Hugh Baker reflects on his reluctance to vote
This time round, I very nearly didn’t. Vote, that is.
This surprises me. In time past, I have reminded my hearers of the privilege of the plebiscite, of the courage and sacrifices of our forebears whose struggles gave us the vote. I have inveighed against apathy at the polls; yet here I was, voting out of unfeeling duty, and little else.
Looking for the causes of my lack of electoral enthusiasm, my mind went back some months to the debate on the repeal of the now famous Clause 28. (I forget the name of the Bill, but you will recall that Clause 28 forbade the dissemination of pro-homosexual propaganda to school children.)
Opposing the Government, as one does in opposition, Iain Duncan-Smith issued a three line whip. ‘We are Conservatives,’ maybe he mused, ‘we’re opposed to this sort of thing.’ The Tory Party was split down the middle. Follow their leader they would not.
Their division, I believe, showed me why I could hardly bother to vote. The choices laid before me were no more than functional: who would be the most efficient, cost effective deliverers of literacy or lymphectomy? Shorn of any ideals or ideology, modern politics sees itself as a creedless deliverer of services. Any mention of belief, politicians are sure, would be divisive and electorally damaging. Bishop Michael Marshall (CEN, May 15) instances King of Spin Alastair Campbell cutting off Tony Blair, when enquiries were made about our Prime Minister’s faith, with the injunction ‘We don’t do God.’
Why don’t they do God? Because God is, in our society, the great and fundamental divider.
The Great Divider
The presumption that religion, and specifically Christianity, are strictly for private consumption, and should not be brazenly spoken of in decent society, is widespread. I have cordial relations with the two state primary schools in my parish, and take assemblies there on a regular basis. However, I know the limitations of what I am allowed to disseminate: thou shalt not breach the bounds of religion being no more than a device to let us all live happily together – never mind what we believe. My schools welcome me – as long as I don’t do God, in any definitive, doctrinal way.
God remains the great and fundamental divider, the unseen disturber of the Tolerant Society. Our attitude to homosexual practice is determined by our picture of who God is. Is God a person, whose love we can know, and whose heart we can break? Do we, in this world we know, live under the shadow of his Great Assize? Do we have God’s presence with us in such degree that our personality and sexuality can be healed and changed? A society that can give a definite ‘Yes’ to these questions will put a brake on its ‘devices and desires’. It will expect its members to make use of the means of grace, and to let themselves be moulded by a holy discipline. However mangled human nature may be, this earthly life is seen in a wider context, and restraint has a purpose. Let the presence of Heaven and Hell dim in the Church’s teaching, and a harvest of licence will inevitably result. Lose the reality of God, particularly of his holiness and his judgement, and you lose any motivation for discipleship. The people whom St Paul admonished for their sinful behaviour weren’t quintessentially worse than the rest of the early Church. They believed a distorted or deficient gospel, and their beliefs moulded their values, just as their values moulded their actions.
The Anglican Communion is as divided as the Tory Party over homosexual practice. This is because we believe different things. I believe in a different God and a different gospel from other Runcie ’71s with whom I keep in touch. The long term implications of this for God’s Church I will leave to those of you who know more about ecclesiastical affairs than I do. If we were to divide over this issue, though, who would the public follow, given the pressures on them to think tolerant?
Two characteristics of our recent local elections encourage me. Firstly, apathy itself. Agnostic, functional politics is leaving people feeling… agnostic. They are not inspired by that which is built on nothing bigger than the here and now. Secondly, the relative successes of the British National Party and the Scottish Socialist Party. I hasten to say I carry no brief for either of these bodies, but votes for them are significant. It shows there is a significant constituency out there who will not be cowed into thinking correctly. There are people who want to explore outside the box of what they’ve been told to believe and perceive.
Could the Church pick up on these people? Could we become a body which offers a vibrant alternative to a tired political belief system which no longer offers ideals to the young or duty to their elders? A recently heard statistic make me fear not. Evangelical writer Rob Frost recently surveyed the public in Northampton, asking ‘Have you had a spiritual experience?’ 67% answered ‘Yes’. The same question was asked of churchgoers in the same town. ‘Yes’ came back the reply of 54% of God’s chosen. Now, spiritual experiences (and I don’t know how these were defined, if at all) can come from sources other than God. Even so, I’m left wondering whether the Church is failing not because it is believing the unbelievable, but because it has reduced Christianity to the instantly attainable… and drearily undemanding.
Not of this world
Maybe we, like the politicians, need to be brave enough to offer the nation something outside the efficient delivery of services. If we were to state that homosexual practice is a sin with implications for eternal punishment, and shape our recruitment policy accordingly, the liberal caucus would be in a position to take us to court. This would appear small beer to our predecessors who were taken to the Coliseum. Their unpopularity with the establishment of their day didn’t prevent the common people turning to Christ en masse.
The polling booths, like the pews, are emptying. Maybe the pews would start filling if our Faith wasn’t seen as the same mundane stuff our politicians ask us to affirm.
Hugh Baker is Incumbent of the Peel Parishes in the Diocese of Lichfield.