George Austin finds that at least some things have changed for the better, and that the stride and political judgements to be found among church activists of three decades ago have mercifully modified in the intervening years

It was Edmund Burke, writing in 1790, who observed that ‘politics and pulpit have little agreement. No sound ought to be heard in the church but the healing voice of Christian charity.’ But a Christian faith is surely worth nothing if it is not applied to all aspects of secular society, and less than nothing if it allows political principle to take precedence.

In the 1970s, international indignation was rightly growing at the racism practised by white governments in South Africa and in what was then Southern Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe), and there was clear agreement that apartheid was not only a grave sin against humanity, but also a policy that was totally contrary to Christian teaching.

Leaders, both political and Christian, opposed it, South Africa left the Commonwealth, some economic sanctions were imposed, and the South African cricket team was barred from international competitions, in notable contrast to the refusal to ban Zimbabwe today.

But the World Council of Churches had gone further by giving financial aid to guerrilla fighters in these and other countries. The difficulty for many Christians was not merely that those movements to whom grants were made in southern Africa were specifically Marxist in their ideology – amongst them SWAPO in South West Africa, the ANC in South Africa and the Zimbabwe Patriotic Front (led by Robert Mugabe) in Southern Rhodesia.

Political favouritism

Other similar groups not sharing that political outlook, such as that led by Bishop Muzorewo and Mr Sithole in Southern Rhodesia, were always refused aid from the WCC Special Fund and the whole of the $86,000 allocated for Rhodesia went to the Patriotic Front.

In 1978, the South West Africa People’s Organisation received $125,000, 30% of the total allocation. Yet SWAPO was an organisation that practised terrorism, detained without trial moderate members who opposed it, and intended to set up a one-party state. As late as 1991 one Church of England delegate to the WCC Assembly in Canberra was taken aside beforehand and warned not to raise the matter of SWAPO moderates who had been transported to internment camps in Tanzania.

In the very first Question Time at the inaugural group of sessions of the new General Synod in November 1970, a question was put to the chairman of the Missionary and Ecumenical Council about the special fund created by the WCC for their Programme to Combat Racism. Even though it was designated ‘for humanitarian purposes’, it was clear that even if it were not used to buy arms, it did release other money for this end.

Money for guns

There was continuing outrage among many Christians as terrorists (always sanitized as ‘freedom fighters’) planted bombs that killed innocent people, black and white. Moreover it was at a time when the IRA in Northern Ireland were conducting similar outrages, unequivocally condemned by British churches.

In an exact parallel, imagine the revulsion today if Al Qaeda terrorists (or ‘bombers’ as we are told the BBC insisted they be described) causing explosions on London tube trains were being given financial aid (‘for humanitarian purposes’) by an international church organisation, and were supported in this by the General Synod.

And it was not only on Africa that controversy raged. The Race Today Collective based in London, received $30,000 in 1976, and Bishop Oliver Tompkins wrote to the WCC to point out that its publication Race Today was ‘clearly a Marxist paper’ and to support it financially was unwise ‘if you want to pay heed to responsible people engaged in race relations in Britain.’

Even the secretary of the British Council of Churches wondered ‘how long the journal will be able to publish, without being called to answer for stirring up racial tension,’ while encouraging the grant because ‘freedom of speech is a cherished tradition in our way of life.’

The good old WCC

At a meeting of the WCC Central Committee in Geneva in 1976, Canon John Arnold, a Church of England delegate and later Dean of Durham, did attempt to limit the criteria for the grants by adding after ‘humanitarian purposes’ the words ‘and not for military purposes.’ It was no surprise that this was fiercely resisted or that Arnold was ‘persuaded’ to withdraw his amendment.

In a Synod debate in November 1978, Canon Paul Oestreicher rose to the defence of two of the organisations’ leaders: ‘Mr Nkomo is a Methodist lay preacher; Mr Mugabe is a practising Roman Catholic…they are our brethren.’ Yet when our ‘brother’ Mugabe came to power in Zimbabwe he immediately gained a reputation for atrocities, especially through the activities on his notorious Fifth Brigade in areas unsympathetic to the new regime.

These cruelties have continued unabated, and one must wonder how far the uncritical support given by leading Christian bodies in those days has helped to produce the Mugabe we know today.

Slow change

Nevertheless the churches have changed. The British Council of Churches has disappeared without trace, while the WCC has atrophied into a pale shadow of the powerful body it used to be, its words unreported and its views irrelevant. Moreover there has been a sea change in the General Synod. Twenty-five years ago, the WCC mind-set was – if perhaps to a lesser degree – apparent in attitudes reflected in synodical statements, debates and, most of all, in staff appointments to relevant committees.

In contrast the debate in the July 2002 group of sessions, Israel/Palestine: an unholy war, was expert, thorough and evenly balanced, naming evil by whomsoever it was perpetrated. In the 1980s it would have been a simple denunciation of Israel and absolute silence on the cruelty of the suicide bombers. And in the July 2005 debate against any legalisation of euthanasia, there would have been more than the single vote supporting government plans and maybe even a paper from the Board for Social Responsibility welcoming the government’s ’liberal’ attitudes.

It is a relief to know that some things do improve in the Church of England. Can there actually be light at the end of the tunnel?