Thursday, 1 August 2013

Politics and the Church

In the wake of Justin Welby's call to the church to put payday loan sharks out of business through the availability of Credit Unions there's been the usual round of criticism about church leaders getting involved in politics - see, especially, the Independent's editorial last Friday here. Whereas the Archbishop of Canterbury does at least seem to be trying to do something fresh and relevant, those who criticise him for doing so on the grounds that he is unelected and unrepresentative seem stuck in an old, old groove. (What about free speech, on which the press thrives?) They also overlook the fact that the Church of England has a strong claim to political relevance based on having, as it does, paid and volunteer workers in every community in the country.

But the spat between Fleet Street and Lambeth, if not unexpected or particularly illuminating, has got me wondering about models of church engagement in the political arena. The different churches and faith communities go about their political involvement in very different ways. It seems to me that the distinctively Church of England model is now actually getting in the way of effectiveness. The Church of England has 26 bishops in the House of Lords and it's mainly from them and a few other bishops that we hear - welfare benefits, loan companies, food banks, assisted dying, organ donation, the Liverpool Care Pathway, pornography - these are some of the issues bishops have spoken about in the past week or so. And of course, in the House of Lords, they get to have a vote as well as a voice. Put that alongside the average member of the public's view of the bishops' political involvement (which is that they have opposed moves towards gay marriage and been sporadic and selective in their attacks of the government's policy on welfare benefits) and you begin to see that membership of the House of Lords doesn't persuade people of the church's qualification to engage relevantly with contemporary political tides. In fact it may get in the way. 

The problem is the 'model of engagement'. Rooted very deep in Anglicanism is respect for the bishop as 'chief overseer'. But the basis on which the Church of England operates in the House of Lords and, in fact, in much wider political circles, is inappropriately reminiscent of Mediaeval barons speaking for their people or Victorian MPs representing largely voiceless and voteless constituents. We hear the voices of the few. Often those few are not (perhaps unlike the Archbishop of Canterbury on finance) anything approaching experts in the fields they venture into. They do not have a great deal of time to focus on researching the issues they speak about. Meanwhile there are many in the church beavering away at the very same issues with more knowledge and experience.

The model the Church of England works with dumbs down most of the (often more representative) lay opinion in the church. It dumbs down most of the clergy. Because it depends heavily on the interests and passions of a handful of bishops there is not a great sense of overall direction or of sustained commitment to particular issues. OK, I overstate the case a bit, but I think this is what the public sees and reacts against - a few individuals who seem largely to be ploughing their own furrows in terms of political engagement. Nothing wrong with this except that it isn't terribly effective and it will continue to give rise to the perception that the church is somehow unrepresentative and needs to 'get with the programme' to use the Prime Minister's memorable phrase. I think we hope that the church can do more than stay mildly relevant - we hope it can be prophetic and take a lead but it's been a long time since the general public have had a lot of evidence of this.

It's time to review the model and ask why it isn't working. We need more grass roots research, more grass roots voices, a more coherent strategy for engagement with public policy and law-making, a wider expert base and better support for bishops in their public square engagement. I'm not personally convinced that membership of the House of Lords is needed; it might even be one of the factors restricting the Church of England's ability to speak convincingly about social and political issues that concern us all. We need to take a good look at Anglican theology on the role of the bishop and the church's relationship to the state. 

There are other ways of engaging. Very notably and rising from a totally different ecclesial polity, there is the Quaker way. In my limited but significant experience of Quakers, decisions about the focus of political involvement arise out of core principles or 'testimonies' and are made by careful discernment by the whole community or 'meeting'. Practical involvement in issues gives rise to a voice (rather than the other way round.) Quakers tend to commit and then act persistently to make change happen rather than pronounce on what ought to be, the emphasis being on faith in action rather than words. For me, this can be demonstrated in the number of political causes I can readily call to mind in which I know Quakers to be involved - prison reform and visiting, housing, peacemaking (with representation at the United nations), reconciliation, criminal justice reform, disarmament, non violent means of change, environmental sustainability, human rights recognition. Many of these causes go right back to the roots of Quakerism and yet there are 19 contemporary projects which reflect all these areas readily available and inviting involvement on their current UK website here. An impressive record for a fairly small faith community.

I'm not implying that one approach is right and, in any case, no church or faith group can simply walk away from its structures and the ways of working that are deeply embedded in its theology. However, there is definitely scope for the Church of England seriously to address some questions.

  • Does the role of bishops in the church and in parliament enable or disable political engagement?
  • What is is about Anglicanism that can distinctively and powerfully contribute to the formation and critique of public policy?

My guess is that the answer does lie, as the Archbishop says, in our unique presence in each parish. I'm not convinced (and certainly the public isn't) that we are making good use of this to inform our action or our debate, primarily, because we aren't listening. And Quakers are very good at listening - to God and to people.

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