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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Wednesday 18 February 2015

Ash Wednesday, the Bishops and the Election

It's tempting to conclude that when the Daily Mail and the Sun scream at you, you've probably done something right. At least, you've been noticed. That can't be a bad thing.
But it's Ash Wednesday. We should give up cheap jibes for Lent. The House of Bishops has issued a Pastoral Letter. It's what bishops do. But you have to wonder whether the fierce reaction from some parts of the media comes from people who have bothered to read even a few lines of it. Sad to say, the voice of sweet reason is already being drowned by shouts of outrage and foul play.
What has motivated the letter? The Bishops write: 'the church has an obligation to engage constructively with the political process, and Christians share responsibility with all citizens to participate in the democratic structures of our nation. We offer these reflections because we believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is enormously relevant to the questions which the coming Election will throw into sharp relief'. 
Straight away I am struck by the tone. It is not strident or hectoring: here is a contribution to a debate that is offered. The letter is part of a conversation, not its conclusion. Throughout, the register is: we want to listen, to participate in the public business of helping to frame minds and hearts before an election. We hope that in turn you will want to hear what we have to suggest. They could have added 'in all humility' because there is something genuinely modest about the way this piece is drafted. 
I want to use the word formation to describe the tenor of the letter. It is not, as the Bishops are at pains to remind us, a shopping list of approved policies. Rather, it's an attempt to shape the minds of the electorate so that at the very least, the challenges facing us can be accurately identified and the terms of a real conversation agreed. 'Decent answers to the questions facing the nation will only emerge when politicians start to promote a dialogue with the people about a worthwhile society, how individuals, communities and the nation relate to each other, and [about] the potentials and limitations of politics in achieving such ends.'
What does a Christian mind bring to the debate about the future of our nation? The first thing is the belief that it matters to God, and must therefore matter to us. G. K. Chesterton famously said that the problem with British elections was not that only a small part of the electorate voted, but that only a small part of the elector voted: so little was the lack of conviction about politics and public faith. The Bishops want us to cast our vote, not in a routine, token way, but by giving the whole of ourselves to this privileged task of decision-taking in a free democracy. 
Formation in citizenship will motivate us to think and talk about 'a worthwhile society and what it means to serve the common good, and how politics helps serve that end'. The Bishops are not dreaming of the unattainable ideal of Athenian democracy under Pericles. They do however dare to hope that we can shed our cynicism and start believing in politics, politicians and political processes again. 'This letter is about building a vision of a better kind of world, a better society and better politics. Underlying those ideas is the concept of virtue – what it means to be a good person, a good politician, a good neighbour or a good community.' That's a good example of how the letter is motivated by a spiritual concern for citizenship, inspired by the theological ideas of justice and compassion in pursuit of the common good.
Are we a 'society of strangers', or are we a 'community of communities it asks? And here's the bit the hawkish press don't like. '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. It is particularly counter-productive to denigrate those who are in need, because this undermines the wider social instinct to support one another in the community. For instance, when those who rely on social security payments are all described in terms that imply they are undeserving, dependent, and ought to be self-sufficient, it deters others from offering the informal, neighbourly support which could ease some of the burden of welfare on the state.' If you examine the context, you'll see that this is not, however, left wing rhetoric, but is based on the vision of David Cameron's 'big society'. What has happened to that noble idea, the Bishops ask, that 'richer narrative of the person-in-community' as they put it? 
The letter suggests that 'virtues are nourished, not by atomised individualism, but in strong communities which relate honestly and respectfully to other groups and communities which make up this nation'. And what is true of the nation in itself is also true of its relationships within the wider world. ' Our politicians have been reluctant to talk openly with the electorate about Britain’s relationships around the world, the realignments of global power, a realistic role in securing a stable and peaceful world order and the tools we would need for the job. In short, we should reflect more deeply on Britain’s role in generating an international community of communities.' 
Part of this is maintaining the UK's current commitment to allocating 0.7% of GDP to overseas aid. 'For any party to abandon or reduce this commitment would be globally irresponsible in pragmatic terms as well as indicating that the moral imperatives of mutuality and reconciliation counted for nothing.' But it has to do with being an active player on the global stage. The Scottish Referendum and its aftermath are an object lesson in taking great care in this area and not succumbing to the quick fix. And although the Bishops don't commit to a view about Britain's role within the European Union, they do underline our 'belonging' to this continent, a clear message to those who would dismantle our historic and cultural links too hastily.
This blog can only hint at the insight and good political sense that the House of Bishops' letter demonstrates. They have read with accuracy the state we're in. I can't recall a document from that source that was so intelligently written and that spoke with a fairer voice. Whoever drafted it should be congratulated. Sometimes, when I read what comes out of 'the centre' I want to protest: 'not altogether in my name'  Not this time. I believe it speaks for all Christians, indeed, all fair-minded citizens of our country, whatever their political views, in setting out the matters that ought to concern us in the run-up to the election. So I urge you to read it for yourself. Share it with others; make it the theme of a Lenten study group. 
The letter ends where it began, with St Paul in his letter to the Philippians, words that may 'help to defend us against the temptations of apathy, cynicism and blame, and instead seek – because we are disciples of Jesus Christ who long for a more humane society – a better politics for a better nation. Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.'  Amen to that, I say. What better way to launch this season of Lent with its invitation to reflect more deeply, seek truth, practise charity, deepen the ties that bind us together, and learn to be God's people once again?
You can find the Bishops' Pastoral Letter at: 


  1. Many thanks for these helpful comments about the Bishops' letter. Incidentally, the viscious nature of the response from some of the tabloids suggests that the Bishops (on this occasion) have got it right!

  2. I think the Bishops' Letter is brilliant and wonderfully well written; clearly it was not drafted by Committee but by one hand. I cannot see that it is anything but even handed and probably sums up my views in its totality.