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A letter to be read

27 February 2015

TO GRASP the radical nature of the C of E Bishops' pre-election pastoral letter, it is necessary only to look at the equivalent letter released by the Roman Catholic hierarchy this week. The Roman Catholics, it will be remembered, first named and promoted the concept of the common good, now a key part of the social teaching of most denominations. The RC letter this week covers four sides of A4 and functions as a crib sheet for quizzing political candidates on issues that have long been the focus of Roman Catholic interest. It is clear and brief, but in many places reads like a campaigning document for a particular constituency.

By contrast, the C of E letter, which runs to 52 pages (admittedly with large type), attempts to be a game-changer. Instead of listing policies that the authors wish to see preserved or changed, it asks questions about "the trajectory of our political life and visions of the kind of society we want to be". It hopes for an election "that sows the seeds from which a new narrative might emerge". It states: "The impatience of politicians or the desire for party advantage must not be the driver for constitutional changes." It talks of strong communities as "schools of virtue". It addresses voter apathy and cynicism. It warns of "accumulations of power". It is, in short, a remarkable document.

It was too much to hope that right-wing politicians or their media outlets would take to the document. Although the letter purports to be non-partisan, the fact that it is critical at all was bound to be unwelcome to a Conservative Government that seeks to convince voters that no fundamental changes are needed, beyond, maybe, the scraping off of their Coalition partners. The Labour response, on the other hand, has been positive, perhaps surprisingly so, since the party first perfected the "on-message glibness" that the letter laments. Writing on Monday, Jon Cruddas MP described the letter as "a profound contribution by the Church to the political life of our nation" and "an act of great leadership".

The pastoral letter is not perfect, of course. It treads too lightly on environmental matters; the management of the economy deserves more attention; and the thriving of women and children could have been more prominent. But it opens up new areas of discourse, such as the importance of intermediate institutions and the need to devolve power; and it is not ashamed to resurrect earlier ideals, such as those invoked by "big-society" proponents in times gone by. And it treats politics with a maturity that is likely to be lacking in the months ahead. We urge readers to read it online or acquire a printed version.

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