Churches and politics: electing to be different?

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
29 Aug 2010

This article is the editorial in the journal Political Theology, Volume 11, No 4, September 2010 - http://www.politicaltheology.com/PT/issue/view/833

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Without doubt, Christians in Britain have become significantly more attuned to politics over the past forty years – not least through the proliferation of lobby groups and church related single-issue campaigns on everything from homelessness and world debt right through to the environment, bio-ethical issues and specifically religious concerns about advocating or restricting free speech.

In this context, it has usually been appropriate to write about ‘politics in its widest sense’ as distinct from ‘party politics’. For while each of the main three political parties in the UK now has a Christian affinity group attached to it, gathered in some degree of conversation through ‘Christians in Politics’, there is a much greater diffidence about partisanship than would be evident, for example, in parts of the US. The ‘religious right’ and the ‘religious left’ have not hitherto been so recognisable in Britain as on the other side of the Atlantic, for example.

But there are now signs that the mood is changing and that at least three overlapping trajectories of engagement are emerging. One is a ‘functionalist’ desire to combat cynicism towards politics in the name of Christian civic duty. Another is an ‘interventionist’ intent to combat trends within the wider polity in the name of an assertively conservative Christian self-understanding. A third is the progressive, ‘exemplary’ wish to push for more radical change to the system arising from commitment to values-in-practice among Christians alongside other civic and religious groups. These approaches roughly correlate with centre, right and left convictions, though with consonances and dissonances that do not necessarily fit received templates.

In turn, such impulses may be seen as reflecting various gut-level and head-level responses to the demise of the traditional influence of organised religion, particularly historic Christianity, within the shifting British political landscape – especially in the Westminster orbit. That is, they are part of the disruption occasioned by a continual transition from a Christendom context (understood as a culture decisively shaped by the mutual interests of ecclesial power and governing authority) to a post-Christendom one (understood as a range of possibilities inhering in the transition towards a plural, mixed-belief society of competing interests).

Traditional theses built around secularisation and de-secularisation (or ‘re-religionisation’) are ubiquitous in media interpretations of what is going on. But they are not always helpful to understanding, because they frame the issue in terms of the presence or absence, growth or decline, of ‘religion’, without necessarily asking the more important and nuanced question about what kind of religion is engaging with what kind of politics by what means and to what ends?

Solidly in the middle of the new landscape, though not necessarily possessing the degree of long-term traction that its current organisational base suggests, is the ‘functionalist’ impulse (in Weberian terms) towards securing the stability of the present democratic settlement. Since the 1970s, local churches, assisted ecumenically by what are now Churches Together formations at regional and national level, have played a significant role in hosting public meetings (‘hustings’) for candidates in parliamentary elections. The idea has been to provide a one-off civic forum for the interrogation of those standing for office, with church buildings being seen as an important symbolic representation of the ‘moral compass’ needed to hold them to account.

What was noticeable in the run-up to the 6 May British General Election – which also saw the first ‘hung parliament’ for 36 years (no one party holding a majority under a first-past-the-post voting system), the maturing of internet-based campaigning tools, and the first full coalition administration since the national government of 1931-40 – was the extent to which mainstream church leaders were publicly urging people to ‘back the system’.

Leaders of the Church of England, the Catholic hierarchies in England & Wales and Scotland, the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), the main Free Churches (Methodists, Baptists and the United Reformed Church – who share a Public Issues Team) and the cross- and non-denominational Evangelical Alliance all came out with very strong public statements suggesting that it was a “Christian duty”, not just a civic one, to vote on 6 May.

The “make your cross count” message was also pumped out powerfully by Premier Christian Radio (which has transitioned from being a London station to being a national digital one) and by many Christian websites. They all seemed to assume, in many pronouncements and in some national gatherings with party leaders, that the ‘real’ choice was between Labour, Conservative and Liberal.

The background to this upsurge of ecclesiastical backing for orthodox electoral participation had been a massive haemorrhaging of public support for parliament in the wake of a series of highly damaging expenses scandals involving elected MPs – but also a growing feeling among Christians to make their voices and opinions count in the face of legislation affecting them, as well as a range of big ‘ethical issues’.

The questions not faced by this response were the larger ones about the nature of the system itself and the location and role of religion within the political process. It merely assumed the Christendom position of building influence and backing the status quo. Indeed the “moral obligation to vote” momentum among church leaders such as the Archbishop of York was so strong that the idea that some might choose to withhold endorsement for the system altogether seemed beyond comprehension.

Even more significantly, there was virtually no mention of electoral reform as a moral issue about who gets to have their vote count and who does not, of independent or non-party candidates, of smaller parties, or of ways of working for change which question rather than simply reinforce the adversarial, male dominated ‘Westminster culture’.

Yet these were precisely the questions many people at local community level wanted to ask in the face of public disillusion, the growing power and identity of parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and concerns about a consensus between the ‘big three’ parties far more suffocating than their differences – particularly on the role of markets, despite the global debt-recession crisis.

Though speaking a language of social concern, ‘the churches’ as ‘national institutions’ seemed, as ever, much more attuned to patronage and top-down political influence than street level engagement. Meanwhile, an insurgency was occurring. The Power 2010 coalition – mobilising in key ‘swing’ constituencies and online – brought together a raft of civic groups and a handful of faith ones to push for a radical agenda of political reform (proportional representation, an elected second chamber, civil liberties and more) arrived at by a consultative process and involving over 100,000 people in an internet vote. It soon gave way to Britain’s first-ever organised campaign for a ‘hung parliament’ to prevent the continuation of a two-party duopoly, backed by participants across the political spectrum. The established parties and some business leaders fought hard against this, but aided by demographic factors, it was precisely what the electorate delivered.

The absence of the historic churches and their media from the core of this campaign was noticeable. Attuned to ‘old’ establishment politics, they seemed oblivious to the possibilities of the new – which go with the grain of an ‘exemplary’ trajectory towards grassroots cooperation for change. Indeed, in spite of a whole raft of popular methods being developed in communities and online (such as a ‘participatory question time’ at the Charities Parliament a week before the poll), hustings based in local churches remained remarkably traditional and non-experimental overall. A real opportunity for innovation was missed.

The ‘interventionist’ religious right, meanwhile, though it has been very well organised as a lobby network against what it sees as secularising developments in society (such as the idea that churches might embrace equal treatment of gay people in public service provision and employment), was singularly ineffective in articulating electoral issues and standing ‘Christian candidates’. They received derisory votes and spoke a language of moral panic, militancy and confessional zeal which failed to engage either the appetite for change or the experience of most ordinary people in a plural society.

While there is no appetite in Britain for the kind of narrow secularism which would eliminate faith in the public sphere, there are not many hungering to return to an era of religious hegemony or to grant Christians or others a privileged place in the social order. Despite the failings of its inherited institutions, the democratic impulse remains strong.

This leaves both the ‘functionalists’ and the right-leaning ‘interventionists’ in a tricky position – as was highlighted by a lobbying initiative in the build up to the election initiated by Power 2010 and the Christian political think-tank Ekklesia – of which I am a co-director. The idea was to seek to encourage the 24 Church of England bishops and two archbishops who have seats ‘as of right’ in the House of Lords to take the initiative in working towards a reformed second chamber in the UK. Britain remains the only mature democracy in the world today that gives unelected male-only representatives of one denomination, from one religion, guaranteed places and votes in the country’s legislature. Ekklesia, which advocates a post-Christendom ‘exemplary’ and reforming role for Christians alongside others in civil society, argues that this kind of privilege is Christianly, as well as democratically, flawed. The issue, the reformers say, is not that church or other faith leaders should be excluded from parliament, but that they should get there by the same route as everybody else (election or nomination, depending on the system), not through ancient and unaccountable patronage.

The online campaign to encourage the 26 Lords Spiritual to be protagonists for change rather than defenders of archaic privilege, enabling them to move from the back foot to the front foot in political terms, attracted a huge response. Seventy-five thousand letters were sent. Yet the reaction of most in the churches was not to welcome an attempt to engage Christian leaders in political debate. The bishops themselves chose not to respond to calls for democratic accountability and some voices from within the Established Church even objected to the idea of such lobbying – though those on the receiving end of it get to vote on UK laws and certainly encourage their followers to lobby other parliamentarians.

This little cameo perhaps illustrates how un-adaptive and out-of-touch the ‘functionalist’ ecclesial approach to mainstream politics can be. To defend the system at a time when it is under pressure for genuine reform is not to be apolitical (as one major church body claimed when approached about the moral case for a proportional voting system), but effectively to act as a bulwark against change. It is also missing out on a great opportunity. As public spending cuts bite and reform stalls in the face of continuing retrenchment, the need for fresh, alternative thinking beyond conservative politics and neo-liberal economics will remain.

People of faith have a huge amount to offer in this context: patterns of sustainable living and community cohesion; skills in conflict transformation and peace-building; projects for combating poverty; participation in local and global action on debt, environment, housing, health, and more. Mixed in with this are inherited ways of speaking and engaging on the basis of ‘moral communities’ galvanised by participation, not privilege. This is the post-Christendom pattern. But it is also an approach drawing on deep roots within the Christian tradition, including those elements of non-conformity, subversive witness and dissent which the Christendom habit of modelling ecclesial life and activity on top-down patterns of governing authority has marginalised or denied.

Neither fundamentalism nor functionalism offer a way forward for the churches today. Retrenching into fearful verbal warfare with secularity is hopeless. Christians in Britain are invited to be a creative minority, rather than clinging nostalgically to a majoritarian mindset which no longer reflects their numerical and institutional strength. The public square in the UK is neither naked nor fully clothed. It is a place where there is plenty of room for people who can cut their cloth from garments old and new, working together for the renewal of virtues and coalitions at the grassroots – not those constructed from on high.

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© Simon Barrow and Equinox Publishing Ltd.

The author: Simon Barrow is co-director of the Christian political think-tank Ekklesia. He was formerly assistant general secretary and global mission secretary of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. His background includes work in current affairs journalism, community-based political action, and theological education.

Political Theology (http://www.politicaltheology.com/PT/index) is a journal that investigates and examines religious and political issues. The journal is interdisciplinary, drawing on the disciplines of theology, religious studies, politics, philosophy, ethics, cultural studies, social theory and economics. As such, it aims to reflect the diversity of religious and theological engagements with public and political life. The journal has a review section which embraces reflections upon religion, theology, politcal theory, political biography, film and fiction. The editor is Graeme Smith from Chichester University. Subscription details here: http://www.politicaltheology.com/PT/about/subscriptions

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