Church of England calls for ‘fresh moral vision’ in British politics
C of E letter urging people to vote on 7 May laments ‘growing appetite to exploit grievances, find scapegoats and create barriers between people and nations’
The archbishop of York, John Sentamu, and the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, on the steps of York Minster. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Esther Addley : Tuesday 17 February 2015 15.43 GMT : modified at 19.29 GMT
Full text of Church of England bishops’ pastoral letter for 2015 general election
The Church of England has launched a strongly worded attack on Britain’s political culture, criticising politicians of all parties for offering only “sterile arguments” that are likely to make voters more apathetic and cynical in the runup to the general election.
In an unprecedented intervention, the church’s bishops have published a joint open letter warning that “our democracy is failing” and attacking the “growing appetite to exploit grievances” and “find scapegoats” in society. They call for “a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be”.
It is the first time the bishops have intervened in this way before a general election, but one said the church had felt the need to counter the “sex appeal” of people such as Russell Brand, who have argued that people should disengage from Westminster politics.
While the bishops insist the letter is not targeted at any party in particular and criticise successive administrations for political failings, the 52-page document can be read as an indirect criticism of the government’s welfare policies.
“There is a deep contradiction in the attitudes of a society which celebrates equality in principle yet treats some people, especially the poor and vulnerable, as unwanted, unvalued and unnoticed,” the bishops write.
When those who rely on social security “are all described in terms that imply they are undeserving, dependent and ought to be self-sufficient”, the language deters others from offering informal support that in turn could relieve the welfare budget.
It is “game-playing”, they add, “to claim that anyone who cares about the impact of austerity on the most vulnerable members of society is … careless about the extent of national indebtedness”.
Britain has become “a society of strangers” and “individualism has tended to estrange people from one another”, proof of which could be seen in “the extent of loneliness in society today with the attendant problems of mental and physical health”.
They give credit to political leaders “that the impact of the [financial] crisis has been less severe in Britain than in some other European countries”, but argue that “the greatest burdens of austerity have not been borne by those with the broadest shoulders”. Instead, the less well off “have not been adequately protected from the impact of recession”.
But the letter also calls for a return of the values of the “big society”, which the bishops say was dreamed up by “thoughtful Conservatives” who drew “from earlier Christian tradition”. “The ideals the big society stood for … could still be the foundation for the new approach to politics, economics and community which we seek,” they write.
Cameron rejects bishops’ warning against scapegoating people on benefits
David Cameron, asked to respond at an event at which he announced Conservative proposals for further welfare reforms, said he was “keen for anyone” to intervene in politics, but the prime minister added “let’s look at what we’re doing to help people who are in work in our country”.
The government’s plans would create jobs, cut taxes and develop the economy, he said. “I would say to the bishops, I hope they would welcome that, because work does bring dignity, does bring self-reliance. It does enable people to provide for their families; it creates a stronger society as well as a stronger economy and a welfare system that pays people to stay idle when they could work – that is not the sign of a strong economy or a strong or good society.”
Labour and the Liberal Democrats did not comment.
The letter, addressed to all Church of England members and “others who may not profess church allegiance”, argues that all parties “have failed to offer attractive visions of the kind of society and culture they wish to see, or distinctive goals they might pursue. Instead we are subjected to sterile arguments about who might manage the existing system best. There is no idealism in this prospectus.”
Speaking at the letter’s launch, the bishop of Norwich warned that turning away from politics, as Brand and others have advocated, is not the answer. The Right Rev Graham James said: “We’re conscious that there are a number of voices around, probably the most famous of which is Russell Brand, telling people that they should not bother with voting and shouldn’t bother to exercise their hard-won democratic freedoms.
“I’m conscious, just going around some of our youth groups and speaking to youth leaders, that that has had a more profound effect than I had anticipated.
“And while one may think that the bishops of the Church of England don’t quite have the sex appeal of Russell Brand, we think that we should counter it.”
While the bishops stress that their letter is not intended as “a shopping list of policies we would like to see”, they do advocate a number of specific steps, including a re-examination of the need for Trident, a retention of the commitment to funding overseas aid and a reassessment of areas where regulations fuel “the common perception of ‘health and safety gone mad’”. They also call for the promotion of the living wage to counter “the burgeoning of in-work poverty”.
On immigration, they write: “The way we talk about migration, with ethnically identifiable communities being treated as ‘the problem’ has, deliberately or inadvertently, created an ugly undercurrent of racism in every debate about immigration.”
There is a warning, too, for those trying to resolve the constitutional questions thrown up in the wake of the Scottish referendum. It is a “mirage” to think there is an easy solution, write the bishops, and “the idea that the future shape of the union and the relationship between its constituents can be solved in weeks or months is a fine example of politics ignoring the importance of history in favour of the calculated advantages of the moment”.
The bishops are not optimistic about the months ahead: “The election campaign is likely to entrench the apathy and cynicism with which many people approach politics today. To accept such attitudes is a counsel of despair.”
But there were some words of consolation for those seeking election on 7 May, where the bishops acknowledged that in their experience “the great majority” of candidates seeking election do so inspired by “a passion to improve the lives of their fellow men and women.”, adding: “They will disagree wildly about how to achieve this, but, with few exceptions, politicians are not driven merely by cynicism and self-interest.”
It is the duty of every Christian to vote, they argue, “even though it may have to be a vote for something less than a vision that inspires us”.
“Our country is hungry for a new approach to political life that will ‘change the political weather’ as decisively as did the administrations of 1945 and 1979 … No such thing is yet on offer for 2015.”
Thanks to ‘The Guardian’ for this story in today’s news.
The very fact that the Church of England’s House of Bishops has taken the opportunity to speak about the responsibility of politicians to care for the poor and disadvantaged who struggle to survive, ought to raise hopes for a ‘new vision’ in the relationship between Church and Government.
In a climate of perceived inequality and discrimination against people at the bottom of the heap – not only in the U.K., but also in other countries of the world – ought to give us all a sense of the need to bring the basic principles of the Christian Gospel into play, realising that this is truly the mission of God in the world.
At a time of gross inequality between the haves and the have-nots; where self-interest is foremost in the minds and hearts of most of us, it is well for the Church to remind us all of our duty to our neighbour – including those who have little reason to be thankful of the political and social environment in which they strive just to survive.
Ash Wednesday seems an appropriate time to reflect on our duty to our neighbour – the time when we consider our own human frailty in the light of the sacrifice of the Son of God for the sake of the whole creation. And if this means ‘speaking truth’ to the policy-makers whose decisions affect the lives of everyone in our community; then the Church should be in the business of making its voice heard to such leaders.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand