When the Dean of Manchester Cathedral agreed to facilitate the march of the people against austerity during this year’s Conservative Party conference, a simple matter of Christian hospitality to the Communication Workers Union became an acute question of political mission. The juxtaposition of the Conservative Party in corporate conference and the Church of England in socialist fellowship was a potent symbol of the gulf between the millions and the millionaires, to use Dave Ward’s mismatch of the proceeds of economic growth. When the CWU General Secretary preached oppression from the pulpit of the Established Church, and when that homily was bathed in the vicarious prayers and blessings of a diocesan bishop, the Church of England became associated if not collusive with “the struggle to build a positive alternative to austerity, cuts and the so-called ‘free market'”.
“We don’t want Tories! We don’t want cuts!” proclaimed the brothers and sisters in the cloisters. The People’s Post campaign gives a brief account:
..as the final chorus of the classic 1970s Strawbs hit “I’m a union man” ebbed away, David Holgate, Manchester Cathedral’s Canon for Theology and Mission, opened the meeting with a warm welcome to everyone.
Canon Holgate reminded the assembly that “this cathedral is yours, not ours” and then led a short prayer in which he appealed to “God the communicator” asking Him to “please inspire all who speak and all who listen. Help us to communicate well, Amen.”
They don’t recount the prayer (for some reason), but Canon Holgate has graciously emailed a copy over and consented to its publication. He writes that he had planned to use a good harvest prayer from the New Zealand Prayer Book, but after chatting to the organisers an hour before the gathering, he thought that something simpler, more focused and bespoke was needed, rather than generic incantations of “God of seed and growth and harvest..”.
The Dean, the Very Rev’d Rogers Govender, was actually not present for the evening (he was attending the event at which George Osborne was speaking on the Northern Powerhouse..), so it fell to Canon Holgate to say the welcome on behalf of the Chapter, “as we do to all booked events without exception”, the Canon explained. The CWU organiser also asked for a prayer to be said. “I was touched and gladly agreed,” Canon Holgate says. And this was his prayer:
God the communicator, we pray for our gathering tonight, called and organised by the Communication Workers Union, and we pray for the issues underlying the People’s Post campaign. Please inspire all who speak and all who listen: help us to listen actively, with hearts as well as minds, and give us the will to act on our insights; that we may work for justice in housing, unemployment and public service. Help us to communicate well. Amen.
And many people replied, “Amen.”
“God the communicator..” Okay, ‘In the beginning was the Word..’: God is manifestly desirous to speak to us in the vernacular and to know that we understand. He desires to commune with us, and for that communion to be complete. It’s neat when your union’s name expresses an attribute of anthropomorphic divinity, as opposed to, say, “God the rail, maritime and transport worker” or “God the prison officer”. And to offer a prayer “for the issues underlying the People’s Post campaign” is justifiably missional and incarnational: if God cares for dead sparrows, He surely cares about the terms and conditions of our employment and matters of ownership (cf. 1Kgs 21).
Whether He cares about Royal Mail being owned by the millions or the millionaires, however, is another matter. But Canon Holgate offered up the “issues underlying” the campaign, exhorting listening hearts and minds: he was careful neither to condemn the millionaires nor give succour to the millions (though a plea for “justice in housing, unemployment and public service” may certainly be interpreted as a shot against home ownership, free trade and private enterprise. And the fact that he didn’t just bid the group welcome, but sat among them and applauded the speeches might convey a degree of moral assent).
We ought to commend the Dean and Chapter of Manchester Cathedral for their commitment to political hospitality: the Church ought to be supportive of every spiritual-temporal / political-religious initiative it can muster. The pursuit of politics is intrinsically missional, for nothing is secular to God. The more the Church engages with the world, the better, especially if your cathedral is a stone’s throw from where the party of government is holding its annual conference .
But if “this cathedral is yours, not ours”, what are the limits of ecclesial hospitality? Would the Dean and Chapter of Manchester Cathedral have hosted a meeting organised by Ukip? Would Canon Holgate (or Dean Govender) have prayed:
God the sovereigntist, we pray for our gathering tonight, called and organised by the United Kingdom Independence Party, and we pray for the issues underlying the Vote Leave campaign. Please inspire all who speak and all who listen: help us to listen actively, with hearts as well as minds, and give us the will to act on our insights; that we may work for justice in immigration, taxation, and on our national borders. Help us toward righteous government. Amen.
In response to a direct question, the Dean has confirmed: “The groups I would not invite to the Cathedral would primarily be groups that are far-right racist groups or homophobic groups.”
Note the primary associational slur of the political right with all manner of moral nastiness. What about far-left racist groups? What about those ‘homophobes’ who simply seek to uphold orthodox sexual morality? The reality, of course, is that so many political objections are now couched in allegations of ‘racism’ and ‘homophobia’ (or ‘Islamophobia’) that it becomes a convenient catch-all assertion of moral deficiency by which the proponents of any objectionable political programme may be excluded. Would they host (and pray for) an Anglo-Catholic group which sought to debate “the issues underlying” (ie opposed to) women’s ordination? Or is that too sexist? Would they host (and pray for) a Jewish group which sought to debate “the issues underlying” (ie opposed to) a sovereign state of Palestine? Or is that too ‘far-right’ and Zionist?
Unfortunately, there is no easy way of testing this without throwing money at it. Perhaps it’s time to start fundraising for an annual Cranmer Conference?