THE House of Bishops has called on politicians to offer a
disillusioned electorate a bigger vision of society in the run-up
to May's General Election.
In a pastoral letter to the members of the Church of England,
released on Tuesday, the Bishops note how both the Labour
government of 1945 and then the Thatcher government from 1979
"changed the political weather". However, neither of these two
transformative ideologies - either establishing a welfare state or
freeing markets from state interference - is enough today, they
"Neither vision addresses our condition," the Bishops write.
"Placing excessive faith in state intervention on the one hand or
the free market on the other" leads to a narrowing of ambition does
not nurture the common good.
This is the first time the House of Bishops has released such a
letter before an election. The letter, which is 126 paragraphs
long, does not offer support to any party, but seeks to get
Anglicans thinking about how best to use their vote on 7 May.
Acknowledging that people feel detached from politics, the
Bishops write that the political parties had failed to offer
"attractive visions of the kind of society and culture they wish to
see. . .
"Instead, we are subjected to sterile arguments about who might
manage the existing system best," they write. The letter calls for
an end to "retail politics" and for politicians to focus on the
common good rather than appealing to sectional interests.
The Bishops' intervention provoked criticism. Nadine Dorries MP,
a Conservative MP and a Christian, accused the Bishops of being
left-wing, and only attacking the Government. Speaking on Tuesday
on the Today programme on Radio 4, she said: "The
Church is always silent when people are seeking its voice, and yet
seems very keen to dive in on political issues when actually no one
is asking it to. Where were the Bishops' voices when the last
Labour Government was in a spending frenzy?"
Speaking at the launch of the letter, however, the Bishop of
Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, insisted that the House of
Bishops did not have a preference for "any single political party
The letter "encourages Christians to engage positively in our
political processes, to use their vote and to value hard-won
democratic freedoms", he said.
The letter addresses a wide range of political issues, including
the economy, inequality, the welfare system, immigration, housing,
the European Union, and even the Trident nuclear deterrent. It is
careful not to endorse particular policies but instead offers more
general reflections on how Christian voters should approach these
They should be wary of accumulations of power, whether in the
state or the corporate sector, the letter argues. Instead,
intermediary institutions, such as housing associations or credit
unions, should be strengthened, and power handed down to a local
The immigration debate has an "ugly undercurrent of racism" and
has too often been framed in terms of 'us' and 'them', the Bishops
say. "Crude stereotyping is incompatible with a Christian
understanding of human social relationships."
The Bishops also warn against debt, whether personal or
national, and note that "the greatest burdens of austerity have not
been borne by those with the broadest shoulders". Their letter
traces a careful middle way on welfare reform, arguing that the
state should support the needy but not to the exclusion of
voluntary action and "neighbourliness".
This approach has not found favour with the Prime Minister, who,
on the same day, unveiled a new Conservative policy that would
oblige young adults on job-seekers' allowance to do 30 hours of
unpaid work a week if they had not found a job after six months on
Mr Cameron said: "What these young people need is work
experience, and the order and discipline of turning up for work
each day. From day one they must realise that welfare is not a
The plans were criticised by Labour politicians, who said that
their own policy of guaranteeing a state-funded job for young
people out of work for six months would better tackle youth
Question of the week: Are the Bishops right to