A DEBATE about the state of the nation, in any forum, brings out the Old Testament prophet in speakers. Something about that word “nation”, maybe. Last Saturday’s General Synod debate, however, revealed the difference between the present day and the centuries before Christ. Opening the debate, Archbishop Welby began with a preamble that would have choked Jeremiah or Ezekiel: “We remain a nation of great stability compared to many, world influence, generosity in overseas aid, skilled in the exercise of soft power, with a robust and effective democracy, judiciary, and many other aspects which are envied around the world.” The velvet glove was not a common accessory at the time of the Exile.
It would have been good had each of these attributes not been contestable. The UK’s reputation for stability is currently dubious, to put it mildly; the overseas-aid budget is increasingly corrupted by business interests; soft power remains a euphemism; the criminal-justice system has its own dedicated panel of critics. As for democracy, the only way in which a post-2016 UK looks “effective” is in comparison with other iterations of democracy. Last weekend’s election in Nigeria has been declared by the African Union to have been “largely peaceful”: only 39 people have been killed so far.
After his cheering words, designed, perhaps, to put the Daily Mail off the scent, the Archbishop moved to his key message: that poor people are the key victims of the present political chaos — not least because the disaffection exposed by the EU Referendum has been left to fester by a Government sunk by the vote’s fallout.
How, then, might the Church contribute to a state in such a state? Perhaps by acknowledging that it does not exist as a separate entity: poor people form part of the Church; middle-class Brexiters form part of the Church; metropolitan internationalists, also; so, too, politicians floundering in a mess of their own creation. The truth is that Christians hold wildly differing views on crucial political issues. This puts the Church’s hierarchy in a quandary: does it risk alienating a section of their flock by making a stand, as the Bishop of Liverpool suggested to the Synod? Or does it say nothing that could be construed as party-political, to model unity to a divided country? But this very silence perpetuates political divisions in the Christian body, since no unifying vision is attempted. The problem is that injustices abound. If they are not to be ignored, they must be fought, and this brings not peace, but a sword. This is what makes the Archbishop’s suggestion that “action and advocacy . . . put us in the place of reconciliation” so puzzling, being the opposite of the truth — unless he means reconciliation with God, which is how the Old Testament prophets would have seen it, but at loggerheads with those forces that would thwart God’s purposes.