Politics and the pulpit

Who cares what an archbishop thinks, anyway?

If inviting the Archbishop of Canterbury to guest-edit the New Statesman was some kind of attention-grasping strategy then it succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations. The ensuing row centred mostly on a single sentence from Rowan Williams's offering - "With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted." Given this week's backtracking on health reforms - which today earned the government a rebuke from the right by former Labour minister Alan Milburn - it might be doubted whether the coalition's reforms are either speedy or radical. But the wider question was whether he should have said anything at all.

Whatever Williams actually said, or meant, critics were quick to accuse him of "meddling in politics", specifically party politics. What they meant was that he was meddling in the economic and social side politics. Nadine Dorries, for example, complained that he was ignoring "areas of policy where politics and the church overlap", by which she meant her personal hobby-horses of abortion, the "sexualisation of children" and euthanasia. On such moral questions he was "deafening in his silence as he hides away with his fingers in his ears".

But on what basis is it assumed that an archbishop should be outspoken on some political issues and silent on others? Abortion and sex education are no less "political" - and no more "moral" - questions than those of health, education or social welfare. Indeed, to the chagrin of its critics the Big Society agenda depends upon the involvement of churches and other "faith-based" groups, as Williams himself acknowledged. As for health and education, the Church of England has extensive interests in both, through its large (and controversially growing) provision of schools, through its network of hospital chaplains and through church involvement in, say, the hospice movement.

Historically, the churches were the largest and often only providers of social care. Schools, hospitals and poor relief were the business of ecclesiastics long before they became the responsibility of the state. Concern for the poor and needy, often in conjunction with a negative attitude towards money and money-making, has been a feature of Christianity since the beginning. Some strands within Christianity stress it more heavily than others, however - and as usual the Bible offers contradictory advice.

The reputation of Jesus is of a penniless wandering holy man, not merely uninterested in material wealth but ideologically opposed to it: famously, he told one would-be disciple that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. But he seems to have had at least some wealthy friends and supporters. One woman - traditionally identified with Mary Magdalene - apparently thought nothing of using an entire bottle of very expensive ointment to dress his hair. As Margaret Thatcher famously reminded the Church of Scotland, the Good Samaritan offered money as well as sympathy to the wounded traveller. And one has to wonder who actually paid for all those loaves and fishes.

Christians down the centuries have interpreted the Gospel's social implications in strikingly different ways, ranging from total renunciation - mendicant friars or hermits who went to live in desert caves - to rampant and unapologetic money-making. Some Christians deem it heretical, but churches teaching some form of "prosperity gospel" - the belief that God will bless his worshippers with material wealth - are the fastest-growing and most dynamic in the world. The United States might be the traditional home of Christian capitalism, but it is these days just as appealing in Asia and Africa. It was recently revealed that one Nigerian pastor, who heads a church known colloquially as the Winners' Chapel, is worth at least $150 million dollars - which puts Rowan Williams' own salary of around £70,000 somewhat in perspective.

Part of the secularisation process in the West involved the taking over of social provision by the state. It is this, combined with the increasing privatisation of morality, that has deepened the sense of a church/state split, with the church being involved more in questions of personal conduct than of social organisation. But it's notable that when church leaders discourse publicly upon questions of sex and medical ethics (abortion, euthanasia, embryology research, etc) they can be sure of being denounced by secularists. Whereas if they choose, like Rowan Williams last week, to discuss poverty or the state of the public services, criticism comes from Christians of a different political viewpoint. Neither the National Secular Society nor the British Humanist Association chose to comment publicly on the Archbishop's foray into political journalism. Instead it was left to the likes of Nadine Dorries to be outraged.

There's an obvious, and often remarked-upon, left/right split in when it comes to episcopal interventions in politics. Critics on the left tend to get upset when bishops talk about sex (because the positions they take tend to be conservative), those on the right when they talk about money (where their views, in Britain at least, tend to the soft-left). It's tempting to leave it there, with the thought that what really annoys people is to hear church leaders disagreeing with their own point of view. But why should that annoy people? Why should anyone care what an archbishop happens to think about the economy?

I think it comes down to a lingering belief that church leaders are experts in morality - and that therefore whatever they say they speak from some elevated perspective. Or at least that they presume to; or that they should. The word "pontificating" springs to mind. Strictly speaking, perhaps, WIlliams wasn't pontificating - that's the Pope's prerogative. He was archiespiscopating - which, by long Anglican tradition, is an altogether more ambivalent and equivocal activity. Still, give a man a pulpit and you kind of expect him to use it. Archbishops are as strongly criticised when they don't speak out as when they do.

Nelson Jones runs the Heresy Corner blog. He was shortlisted for the 2011 Orwell Prize for blogging.

 

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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If the left leaves it to David Cameron, we'll have Brexit for sure

Only an upbeat, leftwing case can keep Britain in the European Union.

After months flapping and hesitation, and with much of the reporting and detail so dull that it has barely penetrated the consciousness of even those who speak the language of ‘directives’ and treaty provisions, the EU referendum is upon us. With David Cameron signalling concrete outcomes for negotiations, we seem to be set for June, whatever the protests from opposition parties about the date being too close to local and national elections.  

Cameron’s deal, whose most substantive element consists of denying in-work benefits to European citizens, exemplifies the kind of debate that Conservative strategists want to create: a tedious, labyrinthine parochialism, blending the EU’s procedural dullness with an unquestioned mythology of the little Englander. Try actually reading the various letters, let alone the draft decisions, that Cameron extracted from Donald Tusk, and the agreement turns to putty in your head. But in summary, what Cameron is negotiating is designed to keep the EU debate as an in-house affair within the right, to continue and formalise the framing of the debate as between two strains of anti-migrant sentiment, both of them backed by big business.

The deal may be reactionary, but it is also mediocre in its scope and impact. The worries that many of us had in the leftwing pro-In camp, that Cameron’s deal would push back freedom of movement and working and environmental protections so far that we would be unable to mobilise for continued membership of the EU, can now be put to bed. Quite the opposite of allowing Cameron's narrative to demoralise us, the left must now seize an opportunity to put imagination and ideas back at the heart of the referendum debate.

The British political landscape in which that debate will play out is a deceptively volatile environment. Party allegiance is at a nearly all time low. Inequality is growing, and so is the gap between attitudes. The backbone of the UKIP vote – and much of the Out vote – will come from a demographic that, sometimes impoverished by the legacy of Thatcherite economic policy, sees itself as left behind by migration and change. On top of the class war, there is a kind of culture war underway in today’s Britain: on one side those who see LGBT rights, open borders and internationalism as the future; on the other side, those who are scared of the future. About the only thing these groups have in common with one another is their anti-establishment instincts, their total disdain and mistrust of politics as usual.

The only political movement to have broken through the fog of cynicism and disillusionment in British politics has come from the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour has unleashed something new - and while large parts of the press, and some Labour backbenchers, have portrayed this rise as a crusade of the “croissant eating” metropolitan elite, the reality is very different. The rise of the new Labour left has given voice to a renewed socialist and working class politics; its explicitly radical, outsider approach has given it traction across the social divides – among the young looking for a future, and among Labour’s old base. 

A politics of hope – however vague that term might sound – is the only real answer to the populist Euroscepticism that the Out campaign will seek to embody. Radical politics, that proposes an alternative narrative to the scapegoating of migrants, has to find voice in the course of this referendum campaign: put simply, we need to persuade a minimum wage worker that they have more in common with a fellow Polish migrant worker than they do with their employer; we need to persuade someone on a social housing waiting list should blame the privatisation of the housing market, not other homeless families. Fundamentally, the real debate to be had is about who the public blames for social injustice: that is a question which only the left can satisfactorily answer.

The outsider-led volatility of British politics gives the EU referendum a special kind of unpredictability. For voters who have lost faith in the political establishment – and who often have little materially to lose from Brexit – the opportunity to deliver a blow to David Cameron this summer will be tempting. The almost consciously boring, business-dominated Britain Stronger In Europe campaign makes a perfect target for disenfranchised public sentiment, its campaigning style less informed by a metropolitan elite than by the landed gentry. Its main weapons – fear, danger and uncertainty – will work on some parts of the electorate, but will backfire on others, much as the Better Together campaign did in the Scottish referendum.

Last night, Another Europe is Possible held a launch meeting of about a hundred people in central London - with the backing of dozens of MPs, campaigners and academics across the country. It will aim to provide a radical, left wing voice to keep Britain in the EU.

If Britain votes to leave the EU in June, it will give the Right a mandate for a renewed set of attacks on workers’ rights, environmental protections, migrants and freedom of movement. But without an injection of idealism and radicalism,  an In vote will be a mandate for the status quo - at home and in Brussels. In order to seize the real potential of the referendum, the left has to approach the campaign with big ideas and demands. And we have to mobilise.