The bishops' election letter is mild, not radical

By Symon Hill
February 17, 2015

The Church of England's bishops have issued a letter giving advice to Christians about issues to take into account when casting their votes in May.

This fairly mild document has triggered condemnations from the right of the political spectrum, with Conservative MP Conor Burns labelling it as “naive” (this from a man who believes that current economic policies can alleviate poverty). Nadine Dorries MP said the Church should have focused on talking about abortion, as if Christianity had nothing to say about poverty and violence, though she did make a good point about the Church's own failings in regards to equality.

Sections of the press can be relied upon to react to the bishops' letter with simulated shock. I can confidently predict that tomorrow's Daily Mail will say that the bishops' letter has caused “outrage”. The Mail, of course, will have ensured this by phoning up the likes of Conor Burns and asking them if they are outraged (they are).

There will also be comments from some quarters about keeping politics and religion separate, a concept that would have been bafflingly incomprehensible to anyone living before the eighteenth century, and most people since then. Politics is about the running of society, about wealth and power and how they affect our lives. Politics is about everyday life. Apolitical religion is impossible; if it were possible, it would be largely pointless.

It's quite right that the Church of England should give advice about voting. As the bishops point out in their letter, “Religious belief, of its nature, addresses the whole of life, private and public”. The letter does not endorse or condemn any one party.

According to the Guardian, the bishops' letter constitutes “a strongly worded attack on Britain's political culture”. However, the sort of comments that appear in the letter are now commonplace outside of the Westminster bubble. The letter suggests that politicians are employing “sterile arguments” and that “our democracy is failing”. Such views can nowadays be read in mainstream newspaper columns, as well as in pubs and coffee-shops up and down the country. They are not radical.

Nonetheless, I'm glad to see the bishops joining in the criticisms of what passes for democracy in Britain. There is much in their letter for a progressively minded person to celebrate. It emphasises the importance of tackling poverty and social isolation, mentioning in-work poverty in particular. It condemns attempts to demonise unemployed people and other benefit recipients. I'm pleased that it raises doubts about the Trident nuclear weapons system, although it does not oppose it outright. It condemns attempts to “find scapegoats” in society. It calls for a “fresh moral vision” in politics.

Despite this, it is not the radical, 'left-wing' document that parts of the media are reporting it to be. The Mail and Express will hate it for what they perceive it to be, not for what it actually is.

The C of E letter is far more mild in its comments on Trident than the denounciations of Trident renewal produced by most other Christian churches. The bishops declare that the “traditional arguments for nuclear deterrence need re-examining”. Their wording implicitly accepts the claim that nuclear weapons are primarily about deterrence. Further, it is a big leap from re-examining something to opposing it.

The arguments for Trident, and other nuclear weapons, have been examined, re-examined and re-re-examined many times over, by Christians and others, over the last few months as well as over several decades. We don't just need to “re-examine” the arguments for Trident; we need to oppose them.

If the Church of England (or at least its bishops) is inching towards a collective anti-Trident position, this is better than nothing. But if so, the Church is only very slowly catching up with most other Christian denominations in Britain. Trident renewal is explicitly opposed by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of Scotland, the Congregational Federation, the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church of Wales, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), the Union of Welsh Independents and the United Reformed Church (please let me know if I've missed any out). The Church of England has a lot of catching up to do.

The bishops' letter states that “military intervention by states such as Britain is not always wrong”. While I can welcome the implication that it is usually wrong, I'm disappointed by the casual rejection of a firmly anti-war position. Let's not forget that it was the Lambeth Conference – representing Anglican bishops from around the world – that in 1930 declared, “War, as a method of settling international disputes, is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

Similarly, the bishops' welcome comments on tackling poverty are not accompanied by any critique of the neo-liberal capitalist system that fuels poverty (and, indeed, relies on it). The letter calls for a revival of the “Big Society” idea, now largely abandoned even by the government. As a phrase, it was always popular with right-of-centre Christians, but in practice it was only a euphemism for the effects of the cuts – leaving charities and faith groups to pick up the pieces as community services were slashed.

The reality of the C of E hierarchy's attitude to the general election was made clear by the Bishop of Norwich, Graham James. Asked whether people reading the letter could take its advice and still be led to vote Conservative or even UKIP, he replied, “I believe they could be.”

This is sad. The Church of England has condemned the British National Party, but they won't condemn another far-right party, UKIP. Of course, UKIP looks respectable and middle class. It even has Anglican priests among its candidates.

There are also Christians in the Conservative Party. They face a particular challenge. As the C of E's letter says, Christians should be concerned about poverty. Over the last three centuries, the Conservative Party has opposed every major measure designed to alleviate poverty, from old-age pensions in 1910 to the NHS in the 1940s and the national minimum wage in 1997. The party acts for the rich, in the same way that a potato peeler is for peeling potatoes and a bread knife is for slicing bread. You can try to use them for something else, but it doesn't really work.

Politics, like religion, is messy, complicated and frightening. It also calls for courage and commitment. Jesus' teachings will not tell us who (if anyone) to vote for, or lead us to the same conclusions as each other. But they can remind us that Jesus constantly and explicitly sided with the poor and marginalised, practised active nonviolence, challenged us all to change, promoted love and inclusivity over the idols of Mammon and violence and was arrested after taking direct action in a temple.

What would happen if church leaders called on Christians to adopt similar attitudes today? The Daily Mail really would be outraged.

* The full text of Church of England bishops' pastoral letter for the 2015 general election can be found here: http://gu.com/p/45q4h/stw

* More on the upcoming General Election from Ekklesia here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/generalelection2015
Views expressed by individual contributors on GE15 do not necessarily reflect an official Ekklesia view.
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(c) Symon Hill is a Christian author and activist, an associate of Ekklesia and a tutor for the Workers' Educational Association. For links to more of his work, please visit http://www.symonhill.wordpress.com.

Symon's book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion, which explores religion in its social and political context, is temporarily available for only £3.99 if ordered from the publisher, New Internationalist: http://newint.org/books/no-nonsense-guides/religion.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.