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Politics and pulpit: never the twain shall meet?

12 May 2017

Should clergy disclose their allegiances, asks James Walters

“NOT another one. . . There’s too much politics going on at the moment.” Brenda from Bristol seemed to capture the mood of the nation in her reaction to the Prime Minister’s snap General Election announcement (News, 21 April). Just as the European Union referendum campaign did a year ago, the General Election will dominate British public life until 8 June.

In a pastoral letter published last weekend, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York expressed the hope that candidates in the election would feel confident to be open about their faith.

But if politicians are being en­­­cour­aged to “do God”, how much should clergy be encouraged to “do politics”?
While some clergy rush to don their party rosettes, and others grumble about partisan bishops, old questions are raised about the political neutrality of the pulpit,
and the pastoral sensitivity of clergy who declare their political allegiances.

IN THE United States, the appetite (in most Republican quarters, at least) seems to be for more politics and a loosening of the separation between Church and State.
President Trump has promised to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which forbids tax-exempt churches from endorsing political candidates. Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC, in February, he said: “Freedom of religion is a sacred right, but it is also a right under threat all around us. . . That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our repre­senta­tives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”
But, for many in the pews, freedom of religion is precisely what is at stake when their min­isters hijack the gospel to pro­mote a preferred political can­­di­date.
Fear of this kind of loss of church independence haunts the Church of England. In the Erastian era of the 18th century, bishops in the House of Lords would always vote in line with the party who had appointed them to their sees. The label of “the Tory Party at prayer” has been difficult to shake off.
More radical clerics have reacted against this fusion of Church and Establishment party politics by wear­­­ing alternative polit­ical alle­gi­­­ances on their sleeves. The early 20th-century cleric Conrad Noel, dubbed the “Red Vicar of Thaxted”, in Essex, was perhaps most famous for hanging the Red flag, together with the Sinn Fein flag, in the nave of his church, alongside the flag of St George.
But, perhaps in reaction to the Reformation conflation of Church and State, most Anglicans have become far more anxious that the Church should rise above party politics. Even Archbishop William Temple, closely associated with the leaders of the post-war architects of the Welfare State, resigned his Labour Party membership when he became Bishop of Manchester, argu­ing that Christians should “leaven and control all parties”.
The rise of more pietist theologies has led to frequent accusations that any church pronouncement about the public sphere is “meddling in politics”. During the last General Election campaign, the right-wing press reacted hysterically to the House of Bishops’ alleged “Tory-bashing” report Who is My Neigh­bour? (News, 20 February 2015) .
While the Bishops are clearly weighted towards more progressive strands of British politics (as the report’s strong support for the EU revealed), such discussions now take place in a culture that persists in utterly privatising or spiritualising religion, as if God were impervious to grinding poverty and nuclear an­­nihilation.

SO, WHERE is the balance between the politicisation of the pulpit which the American Right seems to favour, and the current Western European impulse to depoliticise the gospel?
The question is surely deeper than whether the congrega­tion knows which way the incumbent is voting. A priest is not abandoning half of his or her flock if they become aware that he or she votes Conservative rather than Labour, any more than a priest should be unable to minister equally to both men and women.
The issue is more one of the culture of Christian engagement with political questions which has been cultivated within the Church. People come to church to hear the word of God, not a party-political broadcast. But too many churches do not encourage an ongoing dis­cus­­­sion about the political implica­tions of the gospel. Refugees, war, oppression, and inequality are not issues for Christians to talk about only when elections come round: they are found on every page of the Bible — yet we frequently airbrush them out, or shy away from the controversies that they provoke.
Churches should be places where difficult questions are asked, not simple solutions offered. Anyone who believes that any of the party manifestos on offer represent the fullness of the King­dom of God has an alarmingly im­­pov­erished theolo­gical vision. The paucity of today’s political dis­­course is one thing that the Church needs to name.
But the Church should be having ongoing debates about how the Kingdom of justice and peace is realised in the structures of society, and how Christians can exercise their responsibility to vote for the common good.
That is neither politicisation nor spiritualisation: it is good Christian citizenship, in which clergy can indeed take a lead.

Canon James Walters is Chaplain to the London School of Eco­nomics, and director of the LSE Faith Centre.

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