Giles Fraser: Beware the forces of Palinisation

14 April 2010

THE Church of England could learn a thing or two about itself from the ways in which some political parties end up making themselves unelect­able by caring more for their base than for the wider electorate.

Take the current travails of the Republican Party in the United States. The more it loses, the more it plays up to its tub-thumping extrem­ists within, thus the more it looks ridiculous to a wider audience, thus the more it loses. It is a vicious circle of decline.

The other week, at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, delegates were chanting for Sarah Palin. For some mysterious reason that is quite lost on me — and indeed on the vast majority of the American people — she is considered by some to be just the sort of person needed to lead the Republican Party into the next presidential election.

A recent poll showed that only 24 per cent of Americans think favour­ably of her. So why is she still in the running? The answer is that she energises the core vote. She appeals to a vocal minority of gung-ho extrem­ist Republicans whose loony politics is the vulgar stuff of talk-radio bigotry and Fox news.

These are the sort of people who think that President Obama is a dangerous anti-white racist, and that state-supported health-care is Com­munism. The rest of America, indeed the rest of the world, looks on in utter disbelief.

But, unlike the Republican Party, the Church of England is not being given a reality check by having to submit itself to any sort of electorate. In one way, it’s a pity; for this sort of check is often vital for any organisa­tion that seeks to be responsive to a wider body of people. The Church often seems not to notice how in­creasingly alien it seems to so many people.

And if the numbers that come to church decline further, there is more danger that the Church of England will look inward, and allow its most boisterous section to set the agenda. The problem is, these churches do not connect well with the spiritual values of the man and woman on the Clapham omnibus.

The Church of England especially must not lose touch with where most people are. Unfortunately, we live in an age where people no longer join organisations (political parties, trade unions, churches) in the way that they used to, particularly at a time when organised religion is suspect.

Things will change, though, and our job is to keep the faith. We must resist that circle of decline that hands our Church’s future over to those who have no interest in our being the national Church. As William Temple put it: we are a Church that must “exist primarily for the benefit of non-members”.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.

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