By Guy Brandon, 25 February 2015
On 17 February the House of Bishops of the Church of England published an open letter, urging for a new kind of political engagement ahead of the next General Election, to be held on 7 May 2015.
The letter is explicitly non-partisan. It does not recommend that Christian men and women vote for a particular party, or even try to steer them towards one or other side of the political spectrum. (‘If anyone claims that this letter is “really” saying “Vote for this party or that party”, they have misunderstood it…’ – §4). Neither is it ‘a shopping list of policies we would like to see.’ Instead, ‘it is a call for the new direction that we believe our political life ought to take.’
The letter maintains that religion is inherently political: ‘religious belief of its nature addresses the whole of life, private and public.’ (§6) This has not stopped different sections of the media either criticising the Bishops for mixing faith and politics, or critiquing it based on their perception of its content (the letter notes the irony that ‘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’ – §7). Right wing papers like the Daily Mail dismissed it as a work of ‘Labour Party propaganda’, whilst others like the Guardian enthusiastically endorsed it.
At 52 pages and 126 paragraphs, it is far easier to reduce the Bishops’ letter to a handful of political soundbites than it is to engage with its content in the round. There are points at which specific policies are seemingly advocated or, at the very least, entertained, such as scrapping Trident. ‘Shifts in the global strategic realities mean that the traditional arguments for nuclear deterrence need re-examining.’ (§72) Critics have also read a call for closer integration with Europe. ‘History… is an enduring argument for continuing to build structures of trust and cooperation between the nations of Europe.’ (§68)
A new vision
Overall, though, the letter is a call to do politics in a different way. Like the Jubilee Centre’s own approach, it aims to provoke discussion rather than suggesting Christians vote for one or other party – acknowledging that ‘Anglicans do not have a single view on which political party has the best mix of answers to today’s problems.’ (§2)
Voters are tired of the ‘same old politics’ and a long series of scandals has driven turnout in the last three elections down to levels not seen in almost a century. ‘All political parties struggle to communicate a convincing vision. People feel detached from politics... There is a growing appetite to exploit grievances, find scapegoats and create barriers between people and nations. The issues around the election call for a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be.’ (§1)
The Bishops seek a solution beyond the traditional party distinctions of left and right. Mention is made of the new political thinking briefly seen in the Big Society narrative (which can hardly be associated with left-wing politics), that found support from the Church but few other places (§94, 95).
The 2015 Election presents an opportunity, as well as a danger. ‘This may be an election that sows the seeds from which a new narrative might emerge. Or it may be an election which confirms people in cynicism and despair and sows a very different sort of seed from which may grow a tree of conflict, unrest and division.’ (§91) Cynicism and apathy are real problems and risk undermining the chance to bring about positive change. ‘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.’ (§118)
Wealth and power
One of the sources of the injustices the letter raises is the imbalance of power. ‘One recurring theme of this letter is the need to combat the accumulations of power which leave too many people powerless.’ (§100) The Bishops refer to the principle of Subsidiarity found in Catholic Social Teaching, which holds that decisions should be devolved to the lowest effective level (§53). ‘Christians should be wary of accumulations of power wherever they take place. They should be as reluctant to live under an overweening corporate sector as under an overweening state. Where the state or the market, or any other powers, claim too much and stifle human flourishing, people are divided from one another and God’s sovereignty is mocked.’ (§16)
Instead of an overly-powerful state, there should be a greater role for so-called intermediate institutions (§81), which include churches as well as organisations like housing associations and credit unions (§83). There is also an emphasis on the interdependent extended family (§59) as the location of much intergenerational support and care.
There is also recognition of the harm caused by debt, whether on a personal or national level. ‘Indebtedness means handing power over one’s life to the creditor – widespread indebtedness is another manifestation of the accumulation of power in too few hands. This is as true for nations as for individuals and families.’ (§107)
The Bishops’ letter is undeniably and intentionally political, but it is wrong to see it as partisan. It critiques policies and mind-sets of both sides of the political spectrum. ‘Placing excessive faith in state intervention on the one hand or the free market on the other, politicians have focussed so much on the things they can control directly through economic and social policy that they have neglected to nurture, by word, example or policy, those aspects of life which governments can influence but not control.’ (§41) Its endorsement of the idea of Big Society (if not its execution) and scepticism of big government balance the emphasis on social justice and the environment, rethinking Trident and the call for a living wage. As Labour MP Jon Cruddas argues, ‘It is as much a challenge to the left, and our commitment to the state and centralisation, as it is to the right with its unquestioning embrace of the market.’
Like our own Jubilee Roadmap, the letter articulates a worldview that draws on solid biblical principles, including criticism of the concentration of wealth and power, and the injustices that result; the critical roles of the family and community; the important but limited function of the state; the corrosive effect of debt; our roles as stewards rather than consumers of the environment; and the idea that individuals do not exist in isolation, to name a few.
One of the roles of the Church – like the Press – is to hold authority to account and expose injustice where they see it. The near-universal recognition that our current political system is not working and that voters have become cynical and apathetic as a result opens the way for a new narrative in politics, and for political engagement more broadly. The Bishops’ letter unpacks this reality with a different vision based on the Christian faith and a challenge to voters and the existing political establishment to engage with it. It is the Church acting as the Church should.
How might we respond to this call? One of the major challenges is to change the attitude of our hearts, re-engaging with the political process and thinking beyond our traditional tribal boundaries and comfort zones. Beyond that:
- Raise the letter with your local church leaders, ask for commentary and/or response, and perhaps even some politically-themed sermons ahead of the election.
- Read Votewise 2015 and its accompanying discussion guide for biblical insight into some important electoral issues.
- Get involved. Jubilee Centre is one many Christian organisations championing the Show Up campaign, which offers a range of resources and information about the many ways in which Christians can engage in politics.
Image: Flickr (Jim Rafferty)