TONY BLAIR IS IMPORTING a priest from the Diocese of Wangaratta to help him relate religion and politics. Fr Peter Thompson, a retired priest who runs a farm near Mansfield, is credited with introducing Blair to the ideas now espoused by his fashionable “new communitarians”, when they were students together at Oxford. According to Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle in their book The Blair Revolution, although Tony Blair is not what they term a “prig”, he does want to connect politics and ethical values, to base policy on principle and give people a sense of moral direction.

Back in Peter Thomspon’s homeland, the churches are beginning to take the lead in opposing the policies of the new cost-cutting Liberal (i.e. conservative) government. Catholic and Anglican leaders, including Melbourne regional bishop, Andrew Curnow, have warned of the consequences of reducing money spent on youth training, and drawn attention to the link between the rise in youth suicides and a growing rate of unemployment. Aboriginal groups are securing support from the churches in the face of fears that Australia’s new Prime Minister, John Howard, is backing away from the policy of national reconciliation with indigenous peoples pursued by Paul Keating. Archbishop Peter Carnley and others have expressed concern about cuts in the grants allocated to universities and other forms of tertiary education.

All these developments prompt some questions both about the attitude of politicians to moral values and about the way in which church leaders should intervene in the political arena.

The temptation for politicians is to be selective in their resort to values, to use morality to give an attractive gloss to policies when it suits them, but to ignore ethical issues that could be dangerous or inconvenient. A key test for the seriousness of Mr Blair’s moral concern will be whether he takes action to stem the decline in Britain’s foreign aid, now less than 0.4 per cent of GDP and still falling in real terms. The UN reckons that one billion people in the world are without basic health services, 1.3 billion drink unclean water and 1.5 billion are illiterate. Isn’t this a moral issue?

To many outside observers, Britain’s horizons appear to have shrunk. With the decline in importance of the Commonwealth seems to have gone a slackening of interest in the wider world. Of course aid can be abused and care needs to be taken to encourage initiative and discourage corruption in the developing world, but this is an argument for an intelligent approach to foreign aid not for its abandonment. One important fact that desperately needs to be faced is the crippling burden of foreign debt for many countries, especially in Africa. Interestingly the regional pre-Lambeth meetings are indicating that this, not women bishops or sexuality, is a prime concern for Anglican bishops world-wide. (Would the Primate of Canada please note?)

As far as the churches in Australia and elsewhere are concerned, it is important for them to remember a warning once given by Paul Tillich that “a church that is nothing more than a benevolent socially useful group can be replaced by other groups not claiming to be churches; such a church has no justification for its existence”. (Systematic Theology, vol.3, page 196). The church is more than another political lobby, more than a welfare organisation, more than a pressure group. When it speaks (as it must) on political or social issues it must do so in such a way as to make it clear that it is bringing a Christian perspective on the matters under discussion not just echoing other voices.

This does not rule out co-operation with other groups in seeking to forge a common moral understanding. In fact such co-operation (of the kind advocated, for example, by Hans Kung), with other religions is essential in a pluralist society. But the church must always speak from a viewpoint informed by the gospel, not by some secular political commitment. Rather than jump on bandwagons driven by political parties, the churches need to be on the look-out for marginalised groups that secular interest groups have overlooked. An option for the poor in a culture of contentment may well offend labour organisations or parties of the Left as well as those on the Right or in business.

In Australia one disappointing fact about the churches has been their failure to give intelligent attention to regional issues. Only the Catholics have really spoken up for East Timor, but no-one has had anything to say about what is happening in the northern half of the island of New Guinea. Even when the OPM was holding hostages in Irian Jaya, little was said about the continuing scandal of Indonesian occupation of the territory or of its policy of transmigration, designed to make the Papuan people a minority in their own land by bringing in settlers from elsewhere.

Irian Jaya was handed over to Indonesia in 1963, under UN cover, as a result of US pressure on Holland, the former colonial power. A phoney referendum was held, but the people were never really consulted about their future. Ever since then the media, Western governments, international business and the churches have turned a blind eye to what is happening there. In Australia all the political parties are keen to stay on good terms with Indonesia and no disagreement about Irian Jaya would ever be allowed to harm bilateral relations. But recent political disturbances in Indonesia and the illness of President Suharto offer at least a hope that changes could well be on the way.

The pages of the Melbourne Age have seen a debate recently about the failure of the churches to meet the rising interest in spirituality. One Professor of Sociology has claimed that the churches are still too hung up on their old political agenda to address the contemporary search for meaning. The danger of a spiritual quest, without a concern for questions of justice or social rights, is that it will not challenge people to transcend their own self-interest and face the gospel’s radical demands.

Paul Richardson is Bishop of Wangarratta in the province of Victoria