Why I am wearied by this letter

12 May 2017

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CLERGY tend to be contemptuous when critics suggest that the Church should not be involved in politics.

I would normally share the clergy viewpoint, and stand firm for the prophetic voice of the Church in society. But, with a General Election imminent, I realise that I am dreading the sermons and intercessions that will be offered up in the next few weeks. Particularly the intercessions, with their inevitably pious and preachy aspirations, which so often seem addressed to us rather than to God.

I am even wearied by the Archbishops’ pastoral letter, which could, in my view, have been helpfully reduced to one sentence emphasising our civic duty “to set aside apathy and cynicism and to participate”.

The problem is that the Church has nothing specific to say about the issues in this election which is not being better said elsewhere. I learn more about the choices before me by watching and listening to the news and reading a selection of columnists. Not only are they better informed than the clergy: they also tend to be ethically more rigorous and more aware that politics is in the end, as Rab Butler said, “the Art of the Possible”.

When the Church utters on political issues it runs the risk of sounding like a manifesto on behalf of all good causes. Most of the content of the Archbishops’ letter could have been put together by a well-meaning coalition of centre-left socialists, Lib Dems, and perhaps one or two one-nation Tories, for appearances’ sake.

It appears to be neutral, but in fact it is full of agendas: housing, health, and education. We already know that these are big issues. Pompous platitudes from the pulpit and elsewhere do not help, because they come from people who are not actually having to negotiate searing political difference, drive policy, evolve strategy, and employ deft tactics to get anything done at all.

The tone of much that we shall hear in church in the next few weeks is already obvious: unity; cohesion; a condemnation of politics based on fear; and concern for the marginalised. I sometimes think that, if it were that easy, we would not need to have elections.

At the end of the Archbishops’ letter, there is a tentative plea for a wider recognition of the part played by religion in the formation of public virtue.

Suppose, in the run-up to this election, that all of us who preached paid more attention to preaching about the nature of God and the virtuous life. It is not only wider society that needs to be more religiously literate. The Church could do with becoming so itself.

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