ON SATURDAY 4TH SEPTEMBER, 1999 in an interview with The Observer newspaper the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, launched a call for “a new national moral purpose”. Despite warnings that the PM risked the odium that attended John Major’s “Back to Basics” crusade, the media was treated over that weekend to a parade of senior Cabinet Ministers invoking the new litany of responsibility.

What is most striking about this new found concern for the nation’s collective and individual moral purpose is the reaction from the Church of England. Until the following Tuesday silence was the Church’s response which then gave way to muted and cautious support.

The new Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, remains sceptical about the PM’s passion for a new national moral purpose and echoes Harold Macmillan’s adage that politicians should leave the pulpit to the bishops. Some may find it surprising that the assorted prelates and clerics who normally find little cause to refrain from public comment on any number of public policy issues are so reticent in an area that most would assume falls well within the traditional province of the Church.

One cannot help but recall the observation of Sir Humphrey Appleby in “Bishops Gambit” that “isn’t it interesting that today politicians want to talk about morals and bishops talk politics”.

Now to be fair, it was the end of the Summer holidays and The Observer interview did appear at the weekend and after an exhausting round of Sunday services the serried ranks of the hierarchy and their attendant cadres may just have been too tired to offer a comment. On the other hand as one political reporter from a broadsheet put it “perhaps the media have come to realise that with the retirement of George Austin it is harder to extract anything worth running from the CofE”!

An inquiry on Monday to the Press Office in Church House as to whether the CofE had anything to say on the PM’s call elicited the advice “No. There’s nothing concrete to comment on”.

The absence of any specific proposals never seemed to prevent public pronouncements by various clerics before.

In fact the Press Office for the Church England has not had a great deal to say about anything of late. Access to the official “News” website of the CofE on Friday 18th September reveals that the last media statement was posted on 28th August!

It is true that the Archbishop of Canterbury had returned early from his holiday in Italy to be admitted over the weekend to St Luke’s Hospital for treatment to an infected wasp sting and he did manage to make some cautious comments over the BBC by Tuesday.

Cautious is being kind. Which is something the religious reporter for the Daily Mail Andrew Brown, certainly was not in his assessment of Dr Carey’s interview with John Humphrys. In a scathing attack headed Is he the worst Archbishop we’ve ever had? Brown singled out the TODAY interview for particular condemnation. “The poor Archbishop was simply unable to give a straight answer to a simple question”.

One cannot help but wonder whether or not the CoE Inc spin doctors counselled against any forays into the minefield of morality. In the wake of the Lambeth Conference and the sustained crusade by Bishop Holloway there may be a view abroad in the cloisters of power that discussion on “a new national moral purpose” would only serve to highlight deep divisions within the Church.

The media treatment of Dr Carey’s cautious interview on Radio 4 and elsewhere serves to highlight this fear. The Times headline on coverage of the Archbishop’s comments read “Teenage after-sex pill backed by Carey”.

The Very Revd George Nairn-Briggs, Provost of Wakefield, and a member of the Board of Social Responsibility, told Church Times that “I do get a little exasperated when the only moral questions raised are those about sex”.

Of course, the Prime Minister’s original remarks were in the wake of the revelations about a 12 year old girl who had become pregnant by a 14 year old boy and the media does often equate morals with issues of sex. Nevertheless the official Church response does suggest an ambivalence if not incapacity to deal with principles and issues that go to the heart of value, dignity and purpose in God’s creation.

There is nothing new about media preoccupations and prejudice. Communication of the Good News and the need for repentance and reconciliation, both communal and individual, is an obligation for Christ’s Church not an optional extra.

In fact back in July one arm of the Church of England, the Board of Education, weighed into the public arena with some pointed criticism of the Government and the need for enhanced attention to a new moral purpose. On 2 July the Board of Education joined with the Bishops’ Conference Department for Catholic Education and Formation in a very public call for the Government to ensure changes to the National Curriculum.

The joint statement expressed the two Churches’ deep disappointment and concern “over the failure to place appropriate emphasis on spiritual and moral development in the consultation documents for the National Curriculum”. Now here was something concrete. The Church’s position was on the record (surely the Press Office is aware of just what it issued a couple of months ago?). The Government took heed of the criticism then and this could have been used by Dr Carey or any other church spokesman to highlight how the church has a contribution to make to any debate on a new moral purpose.

Unfortunately, the problem goes much further than poor communication and briefing practices. The proclamation and explanation of Church moral teaching across the whole range of human endeavour presupposes that a recognisable common moral theology is held by the Church. Lambeth ’98 and its fallout does not augur well for that assumption.

As Andrew Brown observed in his article “Here is a man whose entire adult life has been spent preaching, but his message to the TODAY programme is that he has nothing to say because no one would take any notice if he said it.”

So even if the Church knows what it wants to say in any public debate on a new moral purpose there remains the question as to whether it really demonstrates the communication skills to articulate that teaching in an efficient and useful manner for the media and the wider society.

Martin Hislop’s doctoral thesis addresses issues of “Politics and the Pulpit”. He will be contributing a regular column on the Church’s involvement in politics and social issues.