Church of England

"Tory fury" over Church of England letter is a confected Tory tantrum


Each day when Parliament is sitting, the Duty Bishop in the House of Lords prays that the House should “Lay aside all private interests, prejudices and partial affections”, so that it may serve “the public wealth, peace and tranquillity of the Realm, and the uniting and knitting together of the hearts of all persons and estates within the same.” This prayer points Parliament towards a search for the Common Good and towards political virtues which reach beyond narrow Party interest, tribalism and short term advantage. It is a call to resist the reduction of politics to seeking self interest as the only clear moral imperative.

So expounded the Bishop of Leicester at the launch of ‘Who is my Neighbour?‘ – a letter from the House of Bishops to the people and parishes of the Church of England for the General Election 2015. It is the first such Pastoral Letter ever to be issued by the House of Bishops of the Church of England. The Bishop of Leicester explained:

This letter seeks to work out the implications of that for the conditions of our day. It recognises the strength and depth of the alienation and disillusion with politics and the absence of attractive visions of the kind of society and culture towards which the Parties might be working. We encourage the kind of political vision which affirms the bonds which tie us together. We note that the grander visions of 1945 and of 1979 can no longer deliver a sustainable society in which all can flourish. A new vision is required in which neither the State nor the market can accumulate the kind of unfettered power which divide people from one another and defeat hope and purpose. In particular we seek to resist politics as an extension of consumerism in which Parties tailor their policies to attract tightly defined electoral groups, appealing to sectional interests in pursuit of a narrow slice of swing votes.

Note the careful balancing of 1945 (the advent of Clement Attlee which led to widespread social reform and a programme of nationalisation) with 1979 (the advent of Margaret Thatcher which led to fundamental economic reform and a programme of privatisation).  The era of left-right polarities is over, the Bishops aver. Now is the time for “a new vision”. They don’t quite say it, but we are left to infer that without this vision the people will perish.

The Letter is long – very, very long. In fact, it is not so much a Pastoral Letter as a Metropolitan Thesis. Few will read it all: the temptation is simply to dip into it, extract half a sentence from the topic you most fancy, and wave it about whilst stomping all over the entire treatise. That would be a mistake, for the document as a whole is a vision of Utopian polity which tells us far more about the political leaning of the House of Bishops than any document since.. well, ever. The 1985 booklet Faith in the City which was so critical of the Thatcher trajectory of reform was authored by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas – a specific posse of elite fault-finders; Who is my Neighbour? comes from the Church of England’s House of Bishops – some 53 diocesans and suffragans with eight senior women clergy. And by prefacing their Letter with the question: “How should Christian men and women approach the General Election to be held on 7 May 2015?”, we are made a little lower from the outset, for in that episcopal ‘should’ are a myriad of patronising ‘oughts’. If they do not – as they say – present a “shopping list of policies”, we are left in doubt about their preferred corpus of political philosophy.

Length aside, the Letter touches on serious matters of government, democracy, policy and participation. Out of courtesy, therefore, the Church would naturally send an advanced copy to the Prime Minister – not for any kind of approval, you understand, but out of common courtesy and faithfulness to procedural propriety.

But its leaking by No.10 to the Lobby (and to the Daily Telegraph in particular) was an unwise betrayal of confidence which caused (as intended) a wholly contrived spat. It led to the hysterical headline by Peter Dominiczak, the paper’s Political Editor, of ‘Church of England campaigning for EU integration‘, and a further one by Steven Swinford and Ben Riley-Smith of ‘Tory fury over Church of England letter‘. Note that these names are all political correspondents, journalists and reporters – the Lobby. Such matters as ecclesial epistles would ordinarily be dealt with by John Bingham, the Telegraph‘s Social and Religious Affairs Editor. The paper’s political scorn continued with Matthew Lynn’s ‘The Church has been hijacked by a woolly left-of-centre Keynesianism‘. You have to love those graciously Anglican-loving (off-shore) Barclay brothers: their ecumenism is as boundless as their HSBC advertising account.

Let us deal at this point with the much-vaunted ‘Church of England campaigning for EU integration’ story. You will see from the Letter that this claim is alarmist nonsense. The Bishops write:

After the Second World War, the nations of Europe sought to rebuild for prosperity through a shared determination that never again would global neighbours resort to mass slaughter. The differences between the peoples of Europe, which had loomed so large in war, seemed insignificant when people recollected how extensively they shared a history, culture and, not least, the traditions and world views of the Christian faith. English churchmen worked tirelessly to promote understanding and cooperation between the European churches and to encourage the political institutions of the European nations to work for the common good and focus on what they shared, not what divided them.

That history is not an argument for the structures and institutions of the European Union as they now exist. But it is an enduring argument for continuing to build structures of trust and cooperation between the nations of Europe. Ignoring or denying the extent to which European people share culture and heritage suggests that questions of identity and belonging have no currency except as political bargaining chips.

This is far from an episcopal argument for deeper EU integration. If anything, it is an affirmation of David Cameron’s desire for renegotiation: the Bishops are effectively saying that they are ‘pro-Europe’, but not the Europe that we currently have. They are not arguing for EU bureaucratic structures and institutions, but for “continuing to build structures of trust and cooperation between the nations of Europe”. Structures of trust and cooperation are not clandestine, coercive or anti-democratic: they are transparent, optional and accountable.

The Letter purports to offer “a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be”. That’s good. It asks how we might “build the kind of society which many people say they want but which is not yet being expressed in the vision of any of the parties”. That’s even better. The Letter encourages church members to engage in the political process ahead of the General Election and to put aside self-interest and vote for the common good: “The privileges of living in a democracy mean that we should use our votes thoughtfully, prayerfully and with the good of others in mind, not just our own interests.” Moreover: “Unless we exercise the democratic rights that our ancestors struggled for, we will share responsibility for the failures of the political classes. It is the duty of every Christian adult to vote, even though it may have to be a vote for something less than a vision that inspires us.”

Only Christadelphians and the odd Quaker would have a problem with that. Most other Christians tend to engage and participate in the democratic drive, if only to fuel the self-righteous and self-interested instinct to disagree, complain and argue with those who spout unutterable tosh. Importantly, though perhaps a little self-defensively, the Letter defends the right of the Church to enter into the political arena:

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. 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.

And the Bishops draw on the experience of the Church of England as a Christian presence in every community to warn of the disengagement between politicians and the people. They note that “with few exceptions, politicians are not driven merely by cynicism or self-interest” but, nevertheless, “the different parties have failed to offer attractive visions of the kind of society and culture they wish to see… There is no idealism in this prospectus”.

All this is true. Very true. As is their sociological analysis:

The extent of loneliness in society today, with the attendant problems of mental and physical health, is one indication of how far we have drifted into a society of strangers. But that drift is far from complete – and few people, if asked, would say that a society of strangers represents a vision of society which they desire.

The Letter specifically avoids advocacy for one any political party. Indeed, they pre-empt any suggestion of partisanship: “If anyone claims that this letter is ‘really’ saying ‘Vote for this party or that party’, they have misunderstood it.” So there. But when they include a terse summary of the Thatcher years as espousing “unregulated markets” (she never did and they never were), with an “individualistic emphasis” (she believed in families and sought to strengthen communities), there is a sense of political history more influenced by Spitting Image than Thatcher’s political theology. There is no mention of context; no awareness, for example, of the high inflationary wage settlements, interminable strikes and economic meltdown which led to Britain becoming the ‘Sick man of Europe’. If the Bishops are not quite advocating that we vote for a particular party, they are certainly nudging us towards the Promised Land of a particular socio-political philosophy.

We are told that under the Coalition Government unemployment has been rising (it hasn’t); in-work poverty has been rising (it’s the same as under Labour); austerity has been too harsh (it is modest); inequality has been widening (it hasn’t); and the cuts in government spending have fallen unfairly (the wealthy are paying a higher share of taxation than they were under Labour). If only one bishop would bother tweeting out each month’s fall in unemployment or each rise in youth employment, they might realise that the Government’s record on this is both sound and moral. If austerity has been too harsh, they might consider that the national debt still rising: we are still living beyond our means. Do they support further increases in government borrowing?

It is a shame that a Pastoral Letter contains such factual inaccuracies as those we might expect to be hurled across the Dispatch Box at PMQs. It gives the impression of a House of Bishops doing Ed Miliband’s job (an awful lot better). If the Bishops want to attack the ‘bedroom tax’ (+Manchester) or ‘excessive consumerism’ (++York), they might balance their condemnation with praise when a Tory government gets it right – on, for example, encouraging industry, self-reliance and the rewards of hard work. Or is that too atomised and individualistic?

This Pastoral Letter is far too long to consider in a single blog post, so the intention is to deal with it section by section over the coming weeks. That way we might collectively forge a considered response to the House of Bishops in the hope that their next Pastoral Letter (2020?) might be as philosophically cultivated as this one professes to be politically neutral. In the meantime, please try to wade through their thesis and reflect upon spiritual motives as well as its theo-political meanings. And don’t allow No.10 spin and collusion with certain favoured media (and conveniently-primed rent-a-quote MPs) to deflect from the reality that some things really are deeper than politics and economics, and far more important than partisan posturing – even on the run-up to a General Election.