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Why politics and religion really don’t mix

03 April 2007

Church leaders should not make pronouncements about politics. It isn’t ‘prophetic’ and it isn’t clever, argues Alan Billings

The Archbishop of York again intervened in politics recently, challenging the Prime Minister to go further than simply expressing sorrow or regret at Britain’s part in the slave trade, and to make a stronger public apology.

Last year, he famously pitched a tent in his cathedral and made political points about the conflict between Israel and Hizbollah in the Lebanon. Towards the end of the year, Dr Sentamu told Americans that the United States was “heading towards George Orwell’s Animal Farm”, and urged the United Nations to take legal action against the US government over Guantánamo.

All of this makes me nervous. It’s not so much that I disagree with the Archbishop on each of these issues (though mainly I do) as I wonder what the theological justification is for doing it. I suspect that, behind the interventions, lies a popular notion of prophetic witness which, I think, is mistaken. It needs re-thinking.

My worries began many years ago when I first read Archbishop William Temple’s Christianity and Social Order (1942). The Archbishop begins his book by noting that “The claim of the Christian Church to make its voice heard in matters of politics and economics is very widely resented.” Yet, he says, religion cannot be confined to one area of life, like art or science; it is concerned with the whole of life.

He then recounts how once, when a group of bishops attempted to intervene in the 1926 Coal Strike, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, asked how the bishops would like it if he referred the revision of the Athanasian Creed to the trade unions. Dr Temple poured scorn on the implication of Baldwin’s aside, as if it were obviously mistaken. The Church, according to the Archbishop, has a positive duty to “intervene”. It is this that I want to challenge. My sympathies are with Baldwin.

The modern Church has become more concerned to have a say on political issues. I see it as a sign of a Church whose capacity to influence politicians directly has waned considerably over the past 50 years. Stanley Baldwin might have felt obliged to consult the bishops over the crisis precipitated by Edward VIII’s relationship with Mrs Simpson; I doubt whether any Prime Minister would feel in the least bit constrained to seek episcopal advice over any issue today.

Since the political wisdom of the bishops is not greatly sought, they resort to making prophetic interventions. It looks like a way back into the political arena. But there are a number of reasons why this notion of the prophetic word is flawed.

In the first place, political issues are just that: political. They are about how the different and conflicting interests of a diverse community of people — the British — are to be pursued. Should there be compromise, or should one point of view prevail? This is the proper business of politicians to resolve.

This is why we have political parties, party politics, and political debate — even fierce argument — because, inevitably, there will be differences between us. But differences generally mean just that: we have different ideas about how to tackle social and economic issues. It is not that one line of argument or one set of policies is morally right, and the other morally wrong; we have different ideas about issues and their solutions.

The expertise and wisdom, such as it ever is, lies with those whose business is politics. But, as soon as the Church starts “intervening”, it will have to come down on one side or another of a political debate. This starts to politicise the Church.

This leads directly to the second point. How can “the Church” intervene? Who can possibly speak for the Church at these moments? Is “the Church” another way of saying “the bishops” or “the Synod”? In that case, we ought to say so. But let us be clear: neither the bishops nor the Synod have any kind of democratic mandate for saying whatever they choose on political matters. (This is one reason why I have never had any wish to be involved in a national synod that starts to behave as if it were an alternative Parliament.)

The bishops and the Synod cannot speak on political matters for anyone other than themselves. And if they think they speak for the worldwide Christian Church, they need to take a reality check, and understand that there is no way they can speak for anything as universal and yet fragmented and varied. Who knows what the mind of the Christian Church is on Britain’s economy, or the criminal-justice system, or energy policy, or anything else? We need a sense of proportion.

Can the Church speak prophetically, as the prophets of old spoke prophetically? Strictly speaking, the answer has to be no. The reason for this is that we no longer live in a nation that sees itself as “under God”. It cuts no ice to say, “This is the word of the Lord” — which is what the prophets said.

But, if we speak out on a political matter, and what we say carries force, then what we mean by calling those words “prophetic” is not that they come from God, but that they make moral and practical sense. Making sense comes first. This is why most political interventions by bishops and synods are in support of positions already adopted by some politicians; then we attach “prophetic” to them. In this sense, prophetic words can be said by anyone, whether believer or not. Conversely, saying or thinking that your intervention is “prophetic” does not guarantee that it is.

The modern Church seeks to make up for its loss of political power by being preachy and didactic. As long as it does that, it will give its members the impression that the real business of politics can be done somewhere other than through the practice of politics itself. Those who think they are being prophetic are contributing to the disillusion with politics.

Canon Dr Alan Billings is a former Deputy Leader of Sheffield City Council. He is Vicar of St George’s, Kendal, Priest-in-Charge of Grayrigg, and Director of the Centre for Ethics and Religion at Lancaster University.

‘Behind the interventions lies a popular notion of prophetic witness that is mistaken’

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