wealth redistribution; corporatism; anti-individualism; multiculturalism; communitarianism; anti-marketisation; equality; welfare; globalisation (if not Europeanisation).

How precisely is this partisan vernacular sowing the seeds of a “new politics”? Haven’t these policies been political aims and social objectives for decades, if not centuries? Bar the last point, don’t all the parties aspire to address all of these ages-old concerns in accordance with their venerable philosophical traditions? And which candidates are “Offering the electorate a grown up debate about Britain’s place in the world order”? Isn’t that intrinsic to an EU referendum campaign?

And where is the justice to which the Bishops allude in several earlier sections? It is one thing to exhort Christians to vote for those who care for “the weak, the dependent, the sick, the aged and the vulnerable”. But all candidates will do so, because they are essentially human and compassionate. People don’t generally aspire to public service in order to bash the weak, mock the dependent, neglect the sick, reject the aged or exploit the vulnerable. Or is there some caricature allusion here to the policies pursued by Iain Duncan Smith?

Why no mention of welfare abuse? What of job creation? Where is the justice for younger generations when Labour and the SNP want to borrow beyond our means and saddle our children and grandchildren with a century of debt? Why no mention of sound finance? Isn’t that perfectly biblical? When the Bishops talk about “intergenerational justice” (paras 117, 121), they hint at inheritance, which is the classic Socialist politics of envy.

And what of the accumulation of power and wealth in the collectives? The left has many vested interests, unions being the most obvious example, and they have had (and continue to have) considerable influence over Labour policies. Consider the observations of Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times on Ed Miliband’s failings, namely that he is blind to Labour’s special interest groups and vested interests. So, it seems, are the Bishops. Not least because their concern about “Halting and reversing the accumulation of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands” cannot be addressed without fundamental reform of (or departure from) the European Union – the ‘ever closer’ shift toward economic, monetary and political union, which is the mother of all collectives. And which bishops favour “a grown-up debate” on EU secession that doesn’t cast Ukip as ‘racist’, ‘xenophobic’ or “An annoying prejudiced blot on the political landscape“? Very grown-up.

There can be no “new politics” when the Bishops’ political priorities are set out in these traditional leftist terms, with a vehement denial that they have done any such thing. A “new politics” requires new seeds, and those seeds need planting on cultivated, fertile soil, and thereafter they need water, light and warmth. The left-wing prism of state, corporations and collectives is blind to the responsibilities of the individual and the imperative of liberty. A better society springs from a better self. A new politics can only spring from a renewed nation and a reformed polity which conceives the nurture of seedlings as the role of the individual for the good of the community; not the function of the state to impose a pre-ordained conception of the common good by means of a bundle of sticks and a bunch of carrots. Those on the right feel that the individual should be coerced less and treated with respect and afforded personal liberties; not caricatured as an atomised consumer obsessed with self and greed.

The aspiration to a “new politics” is fundamentally nullified when old policies are simply wrapped up in a bit of pompous prelacy. This whole Pastoral Letter may be thoughtful and well-meaning, but it goes nowhere near to offering anything new because the art of the possible is confined by the limits of enforceability. Perhaps its authors (or anyone at Church House) might explain? Perhaps a bishop (or two) might condescend to expound how these fossilised seeds might in any sense yield a “new politics”, because the lofty aspiration is sorely missing an earthly praxis. The invitation is open-ended.