Who speaks for us?
Do you agree with those who say the Church should stay out of politics? When faced with criticism from the Bishops Mrs Thatcher was in no doubt about this. Tim Montgomerie has recently echoed this view in The Times. The Church should concentrate on saving souls they say. Saving souls was what Jesus came to do but he also said “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. He called his disciples to be ‘salt and light’, metaphors for being agents for change, stopping decay and pushing back the frontiers of darkness.
That can mean different things for individual Christians and the Church. There are four important contributions the Church can bring to the political world. The first is exercise a prophetic ministry in society. As Kenneth Kaunda, the former Zambian President, suggested “what a nation needs more than anything else is not a Christian ruler in the palace but a Christian prophet within earshot.” Isaiah and the other prophets in the Bible demonstrate the wisdom of this.
The Church can also serve as an agent of reconciliation in a politically divided society so long as it avoids becoming partisan. Jesus not only reconciled people to God but also people like Matthew the tax collector to Simon the Zealot. This can be important in an adversarial political system like ours.
The Church has an obvious duty to spearhead prayer for the nation. Apostles Peter and Paul both called for Christians to pray for those in government and the need for this continues to be obvious.
Finally the Church has a prime responsibility to teach believers to relate our faith to our duties as citizens of the nation as well as of the Kingdom of God. If churches pay limited attention to this aspect of discipleship it is no surprise that we have little influence in politics and society is becoming increasingly secularised. We are all the voice of the Church, not just the Bishops.
With that in mind “Who is my neighbour? A Letter from the House of Bishops to the People and Parishes of the Church of England for the General Election 2015” is an important document. It calls for “a new kind of politics” and explores the kind of society and culture they think we should seek. It is non-partisan and rejects the old left-right divide without succumbing to Blair’s ‘third way’. Politics should focus on seeking the common good rather than serving sectional interests. Whilst the State and the market have important roles, neither has given us a more humane society.
Predictably the letter has been attacked by politicians and the press. The former unfairly accuse the Bishops of naked partisanship and the latter described the letter as an election manifesto. It is neither. We may disagree with some of its thinking and its omissions but we should welcome this attempt to think in a ‘Christian’ way about politics and government. It is worth obtaining a copy and discussing it in small groups before we vote in May.