The Church of England Bishops have had their knuckles rapped of late following their open letter about the forthcoming general Election. An article in The Times published on Ash Wednesday, described it as “a withering assault on Britain’s political culture” and in its leader on the same day, under the headline ‘Bishops’ Blunder’, the letter was further denigrated as “disingenuous and in at least half a dozen respects nakedly partisan”. I’ve not read the letter and I have my own views which I won’t share here, but I will try to deal with the question which this all begs, namely, ‘Should the Church engage in politics?
Jesus is recorded as having said that what belonged to Caesar was Caesar’s and what belonged to God was God’s. The apostle Paul told the Christians in Rome to be subject to the governing authorities – not the nicest bunch of people around at the time! – and went on to say that such authorities have been instituted by God (Romans 13 verses 1-2). His fellow apostle, Peter, says much the same things (1 Peter 2 verses 13-14).
This does seem to suggest that the Church should keep off such territory and let others get on with it. But, just a minute! What I’ve referred to above presupposes that the governing authorities to whom we are commended to be subject, the Caesar to whom we render his or her dues are dealing decently and justly with us and our brothers and sisters, and according to the basic principles of justice and freedom consonant with the kingdom of God.
Bishops are often asked to preach at services for the inauguration of mayoral year or the beginning of some other civic term of office. When I’m asked to do so, I invariably accept and, in preaching, tackle head on this issue of the church and engagement with political life. As readings, I often choose the opening verses of chapter 61 of the prophecy of Isaiah – The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; the Lord has anointed me to be good news …. – and part of John, chapter 10, where Jesus states that he has come that they might have life, life in all its fullness. What better ‘political manifesto’ can there be but this? It means giving voice to the voiceless, binding up the broken and advocating the rights of the oppressed. Who dares to say that faith and politics don’t mix?.
I take the unequivocal view that, properly understood, they are, in fact, pretty good bedfellows. God’s kingdom is about justice and freedom; and where these are denied, or where decisions are taken which unduly and unfairly impact upon people, the church has no choice but to say so. Even if the ends are justified, the means by which they are achieved should be, must be, not the quickest and cheapest in the short term, but the correct ones which do the least harm to the fewest people.
Being a Christian is not about indulging a liking for candles and organ music for an hour on a Sunday. At a time when austerity is still the watchword, such a principle must be enunciated loudly and clearly; and if this means straying, well-prepared and fully briefed, even into party politics rather than simply speaking in general terms, so be it!