The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has urged politicians to rediscover the 'moral energy and vision' which he said, inspired anti-slave trade campaigner Wilberforce.
In a lecture last night in Hull, birthplace of Wilberforce, the Archbishop defended the right of the citizen to call the state to account for its actions. He also asked whether there was still public belief in the idea of "a moral state".
Williams suggested that if such a notion still existed, democracy was not enough to determine what was moral.
He said: "the modern state needs a robust independent tradition of moral perception with which to engage. Left to itself it cannot generate the self-critical energy that brings about change...for the sake of some positive human ideal."
He said that Wilberforce believed "a career in Parliament was a potentially virtuous and Christian calling...It was possible in political debate to appeal to a general sense that government was indeed answerable to more than considerations of profit and security...Take away that sense and it is a great deal harder to think about political life as a vocation...The more politics looks like a form of management rather than an engine of positive and morally desirable change, the more energy it will lose."
Every citizen, the Archbishop said, was implicated or "morally involved in what the state enables or supports in terms of the common life".
The implications for the Christian (among others) he said was clear: "The Christian citizen cannot in a democracy simply accept in all cases without question that what the state determines through political majorities is right, because he or she shares an accountability for the corporate moral standing of the state."
"We are in a disturbing position if, on major issues of public morality, people expect to make a change outside rather than within the electoral system...If Parliamentary democracy is the structure we have, and if the alternative is an executive-driven administration preoccupied with quick results and efficient management, something of the dignity of the democratic process has been lost."
This had implications too for discussion of reform of the House of Lords he said. "It is important in our current debates about the Upper House of Parliament we take seriously the role of such a House in offering channels of independent moral comment" in which context "the nature and extent of religious representation ..is not, as some seem to think a marginal question".
Archbishop Williams concluded: "Wilberforce's legacy is about the question of whether we believe in a moral state. If we accept that public morality is inseparably connected with the moral health and well-being of persons in a society and that human moral agents can be damaged by being implicated in public and corporate immorality, we are in effect saying that the state's organs of action cannot be immune from challenge on moral grounds......Wilberforce - not to mention Equiano and the others - confronts us now with the question, 'If Christians, committed to personal responsibility and social justice, cannot keep before the eyes of the state and its legislators the greater issues beyond security and profit, who can?"