THERE’S AN ELECTION on – of that I can be sure. While you are reading this you will probably be disturbed by the muffled sound of election addresses dropping through your letter box if you live in one of the shire counties where a new county council is up for election.
In fact, assuming our Tone has been listening to the focus groups, there will probably be a general election campaign getting going as well. It is fashionable to be cynical about politicians, and in the light of the recent performances of the Minister for Europe, I can not say I blame you. If Martin Bell was Prime Minister, we would like to believe it would not happen, but being realistic how do you enforce on politicians an ethical standard that the population at large is reluctant to live up to itself?
If two Archbishops can not keep forty two prima donnas in line, what chance has one Prime Minister got of keeping his army of 400 in order? In fact it is probably just as well that he cannot. After all the botched gerrymandering with the constitution, we have a Welsh Assembly run by a Labour politician who was not of the PM’s choosing. We have a Lib-Lab rag bag up in Edinburgh which allows the Scots to send a block vote of Labour MPs to Westminster (most of whom seem to have finished up in the Cabinet) whilst escaping the yoke of New Labour at home.
Londoners too have thumbed their noses at the Honourable member for Sedgefield and elected the person New Labour least wanted to run the Capital as the Mayor of London. It would be truly ironic if the election campaign is overshadowed by a high profile court case about how the Underground is to be run in London. A government whose writ does not even run to Westminster Station across the road could be left with a serious lack of credibility in the wider world.
So where is the Church in all this? There is no point asking what Synod thinks because the powers that be have ensured that Synod has not met since last November and will not meet again until Summer is more than half over. The Church, as is customary, has nothing prophetic to say to the nation. The Bishops are not setting the agenda, but are responding to the world’s agenda.
Belatedly individual bishops are making supportive noises for farmers in their dioceses whose livelihoods are under threat due to the outbreaks of foot and mouth disease and the consequent culling of their stock. Nothing wrong in that, but I can not help asking what we were doing last year about the problems that are overwhelming us now? The answer is that the primary question that gripped us all – church and nation – was the question of hunting with dogs!
There is a bitter irony that a Government and a Church that was so recently preoccupied with elevating foxes to the status of a protected species, (so that they could continue with their recreational pursuits of murdering chickens) is now forced to stand idly by while virtually every other species is culled, burned or buried – and those that are spared are left to live in squalid conditions in muddy fields. In other circumstances the RSPCA would be having a field day with prosecutions.
So what are the congregation at St Mugwump’s to make of all the election addresses? The younger generation (two million of whom will be eligible to vote for the first time in a General Election) have a handy little prompt of WWJD. That means asking the question, “What would Jesus do?”
What indeed? In his day people tried to get him to make political statements. Remember the question about taxes when he was asked whether the people should pay their taxes to Caesar?
Frankly I would be surprised if Jesus, looking at the party manifestos that are probably being printed even as I write, would give uncritical endorsement to any of the parties soliciting our votes. He would have the advantage over us in that he looks not on the outward appearance of a candidate, not at the honeyed words in the election address, but on the heart.
There used to be a lovely collect that asked that we might be “Godly and quietly governed”. Perhaps we would do well to look at the candidates who offer themselves for election and ask ourselves what they stand for. Which party policies do they support? Which policies might they fight to change? How would they vote in free votes on moral issues?
We might try and take a view as to which candidate might best promote those conditions in which the proclamation of the gospel could flourish? We might ask whether they would be sympathetic to the Church’s work in society, or whether they would seek to inhibit it? It might help us to know, as we ponder where to make our cross on the ballot paper, how a particular candidate might be inclined to vote on all manner of issues. Would the effect of their decisions be to shift British society in a more Godward direction, or in a more secular one? Would the society they would fashion be one in which our children would find it easier or more difficult to live for Jesus?
There are real issues at stake, and there is more to politics than VAT on church building repairs and State aid for Church schools. Has the gospel not got something to say about preserving the environment? Should we not have a view on the value of human life – whether the presenting issue is asylum seekers, overseas aid, armaments, abortion, cloning or genetic manipulation? Should we not be concerned about the personal credentials of those who seek high office?
On the other hand, we are all busy people, time is short, there are lots of things to do and we do not really have time to do our homework, so we might as well just vote for whichever lot we voted for last time. That means we can leave the real decisions to other people, who by and large may take God’s views on the issues of our day a little less seriously than we do. Elections are won and lost by the voters who change their minds. Could people in the pews be the thinking electorate this time and be opinion formers rather than opinion followers? Jesus was certainly ahead of the game, and perhaps he expects us to be too.
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.