Jonathan Bartley

A compromised political witness by Jonathan Bartley

By Jonathan Bartley
October 13, 2006

As it faces the demise of Christendom – the historical and geographical context in which it held power and influence – the church as a social reality doesn’t automatically begin from the same point as everyone else. It brings with it baggage from another era. While Christendom may be on its way out, its ecclesiastical, social and political vestiges still remain. And this has an impact on both the way the church engages politically, and how those looking at it interpret its political activity.

While various sections of the church may be fragmented and hold different political beliefs and positions, the outside world does not easily make distinctions. Christians are often considered to be ‘one entity’. Those operating out of different Christian traditions can get confused about this too. Uncritical engagement in the political system may lead to a number of difficulties, paradoxes and apparent contradictions, particularly when it comes to the church’s political witness.

While it is possible to overestimate this problem, the most obvious set of difficulties arise because of the Church of England’s established status. The Reformation “prised open the historic Christendom vision of a religio-political unity” (Stuart Murray). Henry VIII’s break with Rome effectively involved the creation of his own church. What have been identified as five phases of establishment followed over the following four centuries.

The relationship between church and state has been far from static, and the ties between them have been loosening. But at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there are still a number of features of establishment that have a direct bearing on the church’s political engagement and witness.

Arguments against establishment made by Christians tend to focus on the hindrance that such arrangements are to the church. Others however – Christians, humanists and people of other traditions – have pointed out that establishment also affords the Church of England a number of societal advantages and privileges.

The political feature of establishment most often cited is the 26 bishops who sit in the Second chamber of Parliament – The House of Lords. Whilst many bishops attend on a rota basis and so are rarely there in any great numbers, many sign amendments to bills, speak in debates and take part in committees. They also have a degree of both formal and informal access to Government and other Parliamentarians. Although the degree of their influence is a matter of debate, few would say they have no influence at all.

But the fact that that they are there, not by virtue of election or appointment in the way that other peers are, but simply because they hold high-ranking positions in the Church of England raises significant questions of justice. Charges of hypocrisy can be levelled at a church which on the one hand claims to speak up for the poor and the marginalized, but on the other is happy to hold a privileged position of power and influence which some would suggest is underserved. Although no one is currently elected in a national ballot to the House of Lords, it can still seem contradictory to extol the virtues of democracy on the one hand, while enjoying the benefits of a fundamentally undemocratic arrangement on the other.

Another feature of establishment is the status of the monarch as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Although not obviously political given the symbolic role of the King or Queen, it nevertheless has important political implications. The circumstances of the royal marriage of Charles and Camilla highlighted a somewhat odd and uneasy relationship with the Crown. The Church found itself in the anomalous position of having as its future Governor and Defender of the Faith a man who was unable to re-marry in his own Church using the official liturgy he would pledge to uphold at his coronation. It made the church look somewhat bizarre. But it also made it look harsh. The general public found it hard to understand how on the one hand it could preach about grace, compassion and forgiveness, whilst on the other refuse to marry its own future leader.

The church has traditionally justified how its ‘governor’ can be a man or woman chosen not for qualities of Christian leadership, but by virtue of the family they are born into, using a strange dualism. The legal status of the monarch is different from the spiritual authority that the bishops hold. But such a dichotomy no longer seems so tenable in Post-Christendom – particularly when so many Christians are suggesting that the sacred and the secular, faith and politics, are inextricably linked. Such a distinction is increasingly hard to justify.

Within the church, too, establishment raises questions of equality. The eliding of church and state in one particular instances makes it look as if some Christians and some types of Christianity are more important than others. It accentuates political divisions within the wider church over issues of funding and influence where other denominations and community groups feel disadvantaged, and have to work harder to make their political voice heard. But is may also accentuate divisions within the Church of England itself. Rows over homosexuality dominate the news agenda in a way that they might otherwise not, leading to further accusations of injustice and hypocrisy.

Established status also reinforces the idea that Christianity is about the privilege of power, while other Christians are emphasising the churches’ identification with the powerless. There is a potential cost for the church as a political community, too. It habituates Christians to trust in earthly power rather than God’s disarming strength displayed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

While some in the church are calling for radical reforms, establishment also means a degree of alliance with the social order and the status quo. The Crown is an institution that exists to preserve an order based on eugenic privilege. The presence of clergy at major political events reinforces this. The monarch’s coronation takes place in Westminster Abbey involving many senior Anglican figures. It means the church is incorporated in the system of power it is in other ways called to challenge, and can easily become compromised in the stands that it takes. In short, it may blunt a radical and reforming edge.

For those Christians who believe that the message of the Gospel is that God’s grace and forgiveness is available to all, whatever their status, and involves justice, a special regard for the poor and vulnerable, the power and privilege of establishment is a distinct contradiction.

This is an edited excerpt from Faith And Politics After Christendom: The Church As A Movement for Anarchy, in a chapter which explores ‘Signs of Contradiction’ in Christian political engagement – including blasphemy laws, church schools, broadcasting and taxation and funding.

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