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Bishops’ call for vision provokes anger

20 February 2015

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Impressionable: David Cameron with schoolchildren from Upton Heath Church of England Primary School, Upton-by-Chester, last week

Impressionable: David Cameron with schoolchildren from Upton Heath Church of England Primary School, Upton-by-Chester, last week

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 say.

"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 or programme".

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 issues.

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 level.

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 benefits.

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 one-way street."

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 unemployment.

Question of the week: Are the Bishops right to challenge politicians?

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