Today the Church of England’s House of Bishops will release a letter which calls on Christians to become more engaged in the political process in the run up to May’s General Election. (Update: The letter has now been published and can be read in full here.)
The bishops will call specifically for debates on nuclear weapons, a very hot topic considering the money being spent on the renewal of Trident during a time of austerity, and the economy. As the article on bbc.com says,
“It is expected to back the concept of a living wage and urge political parties to avoid scapegoating groups such as immigrants and those on benefits.”
This has led to a storm of protest, mainly by Conservative MPs or members, who have criticised the Church for meddling in politics. One contributor to a discussion on BBC 5 Live’s breakfast show referenced the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu’s recent book, On Rock Or Sand, which he stated was political, but not party political. However, the book was praised by Labour leader Ed Miliband, yet criticised by the Tory PM David Cameron, leading to a suggestion that it did have party leanings. This letter is now coming under similar fire.
This is a very odd accusation to level at the body widely seen as “the Conservative Party at prayer”. Such has been the traditionalist ethos at the heart of the established Church that they have been seen as traditionally right leaning.
It is, however, all too easy to take shots at people and accuse them of meddling when they offer differing views to yourself. Indeed, people on the left side of the spectrum lap this kind of pronouncement up when it is made one day, then attack the Church as irrelevant the next when they speak out against equal marriage or assisted suicide. It seems that the Church is great when they agree with you, but an anachronism when they don’t.
One wonderful case in point is Tory MP/reality TV star Nadine Dorries. In the BBC article she says this,
“The Church is always silent when people are seeking its voice and yet seems very keen to dive in on political issues when actually no-one is asking it to”
The issue she means when speaking of the Church being silent is that of abortion, an issue she is passionate about, but hardly one of the red hot issues of the age in the views of the vast majority. What she, and countless others who criticise the Church when they discuss political issues mean is this; why can’t the Church just shut up and go away until such a time as they have something to say which I want to hear?
I’m sorry, but that just isn’t how it works.
The fact is that we are asked to talk about these things, to rail against injustice, to act in the interests of the vulnerable, to speak about peace, tax, money, poverty, foreign affairs, issues of morality, education, health care and so many other issues. These issues aren’t just political, but are social and personal issues which affect us all and Jesus himself spoke about each and every one and gave us instruction, by telling the Church to spread his message, to do the same. He knew fine well that people wouldn’t always like what they heard, but the point isn’t to be liked, but to be right and to act in that righteousness.
Does this mean the Church is always right? Of course not, the Church is, ultimately, a collection of human beings, ones anointed by God, but imperfect, broken human beings all the same. We will make mistakes, but we will also always do what we think is right and just (I hope!).
The Church will be involved in politics in some way because the Church is political. Politics is a part of every aspect of our lives and so is God. Where God goes, so must we.
The group Christians In Politics recently launched the brilliant Show Up campaign, designed to encourage Christians to become more engaged and involved in the political process, regardless of their own particular political leanings. It has been set up because we do have a voice, many voices, all shouting to the same God, but all wanting the best for our world. It is why I joined a political party last year, to make a difference in those areas I get passionate, sometimes angry about.
The Church should never feel ashamed to speak out when it has something to say, especially when told not to meddle in politics. I think a great illustration is the one at the end of this post, a tweet by Robb Sunderland, an Anglican priest from Yorkshire, who said this.
Update: I’ve read the letter now and agreed with most of the contents. Section 6 and 7 are pretty much saying what I said above, which is nice.
6. Some people, including some in the positions of influence in the media, politics and elsewhere, claim that religion and politics cannot mix. They assert that religion belongs solely to the private sphere and must not trespass into the realm of political or economic life. Although this is often treated as a universal truth, it is a view largely confined to the modern-day European context. In previous centuries, and in most parts of the world today, it has been accepted that religious belief of its nature addresses the whole of life, private and public. 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.
7. 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. But Christian engagement with political issues has to go deeper than aligning the church with one party, policy, or ideology.