Depending on where you look the Pastoral Letter about the General Election from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York has been both praised and criticised. The Daily Mail is excited that the Bishops have seen the light and abandoned trendy leftie causes. So a thumbs up from the Mail which is surely a bit of a worry in itself. In today’s Guardian there is an article gently chiding the Bishops for not being bold enough in their call to Christians to take their responsibilities seriously – Come on bishops, be bold. Promote some real Christian principles, because Anglicans are, according to YouGov, almost twice as likely to vote Conservative as Labour, which suggests that they haven’t quite got the hang of their own religion (Michele Hanson). And all this from an atheist.
A more incisive and focussed criticism of the Archbishops’ Letter comes in two responses from Alan Storkey, former chair of the Movement for Christian Democracy and author of Jesus and Politics and in the form of a letter from the Rev’d Al Barrett, a priest in the West Midlands, and signed by many others as well.
I’ll leave you to read those responses if you wish to, although I do recommend them, but here are my own reflections on what the Archbishops wrote to us.
My first feeling about the letter is that it is profoundly bland (if such a thing is possible). It lacks any sense of boldness or challenge to those seeking office, or to those whose responsibility it is to elect them. However you look at it there are huge issues facing our society today and addressing those issues will require boldness and imagination from our political leaders. Modern politicians, it seems to me, are not keen to exhibit such qualities. They appear to seek our votes not based on their policies but upon how competent or telegenic they appear. We’ve not seen the manifestos yet but it seems that the Tories are likely to make few commitments to policy and although Labour and the Liberal Democrats are likely to make more promises that is surely in the expectation that they will be in no position to deliver what they promise.
The Archbishops appear to accept that the way to deal with poverty in our society is not through policy but through charitable work (or what they call service-delivery) and praises Christians and others for that, their contribution and that of other denominations and faiths to the well-being of the nation is immense – schools, food banks, social support, childcare among many others – and is freely offered. The Archbishops stop short of challenging those who are seeking our votes to make a difference to this, there is no questioning why food banks, for instance, are necessary (and political comment seems to have moved on from denying that they are necessary to seeing them as signs of a caring society and are happy that government is not being challenged to make them unnecessary). There is no mention of how vital it is that education should be seen as a necessary investment in the future of our nation and, indeed, the world. The same might be said of health and social care.
They almost completely dodge the issue of the divisions within our society and how those might be healed. How Christians might consider the fact of our leaving the European Union is not explicitly mentioned at all. There are no questions about how the possible break up of the United Kingdom might be avoided. The divisions between north and south, or how government appears to be focussed on the capital and the implications of that on the regions are not acknowledged.
And finally, rather alarmingly, God is mentioned only twice (in the preamble) and Jesus not at all. That’s strange, it is a letter to the faithful not to society at large (at least that’s who it’s addressed to). Jesus had quite a lot to say about social justice and the prophets in the Old Testament were also vocal about the need for social justice – care for the poor, elderly and vulnerable, hospitality to the stranger and the refugee. All of this lies at the core of our religion.
The feeble message of the letter appears to be:
There is to be a General Election. It’s really important. Christians should take a full part in it. At the very least they should vote and, perhaps, encourage others to do so. They might want to help with the campaigns of one or other of the parties. There are lots of issues but they’re too complicated or likely to become controversial if we say too much.
Of course the Archbishops need to be careful and sensitive. They know that Christians hold widely differing views about politics as much as anything else. They wouldn’t want to be telling us how to vote. But they might have drawn our attention to the teaching of Jesus and done a proper critique of the reality and importance of the issues facing our society.
This is simply not good enough.