Is the Church of England now the Labour Party at prayer?

Church of England Labour PartyAs far as whether we see ourselves as a Christian country, it appears beyond doubt that David Cameron has won the argument. Other than a few awkward secularists the vast majority of those who have given their views in public over the last few weeks are in agreement that the Christian roots that run deep through our culture are still of value and importance to us as a society. This was again reinforced by the results of a poll earlier this week carried out by the Conservative Home website, which found that of those responding, 85 per cent believe that the UK is a Christian country. It also found that 65 per cent believe that politicians should ‘do God’. This is interpreted by the site as a belief that they should be able to speak freely about their faith if they have one – and so they should. Certainly amongst grassroots Conservatives there appears to be strong support for David Cameron’s public references to the Christian faith.

In contrast to this though, there is much less enthusiasm for the Church of England’s current forays into political advocacy. Perhaps the most interesting question asked was ‘What are the Church of England’s politics?’

This was the breakdown:

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Although not explicitly stated, there is a good chance that members of the Conservative party haven’t been overly pleased with the large number of bishops who have supported the recently launched End Hunger Fast campaign. Using the media to full effect to call on the government to end food poverty has been widely interpreted as a stinging criticism of Iain Duncan Smith’s reordering of the welfare state. The label of ‘the Tory party at prayer’ would seem to be little more than a distant memory now that the bishops are so keen to champion those who have been hit hardest by this government’s welfare reforms whilst simultaneously firing shots at bankers and payday lenders. Has socialism become the political philosophy of choosing for those at the top of the Church of England? Should the C of E be more accurately described as the Labour Party at prayer?

Looking a the evidence, it would be quite easy to assume that this has been the case for some time now. The Church of England produced a number of reports doing battle with Conservative welfare policy the last time the party was in power. In addition to Faith in the City (1985), there was Not Just for the Poor (1987) and Welfare – a Christian Option (1989). The bishops have gained a reputation for being Guardian reading lefties, of which Rowan Williams, who famously described himself as a ‘hairy leftie’, has been the most prominent in recent years. The Rev Keith Hebden who is a founder of the End Hunger Fast campaign is an associate of the left-wing Christian think tank, Ekklesia and the head of the Church Army, Mark Russell, put himself forward as a potential Labour Candidate for the General Election.

It’s not hard to find those on the left in prominent positions in the Church of England. And yet recent research by the Christian think tank, Theos has found that Anglicans are significantly more likely to vote Conservative, and the more frequently they attend church, the more likely they are to vote that way. Justin Welby talked of his respect Iain Duncan Smith and refused to criticise his welfare reforms in a recent interview on LBC radio. Possibly the most famous Anglican parish church in the world, Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), has Ken Costa as its Chairman of Alpha International and church warden. Previously he was Chairman of Lazard International and an internationally respected investment banker. Their Leadership Conference at the Royal Albert Hall last weekend has had Clare Chapman, the Group People Director at BT Group as a main speaker. Last year the programme featured speakers from other multinationals including Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank. Big business and Christianity are certainly not incompatible in the eyes of HTB.

The difficulty with describing a church or Christian denomination as left or right-wing is that it assumes that it approaches politics with a certain ideology as a political party would. Religious organisations and political groups are fundamentally different of course – their primary aims are far from being close. Churches will rightly feel the need to engage with politics when they observe what they see as injustice. Christians are called to show compassion towards everyone, not just fellow believers, but ultimately the Christian faith focuses on salvation through Jesus Christ. Any political  engagement is a consequence of following his teachings rather than a principal aim. Christians are not commanded to follow a political philosophy because the teachings of Jesus and the Bible do not fit snuggly into our modern democratic party-political system. As Heather Tomlinson wrote in an article yesterday for Christian Today:

‘Yet really, any kind of political tribalism goes against the spirit of Jesus’ teachings. It cultivates pride and condemnation, and usually leads to our ignoring one part of His message for the sake of another. Jesus loved the rich Zacchaeus as much as the poor leper. He didn’t shout at Zacchaeus for not giving his money to the poor – he loved him, and there was change as a result. Jesus loved Margaret Thatcher just as much as He loved Tony Benn. And really, we can’t be sure how He would have assessed their political views.

‘It’s clear that Jesus is very concerned that we help the poor – but he didn’t say we should do it with taxes and through the State. No political party has a monopoly on social justice. There are people who care about poverty throughout the political spectrum. The Conservatives are often condemned for their policies on welfare and benefits. Yet one of their senior advisers in the DWP is Philippa Stroud, who spent time with Christian heroine Jackie Pullinger among the slums of Hong Kong, set up several homeless hostels in the city of Bedford, and wrote a book called God’s heart for the Poor. You can hardly accuse her of not caring.’

Christianity looks outward from within. It is not a real faith unless there is inward transformation that flows over affecting how each of us acts and lives. Governance by its very nature cannot address this and neither can what we define as left or right-wing politics.

Many of the dividing lines we encounter in politics come down to money and how it is used and distributed. Clare Chapman, speaking at the HTB Leadership Conference on Monday said that, ‘The pursuit of wealth isn’t the core problem, it’s that becoming your only purpose… My sense is that values and purpose are absolutely at the core to making ambition something that can create abundance as opposed to something that can become an addiction.’

It’s the way that politics attempts to deal with unhealthy ambition, our lack of ability to share wealth, without being forced to and the practical working out of values that begins to separate Christians along party lines.

Last week, Christians on the Left posted an interview with the well-known and respected American social activist, Shane Claiborne. On the surface he is about as left-wing as a Christian can get, but once you probe deeper it becomes apparent that defining his politics along a left-right spectrum is not so straightforward. In part of his interview he made these points:

‘I love how Martin Luther King engaged our world; he was very engaged politically. He insisted that we are to be not the chaplains of the state but the conscience of the state. We shouldn’t let what’s happening in that [political] arena define us, but we read all of that in the light of Jesus and scripture.

‘One of the problems I see with a lot of folks who engage politically is that we misplace our hope; we place our hope in a candidate or in a party rather than in Christ. That’s where our hope is and we align ourselves with whatever’s going to bring us closer to that.

‘The thing we’ve always got to be careful of is boxing the kingdom of God into a political ideology, or into one party. Is Jesus a capitalist or a communist? Jesus wasn’t anything that ended in -ist or -ism; Jesus was love incarnate. There’s a great quote: ‘Once we’ve really learnt to love our neighbour as ourselves, capitalism as we see it won’t be possible and Marxism won’t be necessary’.’

If having compassion for the poor and vulnerable and acting on it classes you as left-wing then that would automatically apply to all Christians who take their faith seriously. What really is happening is that the Church is currently doing a pretty good job of holding the current government to account and in some ways being a much more effective opposition on a number of issues than the Labour party. This should be the case for the Church of England though, whichever party is in power. If the C of E by being a form of national conscience is not impressing some Conservative members then is that such a bad thing? But if people think that the Church is overtly left-wing, then they miss the point too. As Shane Claiborne has said, despite what some may think, Jesus was not a socialist.

Categories: Church, Faith in society, Government, Party politics

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21 replies

  1. Perhaps it would have been useful to refer to the relevant teachings of Jesus: for example Matthew 19 – The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.…

  2. Great post – but you don’t go deep enough. A major problem in the present politics of the UK is implicit assumptions that we never talk about:

    1) That the state has the right to redistribute wealth
    2) That the state has a duty to provide for the poor
    3) That socialism is capable of providing economic growth to remove the poverty in the world.
    4) Which is a specific case of the general: human solutions will work

    Because these ideas hang around unchallenged in most Christian commentators on politics, they never offer a real CHRISTIAN critique, instead they mostly endorse the latest campaign from the left (this week people trafficking, last week climate change, before that welfare reform, fair trade / debt forgiveness etc etc.). Sadly their motivation is often to recreate ‘credibility’ for the institutional church – which is a largely lost cause or a non-issue. Actually it probably reduces the credibility of bishops – we’ve heard it before from real politicians, so for them to spout the same stuff is a bad imitation.

    Remember what Jesus responded when asked about the latest Roman outrage against civilians: ‘I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.’ Luke 13. Do bishops get close to that sort of response? No – they produce secular platitudes that could have come from a humanist.

    • That socialism is capable of providing economic growth to remove the poverty in the world? The solution, surely, is in sharing what we now have. You refer to climate change as a ‘campaign from the left’ which suggests that you are not educated in the sciences: climate change is a scientific consensus not a left wing plot.

      In creation, God gave us what appears to be a finite universe, this planet is certainly finite so the clamour for more growth simply fails to comprehend that there are limits. Again, it is about sharing not trying to continue to squeeze out more when, in some cases, more doesn’t exist. Copper and phosphates, for example, are fast running out.

      Jesus seems to have been unequivocal about the desire for earthly wealth, and so was the early church. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the early Christians ‘had all things in common.’ The Bishops are expressing these teachings not spouting a bad imitation. It is worth remembering G K Chesterton’s comment that Christianity has not been tried and found wanting but found difficult and not tried.

  3. David Cameron won the Britain is a Christian country argument? When was that decided, and by whom?

    • By the readers of ConservativeHome 😛

      For my part, I think it’s both an obvious fact and an utter absurdity. Of course a lot of people here recognise themselves as Christians, and we have a history and culture that has been strongly influenced by the Church.

      But on the other hand, get a Bible and compare the way we behave, or have behaved, as a country…

  4. “..despite what some may think, Jesus was not a socialist.” Nice try – but it doesn’t wash.

    Viewed from the evidence of History, Jesus is as socialist as they come.

    Dan Snow’s “The East India Company” on BBC2 Wednesday, documented how the company opposed allowing missionaries into India because they would “cause trouble” and ultimately hurt their profits – nothing new under the sun. Wilberforce was among those who had to fight for missionaries access. I suspect were he alive today, he’d be with Occupy movement with the Bishops opposing your party – the Conservatives.

    For exactly the same reason, in “Twelve years a slave,” the “good Christian” slave owing folk were appalled that a Baptist minister was allowing one of his slaves to read the bible.

    As I think I said in an earlier post, some good Republican folk in the US – the type of people no doubt the HTB Leadership Conference would welcome on their platform – are trying to “bend” the gospels because they’re so put out by its “socialist” leanings.

    Sure, Jesus probably wouldn’t call himself a socialist, but his church has opposed virtually everything the Right stand for. To read Scripture and uphold Right wing ideology is to hold two contradictory ideas as equal – cognitive dissonance. Which means those who insist that being Christian and a Tory/Right wing supporter are seriously deluded.

    • I consider that considering yourself Christian and holding LEFT-wing ideology is seriously deluded! Jesus came to save sinners from their sin and to die in the place of His people, NOT to redistribute wealth or be a social worker! “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)

      “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:3 AND v5)

      • …. Why are the two incompatible? Jesus didn’t come to commodify and marketise everything either. It seems fairly clear that Jesus cared about people (He also do the whole living thing before He died…), and it’s perfectly possible to build a political attitude on that basis.

      • Of course one could say exactly the same about considering yourself and Christian and holding RIGHT- wing ideology. Jesus came sinners from their sin and die in the place of His people, NOT to maximise shareholder value and llep those who help themselves!

        See how easy it is to Christianise our prejudices.

  5. I think the poll of Conservative Party members reveals more about their conceptions than it does about the CofE. If they think the church is left of centre, then they are clearly focusing on certain issues over others. Obviously, they view the church’s stance on issues of poverty as more important in placing it on the political spectrum than the church’s stance on issues of sexuality.

  6. I really don’t understand this insistence that Jesus is necessarily, and has to be, neutral vis-a-vis political parties. This seems to me to be French Enlightment-style thinking, not a Christian attitude. Political parties, and ideologies, embed and sustain different values.

    Of course no party is going to be 100% perfect – they’re human institutions after all. But we would never for one moment suggest that Jesus is neutral about the BNP, for example. So to claim that Jesus could never pick a side between more mainstream parties is to say either:

    a) There are no real differences between them, or
    b) There are differences between them, but Jesus isn’t concerned about them.

    I can’t see that either claim is tenable.

    • I don’t think anybody is saying that Jesus couldn’t pick sides between the mainstream political parties. But it is fair to say that we can’t be certain which side He would pick, except in a few more extreme cases like knowing He wouldn’t pick the BNP.

      As an active member of a political party (and a candidate in local elections), I like to think that Jesus would agree with me on which issues are important, and what position should be taken on them. And I strive to ensure that my faith shapes my politics, rather than the other way around. However, I am perfectly aware that a slightly different set of cultural assumptions could land me on the other side of the political spectrum.

      If I emphasise the issue of poverty, then my understanding of scripture leads me towards left-wing parties. If, however, I were to emphasise the issue of abortion then I would find better allies amongst the political right. Because different parties are in line with Biblical thinking on different issues we need to be very careful about going down the route of identifying Jesus with political philosophies or parties. Especially given that scripture does not directly address many of the political issues of our day.

      • I’m not sure what Jesus’ direct teaching on abortion was but I am clear how he regarded great wealth. You end your comment by stating that scripture does not directly address many of the political issues of our day but that is what you do relating to abortion. If you are referring to the sanctity of life then the major political parties have been prepared to go to war, sometimes, for the most shallow of reasons.

        Surely, our allegiance is to God, the Trinity, and our duty to press all governments to better align with Jesus’ teaching. A critical part of his teaching was that we use our intelligence, accept that we may be wrong and apply love.

      • Then as I say, I think the claim is that the differences between the main political parties are small, and that the differences are ones on which either a) don’t matter or b) are quite unclear. I find it hard that you (as a Green) would accept that!

        Some of the comments go deeper:

        “Christians are not commanded to follow a political philosophy”
        “Governance by its very nature cannot address this and neither can what we define as left or right-wing politics.”

        It seems to me that this is anti-politics, and is simply bad theology. It seems to rely on the idea that we should simply ‘proof-text’ what we’re commanded to do, rather than to apply christian principles to the political sphere (which would give us political philosophies). I think it’s an argument that does Christians tremendous damage in their engagement (or lack thereof) with politics.

      • Tom, I don’t think that the differences between parties are minor. I do think that we should be very cautious about saying that X is the Christian Position on an issue when the Bible does not specifically talk about it. And whilst there are many Biblical principles that apply directly to politics, there is very little that directly applies to specific policies. The Bible tells us that we are responsible for creation, but it doesn’t tell us how to deal with climate change. It tells us that God wants us to care for the poor, but it doesn’t tell us how to do that in an industrial/post-industrial society.

        Whilst my political views are in line with how I understand the Bible’s teaching, I am not going to tell a Christian in the Conservative Party that he or she is going against our shared faith by taking different positions on these issues. If they genuinely believe that climate change can be solved without large-scale state intervention or that the poor are better helped by leaving it to charity than by help from the state, my disagreement with them is not theological.

        When I read Christians whose politics are different from mine setting out their stall, it is very rare that I can find points of theology to disagree on. It is far more common that the differences come from different cultural assumptions, a different view of what the major issues of the day are, and different readings of the facts.

        Yes, Christians should be engaged with politics. Yes, we should aim to base our political philosophy on our understanding of scripture. But no, we can’t say that “my party is the only one that is undeniably in line with God’s view”. I have more in common with my brothers and sisters in other parties than I do with my non-Christian friends and colleagues in my party. And unless they are very clearly taking a non-Biblical stance on a particular issue, I am going to be cautious in the way I critique their political theology.

      • @ Stephen Gray, I agree with both your comments above.

        How a Christian can support ANY party that allows abortion is beyond me…. Christians should not murder…. nor endorse those who do…..

      • Stephen: OK, but I think we can be far clearer on some of the differences than you seem to. We can agree that we disagree on that one. To be honest, I’m not actually sure your comments would even exclude the BNP – in other times and cultures Christians have disagreed quite sincerely on racial issues, and the argument about different priorities could equally be made. We’re just blessed to have something of a social consensus on the issue. Plus, if we want to argue that some kind of egalitarian principle is absolutely clear, we could also rule out a lot of conservative ideology (e.g. the Monarchy).

        But as I say, I think some of the other comments are deeper:

        “Jesus wasn’t anything that ended in -ist or -ism; Jesus was love incarnate.”

        This suggests that it is *illegitimate* to derive ideological views from Christ’s teachings – and so you (or I) are forbidden from claiming that we are to be environmentalists etc. The claim is not (as you suggest) that we can have these views, but respect that it’s not completely certain. The claim is that we simply cannot have such views. That is what I find most objectionable.

        @Helen – there are lots of things we can’t endorse. The Bible is thoroughly opposed to paying low wages, injustice to the foreigner, ignoring the poor etc. These issues have political dimensions, and we have to get involved to tackle them. This inevitably means we sometimes find common cause with people, even though we might disagree on other issues.

  7. conservative towards self; liberal towards others

  8. I completely agree that Jesus was primarily concerned with inner transformation which would then lead to transformation of society. It is interesting how many current politicians in the UK are Christians, well worth reading ‘Liberal Democrats Do God’ (other political parties are also doing God – but they wrote a book)

    But a key issue here is disestablishment. I think it would be great if we could have a proper debate in the Church about the effect of being tied to the state. Is it good because it gives an automatic voice to the C of E? Is it bad because it means local churches are more concerned with being ‘safe’ and accessible to all rather than exciting and truly biblical. If the church is the natural opposition of the government of whatever party, should it be part of the state?

  9. I’ve always struggled to identify myself with any of the parties: conservative on social policy (abortion, marriage, individual responsibility), left wing on economics (redistribution of wealth, care for the poor), and with the Greens on climate change. But as a Christian I also feel obliged to vote, which means a dilemma at every election.

    For the record I did the Conservative Home poll – happened to be visiting the site on the day so I whizzed through it. Because I’m not a party member I’m probably not counted in their numbers. From what I recall, I said that Britain was a Christian country (on the AB of C’s definition of Christian heritage/foundations, but not Christian observance), and that the CofE had no discernible political stance.

    I’ve been impressed at the way Cameron and Osborne have championed the 0.7% of GDP for aid, even though it doesn’t play well to many of their natural supporters. We have a ‘right wing’ government doing left wing things, which probably helps explain the rise of UKIP. Personally I hardly agree with any of UKIP’s policies, but have to admit that their presence makes politics a bit more exciting, with the two front benches dominated by machine politicians who have been so long away from real life & real people that they can’t connect with them any more.

    • You sound a lot like me to be honest. You might find Christians on the Left interesting:

      You’re far more likely to be able to find left-wing candidates who oppose abortion etc than right ones who support redistribution!

      As far as climate change goes, I’d agree that it’s not anywhere near as big a priority for most parties as it ought to be. I think the only solution is to get involved with a party and try to push it up the agenda.

      You might also be interested (if you haven’t come across them already) in Christian groups like Operation Noah, who are trying to get the Church to take climate change as seriously as we ought:

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