Church of England

Why do bishops flaunt their Socialism but shroud their Conservatism?


When the Archbishop of York was giving media interviews recently to promote his book On Rock or Sand?, he made clear that “the theology of where I am coming from” is firmly rooted in the political philosophy of Karl Marx. Indeed, the Archbishop quoted the author of The Communist Manifesto directly and with customary flourish: “From each, according to his resources, to each, according to his need,” he proclaimed. In an interview with The Telegraph, Dr Sentamu cheerfully acknowledged: “That sounds extremely left wing doesn’t it?” There was no shame or stigma in this admission; no embarrassment, disrepute or dishonour. The Archbishop of York advocates the political economy of Marxism, and that is, quite simply, the theology of where he is coming from.

You can’t imagine him – or any other bishop, for that matter – expressing concern over (say) high levels of uncontrolled immigration with an appeal to Edmund Burke, that “the utmost necessity ought.. to engage a nation, in its own defence, for the preservation of the whole”, and then flippantly observe: “That sounds extremely right wing doesn’t it?” No, that would be a certain cause of shame and stigma, for the extreme right is profoundly anti-Christian, while the extreme left is.. well, basically Christian in its redistributive concern for the poor, the widow, the sick and the outcast. Tories, you know, just don’t care about society’s parasites.

It isn’t only bishops, of course. Ordinands in their theological colleges are overwhelmingly of the left, so much so that the occasional right-inclined trainee vicar feels more than obliged to keep very quiet about his (yes, his) philosophical worldview, and would certainly never be seen sipping a mug of coffee while poring over the Daily Mail in the common room (if the committee hasn’t banned it). And Lambeth Palace staff along with arch(episcopal) parliamentary aides aren’t shy about about RT-ing their support or broadcasting their political convictions, either. Nothing wrong with that, at all. Absolutely nothing. But.. well, you never see tweets from Lambeth Palace staff urging a Cameron victory or wishing their Tory mates godspeed in an imminent local election, do you?

One is left to conclude that either there is none, or the culture of the institution is such that to apprehend Christianity in conservative terms is to mock God and drag the name of Jesus through the mud. It is curious that those who work for and minister within the Church of England can unashamedly render unto God the things that are Marxist, but not unto God the things that are Burkean. It is as if Socialism is the transcendent radiation of divine love while Conservatism just crucifies Christ over and over again. Christianity is thereby belittled by a myopic partisanship, for in Christ there is neither left nor right.

The problem with most episcopal perspectives of conservatism and Conservatism is that they lack perspective. Rather like the Church of England itself, the Conservative Party has been an uncomfortable coalition since its inception: it has always combined both Whiggish libertarian radicals and Tory authoritarian conservatives, holding them ‘in tension’. It is home to free-marketeers and interventionists (in the words of Michael Heseltine, “before breakfast and before dinner”); philosophical ideologues and political pragmatists; and, lest it be ignored, church-going Christians and secularist atheists.

And like the Church of England, the Conservative Party’s chronic schizophrenia is only controlled when remedial treatment is administered by a determined leader: then the Party (like the Church) compliantly morphs to the successful leader’s mould (or not, to the protestations of the irked, exiled or unsuccessful candidate[s] for leadership).

Considering the history of conservatism and the Conservative Party’s historic relationship with the Church of England, it is surprising that so few temporal ministers ever seem to mention the Church favourably in their speeches (except when garnering votes); and no spiritual ministers ever seem to mention the Conservative Party favourably, either (except when.. er.. ever).

It is as if the Bishops are so appalled and aggrieved by the unrelenting Conservative assaults on the poor, defenceless and underprivileged that they can no longer be bothered to understand the spiritual depths of people in the party or appreciate the Christian inspiration or foundation of the philosophy.

Conservatism has always been much more about what British conservatives have done and thought than what commentators have written. Conservatives are not necessarily participators in partisan politics; indeed, conservatism is a stance that may be defined without identifying it with the policies of any party. While the core of the philosophy may be distilled from broad and general principles around various themes of liberty – defence of private property, the importance of the nation state, the rule of law, societal evolution rather than revolution – these are the abstract embodiment of a long historical tradition which has frequently adapted to meet the changing social contexts over the centuries.

While the term ‘Conservative Party’ is a nineteenth-century construct, the party itself is the progeny of the religious disputes of the seventeenth century. By 1794, the ‘eternal truths’ of what is today known as ‘conservatism’ were being articulated, this being the year when Burke joined with Pitt (the Younger), who identified himself more with the doctrine and beliefs of the Non-Conformists than with the Anglicans. Locke had also previously published The Reasonableness of Christianity – a political theory of basic human equality reasoned from Scripture. It was not that such principles had not already found political expression, but at the same time as Locke was concerned to examine the extent to which the state should coerce in order to pursue the moral good, Burke was observing that society is organic, and that change must be evolutionary, not revolutionary; consonant with social mores and sensitive to national traditions.

The whole frame of political discussion in this era is saturated with Christian assumptions. At the moment when the doctrines of the French Revolution and ‘the Rights of Man’ arose to threaten Anglo-Saxon liberty, it was Burke who confronted the revolutionary constitution-framers, advocating instead a Protestant understanding of man’s “moral agency in a civil order”:

Now though civil society might be at first a voluntary act, its continuance is under a permanent, standing covenant, co-existing with the society; and it attaches upon every individual of that society, without any formal act of his own… We have obligations to mankind at large, which are not in consequence of any special voluntary pact. They arise from the relation of man to man, and the relation of man to God, which relations are not matters of choice…

For Burke, the godfather of mainstream conservatism, any notion of ‘the Rights of Man’ was inimical both to his Protestant Christian worldview and to the constitutional settlement, and had to be tempered by the duties of man to the community of which he is part. Yes, Conservatives do community.

Burke’s organic conception of the state was cognisant of the fact that the liberties of the individual, poor, illiterate Englishman, especially in regard to religion, had been obtained by sections of the English nation, each seeking the redress of specific grievances, but seeking it always through legal channels and by legal means. He spoke of “great multitudes act(ing) together”, and noted the “grand chorus of national harmony” which constituted a “beautiful order”. This ought to chime with the very raison d’être of the Church of England.

Appeals to this “grand chorus of national harmony” have been a constant mainstream refrain in conservative history, from the unity imposed by the Protestant Settlement, through the age of Empire, the creation of the British Commonwealth and the assertion of Britain’s continuing role on the world stage, all of which have been shadowed by the Worldwide Anglican Communion – the universal theological expression of England’s “beautiful order”. The conservative order manifests itself in patriotism, custom, respect for the law, loyalty to a leader or monarch, and in the willing acceptance of the privileges of those to whom privilege is granted.

The liberal strand of conservatism was articulated by JS Mill: “The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it.” The emphasis is on personal development and the negative impact of conditioning and conformity which are seen to stifle individual development. The liberty that Mill proclaimed was one in which all individuals are equally free to develop innate talents and abilities: he assumed that individuals would naturally tend to be drawn towards what they are good at doing and this natural ability, freely allowed to develop, would enhance society. Mill places liberty close to individualism because “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”. He dismisses corporatism and the social-collective, preferring individual expression in contradistinction to the state and its monolithic institutions. He would probably never have said that there is “no such thing as society”, but he was certainly concerned to note that “society has fairly got the better of individuality”.

The old Whig-Tory divisions persists in the Conservative Party still; indeed, liberal Conservatism as a mainstream faction can trace its origins in the Conservative Party back to 1822. The competing ‘wings’ of the Party are not now so much concerned with the status quo of King or Church over revolutionary reform, but with such philosophical concepts as the via media between Burke’s benign paternalism and Mill’s individual liberalism.

While the conservative is undoubtedly concerned with liberty, there is no support for complete autonomy or unrestrained individualism because attempts to articulate truths about the world are likely to be founded on observation, and the conservative sustains a disbelief in the instant changeability of human nature. This is where the Bishops profoundly misunderstand and misrepresent the philosophy. The Conservative Party is in tension because conservatism itself seeks to articulate a middle way between institutional continuity and personal freedom: the individual’s identification with something greater – be it society, class, religion, state or nation – is deemed to possess an innate authority or to be of a value which transcends the value of individuality.

This is the Conservative ‘middle way’ or ‘centre ground’, wholly consonant with the traditional Anglican via media.  The Conservative via media is an enduring leitmotif: it emerges in Disraeli’s ‘One Nation Conservatism’, Macmillan’s 1938 book The Middle Way, and again (for example) in Butler’s 1946 pamphlet The Industrial Charter, which embraced Labour’s establishment of the NHS and nationalisation programme. The modern Conservative expressions of ‘Social Justice’ and ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ sit squarely in this historic mould.

Patriotism has been indispensible for the Conservative Party because it has the capacity to unite disparate groups and instil social cohesion: it is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that the Conservative Party – essentially the party of England – has traditionally identified with the objectives of the Church of England and the institution of Monarchy as a symbol of nationhood; as incarnations of the spiritual, political and historical entity of which the English are a part. As Margaret Thatcher observed:

The Tories began as a church party, concerned with the Church and State, in that order, before our concern extended to the economy, and many other fields which politics now touches. Religion gives us not only values – a scheme of things in which economic, social, penal policy have their place – but also our historical roots. For through the Old Testament our spiritual roots go back to the early days of civilisation and man’s search for God.

This is the mainstream spirituality that permeates the psyche of the nation. In past eras, the Conservative Party not only introduced income tax and welfare with appeals to Christian notions of justice; they legalised trade unions, opposed free trade and favoured legislation to govern the sale and conditions of labour through the Factory Acts. If these past policies heralded justice and compassion – as they did – it is difficult to understand why the Bishops and Clergy of the Established Church appear to be ideologically opposed even to the possibility that current Tory reforms might yield the same.

The Conservative Party has always had a strong tradition of social concern and action which is rooted in Protestant Christianity and fused with the Church of England. Some of the greatest movements for social reform have been led by Conservatives and their Whig and Tory forebears: Toryism has been as much a public theology as a political creed. ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ is the continuation of this tradition: it is based in part on the doctrine of original sin, which holds that man is sinful and likely to want something for nothing; man’s sinful nature leads to indolence. The modern expression is to do with concern for the poor in a context of capitalism.

Is this overarching theme not worth a little episcopal reflection? Are the repayment of the national debt, resolution of the budget deficit and the revolutions in education and welfare not worth a little serious theological consideration? Is the fall in unemployment not worth the odd tweet?

It is increasingly difficult, in an age dominated by ‘rights’ and an obsession with individual liberty, for any political party to assert the individual’s obligation to be ruled; to submit to a law-enforcing higher power. Yet it is only Tory individualism that the Bishops rail against. Modernity is concerned if not obsessed with individual freedom, but the obsession is to the detriment of a philosophy of human nature (political or moral) which articulates what that freedom is or why it matters. It is now pursued irrespective of the theological history and political culture which preceded it and helped to define it.

So modern politics takes on the meta-narrative of disjunctive micro-narratives: communitarianism transcends individualism as knowledge is created and accessed not by individuals but in community. David Cameron has been keen to exploit this development, conveniently providing him with an opportunity to address the frequently-misquoted adage that “there is no such thing as society”, for he profoundly believes that there is, and so did The Lady, if the Bishops could be bothered to read and understand the quotation in context.

The Conservative Party has been focusing on empowering communities because the sense of political community is intrinsic to people’s sense of the need for social community. This is part of his ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ agenda. And community is a fundamental human good because commitments and values are shared; the good life demands participation in a political community, and this requires communal participation in a political organisation of the widest scope, such as the nation state.

Just as society has moved beyond the 19th-century confines of the nation state, so the Conservative Party has loosened its formal association with the Church of England. It has been supplanted by informal links with representative bodies of all faiths and beliefs. This is consistent with the Anglican mission in a pluralist society: not to defend faiths, but to sustain the sacred canopy beneath which people of all faiths and none might be free to believe and express those beliefs in the public realm.

To be a Conservative is not to withdraw into national insularity or selfish individualism, but to reach out with a straightforward message of social salvation and political redemption. And that is not only to be found in the Gospel of St Marx.