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Politics is necessary in this world

04 October 2013

IT IS always a relief when the party-conference season is over: so much posturing and wooing of the faithful. But it is also a necessary reminder that human beings are political animals. We all have a stake in the life of the polis, and democracy, for all its faults, is an attempt to ensure that conflicting interests can be represented, if not resolved.

In politics, there are winners and losers. There are also dark arts, such as those confessed to in his best-selling memoir by Damian McBride. For those involved, politics is a fascinating, if sometimes dirty, game.

Politics is part of church life, too, however much we may try to seek consensus. The Church of England admits the necessity of politics by its synodical structure. The General Synod mimics the parliamentary system - apart from the political parties, and the fact that we do not vote for our leaders. (Imagine a vote for the Archbishop of Canterbury!)

Yet to be in the tea room at Church House during a tense debate, or to see antagonists on sensitive issues sounding off to the press, you could be forgiven for feeling that the Church was just as "fallen" an institution as any secular one. Some Christians work much harder than we do to reach consensus; the problem is that the discussion can go on for ever.

Politics cannot be ignored at parish level. PCCs can be extraordinarily political. However much the clergy may be encouraged to work collaboratively, most of them will also need some political nous, some ability to read conflict intelligently, and to manoeuvre their way towards what may be no more than the least-bad outcome.

Many would argue that the dark arts have no place in parish politics, but my experience is that some PCC members are indeed capable of operating as if they had. It is one thing to present information in such a way as to sway opinion, but there are those who go much further in using their status to do down each other or the vicar. As for the clergy, let's not go there.

Often, however, people who lay a trap fall into it themselves, as the Psalmist so pleasingly observes. Sometimes, the greatest political skill is to do nothing, and to wait for an opponent to shoot him- or herself in the foot. Politics will not bring in the Kingdom, but, in a fallen world, political engagement remains a necessity. And, for those of an ideological bent, it helps to think small and to remember that it is only the art of the possible.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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