From the amount of news coverage on BBC Radio 4 you would have thought that Tony Benn, who died today (14 March 2014) was a former Prime Minister or head of state. And as always happens when a great man or woman dies, people of all opinions lined up to sing their praises.
I met Tony Benn on a number of occasions, but two stand out for me.
The second of these was at the annual Tolpuddle Martyrs festival run by the Trades Union Congress (TUC). Every year thousands of trades unionists and politicians pack into the tiny village of Tolpuddle in Dorset to celebrate the world’s first trades union when a small group of six agricultural workers swore an oath to stand together against the land-owners who kept them in poverty while living in lavish homes. They were deported to the penal colonies of Australia for their defiance and the outcry which followed saw the birth of Trades Unions in this country.
Tony Benn was a regular visitor to this festival, always ready to speak and share with others on both history and current affairs.
For four years I was Anglican vicar of Tolpuddle, and during the festival there was always a wreath laying ceremony at the grave of the only one of the six who returned to Tolpuddle after they were eventually pardoned. The irony was that the grave was in the Church yard of the parish church where I was vicar – an irony because one my predecessors had betrayed the Martyrs. He had originally tried to act as an honest broker in the dispute, and was a witness of a settlement agreed by all sides. Yet when the land-owners reneged on the deal, he bowed to pressure from his bishop to support the establishment and deny that any such agreement took place.
As a result there was great suspicion of the Church of England by TUC members who knew their history and as vicar, I was not always made to feel welcome at the wreath-laying. That is, until I asked if I could participate in the ceremony and lay a wreath of repentance for the betrayal of the Martyrs by my predecessor and the church – and one of the proudest moments of my ministry was processing from the Martyrs Memorial down the road to the Church side by side with Tony Benn as we both went to lay our wreaths at the grave of James Hammett.
The first encounter with him was some years before when I attended a small evening lecture in a dimly lit London church (St Botolph's in Aldgate) on the subject of disestablishing the Church of England. The main speaker was Tony Benn, who was a long-time proponent of cutting the ties between Church and State in England.
Anyone who is unaware of Tony Benn’s views on the Church might assume that this came from a low regard for the church, or a socialist, secularist agenda which sought to undermine any influence from the church on the government of the nation. Nothing could be further from the truth. His argument was drawn straight from the Bible.
He drew a parallel with the kings and prophets of the Old Testament pointing out the balance of power which existed during the Old Testament monarchy – the various kings from Saul onwards, wielding power and ruling the nation, balanced by the constant voice of the prophets who held them to account for their actions.
The voice of the prophets was essential, he would argue, to challenge wrong-doing and wrong motives – to provide direction for the kings who would listen, and stubborn unyielding opposition when they would not.
This, he argued, should be the role of the church in relation to government.
Yet in the Church of England, it is the government who appoint the bishops - the rulers who appoint the prophets – and while the Church of England is shackled in this subservient role to the ‘kings’ of our day, it will never be able to fulfil its role as prophet.
Tony Benn did not want to see the Church of England disestablished to silence it – rather to set free to speak as a prophet to the nation, whatever political party was in power.
As I reflect on the state of the Church of England today – I think that the situation has become far worse. Our bishops are not prophets, but ineffectual peacemakers obsessed with being a ‘focus of unity’ rather than speaking out what they know to be true.
In the House of Lords they are seen to be more concerned with protecting an arcane world-view than speaking out with a prophetic voice.
Our role in this constitutional monarchy has become largely ceremonial adding pomp and pageantry to occasional state milestones around the cycle of monarchy. It is a long way from Tony Benn’s vision for the church as a prophetic voice to government and nation.
But can the giving up of power ever be right? Could it really be better to give up our right to a place in the corridors of government and exchange it for the uncertain role of a prophet?
Let me finish with two examples which would point us in that direction.
The first is Tony Benn himself, who famously gave up his hereditary place in the House of Lords to fight for election as an MP. Judging by the accolades he has received following his death, Tony Benn did not exchange power for obscurity, because the strength of his message found a place (albeit an uncomfortable place sometimes) in people’s hearts and minds.
The second is Jesus Christ,
“Who being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used
to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death –
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2, New Testament).
Here is a principle which the Church of England should pay attention to. Those in the kingdom of God, who seek to hold on to their power for sake of it, will lose it. And those who give up their power for the sake of others will find it. RIP Tony Benn (1925-2014)
© Benny Hazlehurst is a priest in the Church of England, now based in Dorset. He is an Evangelical Christian who believes that homosexual relationships and partnerships should be welcomed, nurtured and blessed. He is a founder member of Accepting Evangelicals with his wife, Mel. They believe that God has a place for everyone in his/her kingdom. His blog can be found here: http://benny2010.blogspot.co.uk/