Disestablishmentarianism

A poll of Evangelicals at the last general election revealed that the developing world was at the to

A couple of weeks ago I bumped into a theologian who had just heard me on the radio debating the disestablishment of the Church of England with the Bishop of Liverpool.

To my surprise she told me that the discussion had changed her position. She now supported a separation of church and state. But before I became too caught up in illusions of my own debating prowess, she quickly added that it was the bishop’s lack of any credible argument which had finally persuaded her.

Her view is one that seems to be growing amongst many Christians. In the past it has been proposed that disestablishment would condemn Christianity to the private realm. More are now realising that it needn’t signal the end of the church’s engagement in public life.

An analysis at the composition of the House of Commons reveals that MPs who align themselves with the Christian groupings within the three main parties (the Conservative Christian Fellowship, the Christian Socialist Movement and the Lib Dem Christian Forum) make up around 15% of the House of Commons. Christians who have pursued more democratic routes are disproportionately overrepresented when compared to the church-going population at large.

Outside Parliament too, one of the paradoxes of the last thirty years has been that whilst church attendance has declined, the number of Christian campaign groups has increased exponentially. The end of Christendom appears to be the catalyst for growth in political Christianity.

The reasons for the political engagement vary. For some it is the fear that the culture is becoming ‘de-Christianised’. Often taking on a more conservative or right wing character, these Christians, like their brothers and sisters in the US, tend to focus on issues of sexuality, marriage and abortion – lamenting the supposed decline in Christian morality. From the campaigns of Mary Whitehouse to the opposition to Jerry Springer: The Opera, the groups hit the headlines because of their censorious or reactionary approaches.

But others are experiencing a more positive radicalisation. Finding themselves freed from Christianity’s previous alignment with culture and the social order, they are far more willing to point to injustices in the world around them, and campaign for positive change. Whether it be as part of the Fairtrade movement, the Jubilee 2000 coalition that led to the MakePovertyHistory campaign, the opposition to the invasion of Iraq, initiatives for the rights of asylum seekers or new approaches to criminal justice, their agenda is broad and widening.

And it is this latter movement which appears to be winning the hearts and minds of the churches. A poll of Evangelicals at the last general election revealed that the developing world was at the top of their political priorities, rather than any obsession with sex – a healthy departure many inside and outside the church would observe. Of course it will take time for their new political perspectives to mature. Old habits die hard. But like it or loathe it, Christian involvement in public life seems here to stay – regardless of what happens to the loosening ties that still bind church and state.

Jonathan Bartley is co-director of the thinktank Ekklesia. He lives in Streatham in South London, and when he not discussing religion and politics, he plays in the blues band the mustangs www.themustangs.co.uk
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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.