George Austin looks at the relationship between politics and the Church of England in the light of some bishops’ recent criticisms of the Labour government’s economic policy

It is perhaps only fair that I should begin this article with a terrible confession, one which will perhaps shock or even appal some readers. The awful truth is that I have supported Labour for fifty years and for most of that time even as a paid-up member. There, I’ve said it: ‘I am a member of the Labour Party’ And I say that not as an alcoholic admits to his addiction, for I have no wish to change. To be entirely accurate I have to admit that, during part of the 1980s and the ascendancy of the Loony Left, I joined the Social Democrats but inevitably left when they were annexed by the Liberals. That is not to say I have not admired some Tories – even Margaret Thatcher, Norman Tebbit and Michael Howard – though I could never have voted for them. But they did have leadership qualities and their policies were not akin to those of their current successors: ‘If Brown does it, we will do the opposite’ or ‘If someone steps on a butterfly in Tokyo, it is the fault of Gordon Brown.’ Chaos theory indeed.

Faith and politics

To be political should not invite the criticism that one is ‘bringing religion into politics’ because if one’s Christian faith is worthwhile and not something one escapes to on a Sunday, it has to impinge upon and influence every corner of one’s existence. At the same time it should not create a church which is the ‘Tory Party at prayer’ or the ‘Militant Left at prayer’. Sadly the Church of England deserved both descriptions at various times during the twentieth century.

The attack on the government by five bishops which appeared in the High Tory Sunday Telegraph on 28 December could give the impression that the Church – or at least an episcopal part of it – was once again aspiring to be the Tory Party at prayer. This would, I think, be a mistake.

Although the headline ‘Bishops deliver a damning verdict on Britain under Labour rule’ suggested that this was a deliberate, concerted and political move on their part, the report admitted that the bishops had been interviewed independently. It was maybe a little naive of them not to realize that more would be made of it than they had imagined, especially when the Telegraph report went on to suggest that ‘the bishops’ common criticisms reflect the deepening rift between the Government and the Church on social and moral issues.’ On some issues, yes; on others, no – and so it should be.

These are anyway precisely the areas where the Church is obliged to raise concerns as part of its Christian vocation, and one would hope for the same whatever party was in power. But the comments by the five bishops were far more political than this.

Strong criticism

The Bishop of Manchester accused the government of acting ‘scandalously’ and of being ‘morally corrupt’ by encouraging people to get further into debt by adopting a lifestyle ‘of believing they can always get what they want’. The Bishop of Hulme accused the government of not ‘telling people who are already deep in debt to stop over-extending themselves, but instead…urging us to spend more’, which he said is both ‘morally suspect and morally feeble!

But what of people encouraged to take out mortgages of 90% or more, who now inevitably find themselves with negative equity? It did not take a mathematical genius to recognize that the housing market had boomed so far that it must eventually bust, as it has done now with the world-wide financial crisis.

If any government tried to prevent this it would have brought condemnation upon itself, with accusations of ‘nanny state’ interference. Where were the bishops then? Was there ever any criticism about these quite ‘immoral’ and scandalous’ offers? How many people are now in danger of losing their homes by repossession because of them?

The plethora of television adverts beguiling people to take out loans seems now thankfully to have ceased. ‘Don’t worry if you have had debt problems in the past, county court orders against you or whatever – we will loan you what you ask for!’ ‘Let us consolidate all your debts into one so that you pay less interest -and in fact you may have enough over to enjoy that expensive holiday you have always wanted.’

Perhaps the most naive, and politically suspect, comment came from the Bishop of Durham who claimed that Labour had made many promises ‘but most of them have vanished into thin air’, claiming that ‘when a bank or big car company goes bankrupt, it gets bailed out, but no one seems to be bailing out the ordinary people who are losing their jobs and seeing their savings diminished.’ In reality savings would after all be diminished a good deal more if the banks were not helped out of their difficulties and many more jobs lost if a car company collapsed.

Shared responsibility

A more balanced but still slightly unfair criticism came from the Bishop of Winchester, who claimed that ‘the Government hasn’t done anything like enough to help those less well off, particularly in terms of tax redistribution. There also has been the disaster of the lOp tax. It is imperative that this Government help the poorer people and hold the hard-hit communities in its sights, but it seems to have its eye on re-election instead.’

Astonishingly the Telegraph report produced a fierce and damning response on the BBC’s Today programme from the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, who suggested that the bishops were playing a ‘blame game.’ Instead of blaming the government for materialism and social problems, the cardinal said that responsibility should be shared more widely.

‘Ordinary people and churchmen also bear some of the blame,’ he said. ‘If we are going to accuse people of immorality it is much further than the Government, it is the whole country. Obviously, governments have a particular responsibility but so have the people, so have the cities, so have the communities.’ When asked whether he agreed with Bishop McCulloch that the Labour government had been ‘beguiled by money’, the cardinal responded, T do not think that is the whole truth at all’
Of course it is not – but David Cameron must be rubbing his hands with glee