Churches being co-opted through the election

By Jonathan Bartley
April 11, 2010

Steve Chalke was on Radio 4’s Sunday Programme this morning suggesting the churches should stop ‘bleating’ (his word) about their loss of power and influence at the general election. He also explained that he had refused to sign the ‘Westminster Declaration’ signed by conservative church leaders, on the basis that churches should not present themselves as holding the ‘balance of power’ or as a religious block to be won over by the parties. (It's also very narrow in focus)

It comes as there are fresh drives to get churches to vote, and some seek to portray them as 'kingmakers' (a legacy of Christendom to which Chalke refers). The party leaders have set out in a book already their messages to the churches. The latest offering is a video from Christians in (party) Politics (which (i) defines politics as about parties and (ii) only includes the three biggest ones). But the well intentioned call begs the question “on whose terms”? It uncritically buys into the existing system, rather than being a challenge to it. In short the churches should be wary of being co-opted into an agenda which they should also challenge.

The latest video features the Archbishop of York, and the three party leaders. A fact which in itself suggests the makers are accepting the establishment position on this and uncritically buying into the system. (In theological terms being in the world and of the world - in Greek Kosmos, better translated 'system;)

John Sentamu in his contribution seems to takes no account that the system might need changing, that millions will vote at this election but their votes won’t count.

Gordon Brown’s contribution is the most integrated and theological. But he also presents churches as first and foremost the conscience of the nation which to a certain extent is true but of course ignored over issues such as Iraq. The repeated story has been that Labour has been happy to use churches when they are part of its agenda, but ignore them when not. This is something which the video is reinforcing, not challenging, in allowing themselves to be co-opted yet again – this time over turning out to vote.

David Cameron suggests he “doesn’t do God” because the House of Commons asks God for guidance every day. It reveals his perspective that Christianity for him is primarily something privatised and personal with its public expression of the ‘cultural variety’. He said just yesterday in defence of the adversarial nature of Prime Minister’s Questions: “There's an element of Christians being fed to the lions and you're either a lion or a Christian". He sided with the lions.

Nick Clegg struggles generally in this kind of thing. Here he highlights vaguely how Christians care about a wide range of issues, but is left with a rather empty message which doesn’t mean much at all.

The Greens, SNP, Plaid, Independents or any other smaller parties aren’t given a chance to offer their perspective, and nor are they acknowledged or mentioned.

The Faithworks video in which Steve Chalke questions the party leaders about how they see the churches (rather than about their faith) is more informative (if still geared toward the big three).

The Faithworks approach however comes with its own set of risks about too close an alignment with the state - what we have termed the 'new deal' that is being struck between churches and Government. This is what we have suggested could emerge in the place of Christendom, where the churches are seen primarily as service providers and an extension of welfare provision.

The danger inherent in presenting the churches in this way is that as they become increasingly dependent upon the state. This will blunt their ability to challenge Government, as it did during Christendom, and may also result in significant restrictions on the liberty of churches.

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