“The Archbishop’s platitudes do far more to divide the country than unite it” wrote the Telegraph‘s Charlotte Gill in a piece headed: ‘Justin Welby has no business using his sacred office to pontificate about Brexit‘.
Unfortunately she had got the wrong end of the stick, or, rather, an end of completely the wrong stick, because had she read what the Archbishop said about politics and politicians and Brexit she would have seen that he wasn’t having a go at Brexiteers or denouncing Boris Johnson in particular or railing against Brexit, but was being very via-media Anglican about the state of our political culture.
That aside, her central thesis is that the Church of England should get out of politics:
What the Archbishop is most mistaken about, though, is that the public wants his two penneth on Brexit. He seems to be having something of an identity crisis, believing that the Church of England should delve into political matters. But this couldn’t be further from the truth; people crave respite from the country’s disharmony. Churches, and indeed religion, have become a refuge for many – one that will be threatened if they, too, are politicised.
There is an increasingly fraught relationship in the UK between faith and politics and between religion and public policy which inclines some to assert that the two should not mix: politics should be ‘secular’, we are told, and the state should be ‘neutral’ on religion. But the questions raised by these assertions are antithetical to centuries of Anglican tradition – in its defence of orthodoxy and involvement in the conflicts and tensions which characterise the nation. Should clergymen pronounce on matters of public policy? Are our values ultimately grounded on tradition or reason? Is an established church an essential aspect of the state, or a temporary and dispensable adjunct? These are matters of theology which are involved and concerned with the practicalities of everyday living: it is theology which is applied to politics and which is constantly transforming as a result of the interaction to renew society.
Synod member David Lamming responded to Charlotte Gill:
Of course the Church of England should do politics: if bishops and archbishops stopped pontificating about the virtues of socialism and the evils of conservatism, this blog would have to close. Politics is about the whole of life and community co-existence: it is everyone’s business, and that of church leaders in particular, to articulate and contend for the optimal path in pursuit of peace and justice. There may be a surfeit among CofE bishops (and other clergy) of the Gospel according to the Guardian, but provided our prayers may also be informed by the Telegraph, Mail and Express, and bishops are (occasionally) plugged into Archbishop Cranmer’s perspective, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
In Christ there is neither political left nor right, but the consistent exhortation to all to recognise the rule of God in their lives and exalt righteousness in the nation. If the divine commission embraces the everyday witness of individuals, then a fortiori a representative liberal democracy must embrace that of political parties in the formulation of policy since they are concerned with such values as justice and liberty.
Missiologist David Bosch observes that Christian ministry is multifaceted “in respect of witness, service, justice, healing, reconciliation, liberation, peace… (It) has to be multidimensional.” If ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom‘ (Prov 9:10), ‘wisdom is the principal thing’ (4:7) and the ultimate source of all wisdom is God (Rom 11:33 cf 1Cor 2:7); and if the art of politics is undeniably a practical wisdom, then politics may be seen to constitute an applied theology and that theology must necessarily embrace transformative politics, the pursuit of which – in the tortuous compromises of human complexity and internecine conflicts which result from our fallenness and fallibility – will invariably transform both theological understanding and practice as well as political practice and understanding.
Since theological doctrine, like practical politics, emanates from and evolves through human conflict and compromise, there is a sense in which the outworking of politics and theology are symbiotic: both are predicated upon discovering the necessary but provisional degrees of justice and mercy or freedom and coercion which may produce peaceful co-existence in variable human plurality. Of course all this can’t be left to politicians.
Just as theology is too important to leave to theologians, and the Church is too important to leave to bishops.