Entering the Fray

EARLIER THIS YEAR in ‘The Times’ Clifford Longley questioned the emphasis of certain public pronouncements on penal reform by the Bishop of Lincoln. Longley saw the Bishop to the Prisons as being unduly influenced by sociological constructions rather than Christian understandings of sin and redemption.

Shortly afterwards Dr Eamon Duffy castigated the contemporary Roman Catholic community in this country for a lack of vigorous intellectual thinking when entering into issues of public policy.

Then the Social Affairs Secretary of the General Synod’s Board of Social Responsibility ignored the Prime Minister’s proclamation that the North-South Divide no longer existed and proceeded to speak on behalf of the Church of England in condemning the Government’s failure to eradicate poverty.

All this caused me to recall John Richardson’s critique in the December issue of New Directions of the Marriage teaching document. This document from the hierarchy was described as characteristic of so much official material from the CofE. – fuzzy in reasoning and lacking in biblical insight.

It is now over twenty two years since Edward Norman’s BBC Reith Lectures questioned the propriety of the Churches’ engagement in contemporary social issues, and yet, as Brian Mahwinney’s recent writings demonstrate there remains in the minds of many churchgoers an unease at the public engagement of church representatives in this domain.

For the Church of England an immediate question to ask – and one which any politician is entitled to ask in respect of a political decision by Synod or church agency – is whether the decision, as an act of a representative body, commits the whole Church, and in what sense it relates to the views and actions of other members of the Church, so far as these can be obtained.

The short answer must be that no one is committed by the decision except, in a limited sense, staff of the Synod and its agencies, and those members who, having supported it, consider themselves morally bound. Nevertheless, the media will report any such pronouncements and those in the pews will naturally react to such coverage.

Indeed there is a growing practice whereby the management elites within Anglicanism (be it at Lambeth Palace, Church House or the ACC) quite deliberately encourage media speculation on reports in progress as a means of manipulating the consultation and decisoion-making processes within the Church.

So where do Traditionalists picture in all this? Many of us are highly critical of the public pronouncements that issue forth from the modernist hierarchy. (Although I personally would prefer to see a bishop engaging in public discourse rather than seizing every questionable ‘photo opportunity’).

Allowing for the reality that much of any person’s objections to politics in the pulpit relates to the particular shade of politics being propounded or denounced, there does remain a valid criticism of the intellectual rigour of much that is issued in the name of the Church. Not to mention the paucity of orthodox theological reflection as the undergirding of any such pronouncement.

In the context of the General Synod recognised Traditionalists such as the Provost of Wakefield serve on the Board of Social Responsibility and the Master of SSC did initiate a most useful Synod debate on Refugees. And yet reflection, analysis and participation by our integrity in the Church’s engagement on matters of social policy are scarce.

Few parish priests have the time or inclination to wade through the mountains of paper that issues forth from diocesan social responsibility offices let alone engage on their own research and reflection on the often complex issues of social concern. And yet there remains a vital relationship between politics and total Christian mission. Action in the political sphere, whether by Church institutions or individual Christians dispersed in the world, is an element in the process by which the whole Church realises what it prays for in the words “Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done, On earth as in heaven”.

Bruce Reed in “The Dynamics of Religion” developed the theme of relationships and the use of power. It is in the life face-to-face relationships through which people realise the injunction “to receive each other as Christ received you”. So it is in the whole natural rhythm of thankfulness, forgiveness and celebration of life that we are affirmed and affirm each other; so, most fundamentally, is the regular recognition, in prayer and worship, of our incapacity and need for renewal in dependence upon God.

Politics is about the use of power by human beings. The unique contribution Christians may have to make in reflection upon and practice in the use of power, is in acknowleding that if people are to exercise this power rightly it must be accompanied by the recognition of, and opportunities for expressing, their inadequacy for it, as well as by the insights, which we receive in Christ, for its responsible use.

Accordingly, I believe our constituency needs significantly to improve its attention to issues of social engagement. Perhaps through Forward in Faith we could establish a forum whereby those with insights and expertise in these areas could act as a filter and resource for the wider constituency? Such a group could not only provide summaries (in a more readily understood format and text) of current SRC documents but also encourage and co-ordinate Traditionalist input into the SRC process.

Finally, I suggest that our consituency and in particular Forward in Faith have a clear duty and responsibility to be part of the engagement process. Almost all questions to do with how people should live in society are ‘moral’ questions. The temptation to look for a specific area of ‘moral issues’ (and all too often in terms of a preoccupation with sex) and to regard these as the special preserve of the Church represents a limiting of the Church’s responsibilities and does a disservice to society and ought to be resisted.

Martin Hislop is parish priest of St Luke’s, Kingston in the diocese of Southwark