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The Church, the ballot-box, and Mrs Thatcher

20 February 2015

As an election looms, Eliza Filby traces the Church of England's changing political face from Faith in the City to Feeding Britain

AN ELECTION year that also marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of Faith in the City is an opportune time to reflect on the Church's changing relationship with politics since the Thatcher years, particularly as the Church seems to be rediscovering its political voice.

In the 1980s, when the Labour Party endured a period of self-inflicted paralysis, the Church of England stepped up to fill the centrist vacuum, and found itself labelled as the unofficial opposition to the Conservative government. Confronted with Margaret Thatcher's ideological onslaught on Britain's social democracy, the Church reasserted the case (which many believed had been fought and won four decades previously) that a redistributive state was closer to Christian principles than any Thatcherite, neo-Victorian appeal to charity, philanthropy, and self-help. The Church saw its task as not so much "to take over the Samaritan role from statutory agents as to question a system which puts so many people into the ditch".

These were the days when the loose-tongued Bishop Jenkins of Durham condemned government policies as "wicked", and Bishop Sheppard of Liverpool asked publicly whether it was possible to be both a Christian and a Conservative. For Sheppard, the battleground was not Parliament, but "comfortable Britain"; his aim was to counter Thatcherite appeals to self-interest, and reawaken a sense of altruism among the middle classes, who "too easily seem to blame those who have been left behind".

All too often, however, this conscience-rousing activity resulted, in the words of one Yorkshire vicar, in "Guardian readers preaching to Telegraph readers". In seeking to heal the wounds of a divided society, church leaders often achieved little more than aggravating the wounds of a divided Church. This became particularly apparent at election time. During the 1987 campaign, the BBC was so fearful that its religious output might compromise the Corporation's impartiality that its Head of Religious Broadcasting was warned by executives not to allow "some lefty bishop" to rant on Radio 4's Thought for the Day, and each sermon was scrutinised and restricted to purely religious subjects. The British Council of Churches organised hustings, although Conservative Central Office advised prospective candidates to stay away from what, it predicted, would be hostile occasions.

That the Conservative party still seeks to avoid a run-in with the Church of England is unsurprising, given that the majority of Anglican worshippers are still Tory voters; but the Church now exercises equal caution - especially the Archbishop of Canterbury, who takes a pragmatic approach to political engagement rather than the emotive one favoured by his predecessors.

When the report on foodbanks Feeding Britain was published last December, many casually compared it to Faith in the City, but it differed in important ways. Faith in the City combined forensic social observation with moral outrage. Thatcherite economics was denounced, not merely as wrong or unworkable, but as unchristian. Feeding Britain contained no systematic or critical analysis of either the government or the economic system; moderation and pragmatism set the overriding tone.

Where Faith in the City fell back on well-worn statist solutions to urban poverty (which many considered out of date, even in 1985), Feeding Britain wholeheartedly advocated a mixed economy of welfare, and a tripartite relationship between the private, public, and voluntary sectors.

The Church has certainly nudged itself out of the collectivised haze that stunted the development of Anglican social thought for much of the post-war period. Faith in the City was famously described by one cabinet minister as "pure Marxist theology"; no such charge can be made against Feeding Britain, not least because there was no reference to theology in the report at all.

So what distinguishes Anglican social thought from its secular counterpart? The Church seems content to present itself as merely an informed voice, whose expertise stems from experience rather than theological insight.

In the 1980s, it was commonplace for church leaders to speak meaningfully of "a Christian Britain", and confidently of the Church as the "conscience of the nation". There was an assumption that the socio-democratic values that they espoused were basically in line with what most of the public believed. This was questionable even then; it is impossible to imagine a bishop arguing that today. The Church is supremely (some would say, overly) sensitive to the secular plural society in which it now operates.

Faith in the City may not have provided a viable blueprint for action, but it did, in the words of Frank Field, "force the ruling class to consider that, even if there was not an alternative, attempts should be made to find one". It is unlikely that Anglican statements or reports would ever provoke the same outrage now, especially when think tanks daily publish social investigations and commentary.

In the 1980s, church leaders positioned themselves as promoters of national unity and reconciliation, functioning, in the words of the then Archbishop of York, John Habgood, as pivotal "struts and beams", holding society together at a time of intense social and political division.

The mediating part that Christian leaders played during the Rates Crisis in Liverpool and the Miners' Strike, for example, reflected the prime position that the Church was still accorded in British public life. Paradoxically, politics in the 1980s was the sphere of dogmatism and polarisation, whereas faith was synonymous with dialogue and compromise. But bishops have been usurped by celebrities as the moral figureheads of causes and campaigns, capable of arousing public sympathy, unity and action; and even the Church is now apparently prepared to embrace what might be called "the Jolie effect".

Whereas in the 1980s the religious correspondent of The Times was the de facto correspondent of the Church of England, nowadays none of the broadsheets has a correspondent reporting exclusively on religious affairs, and the Church finds itself battling for attention in a media world that is increasingly diversified and uninterested. With public disaffection with the political class at an unparalleled high, there is undoubtedly a vacuum for a non-partisan voice, just as there was in the 1980s. Currently, however, that space seems to be filled by the erratic ramblings of "Rousseau" Brand.

The fact that Archbishop Welby's speech on "The Good Economy" was more or less ignored by the mainstream media was particularly unfortunate, given that the Archbishop has more experience in business than the leaders of all three main political parties put together.

The fact is, however, that in this post-Christian, post-welfarist, post-ideological age, the Established Church is going to have to learn to shout a little louder, and a little more clearly, if it wants to be heard. 

Dr Eliza Filby is the author of
God and Mrs Thatcher: The battle for Britain's soul (to be published by Biteback on 26 February).

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