The Body Politic
It’s been an interesting few weeks
. Having recently been interviewed by the media concerning the funeral of Baroness Thatcher, it has been instructive to gauge the reaction to my remarks. Some, of course, branded me the devil incarnate and suggested that I was being hateful and then, intriguingly, wrote to me or e-mailed me in a highly vitriolic and bile-filled way. Much of this correspondence was anonymous, and so one doesn’t really take much notice. Others called for my immediate resignation, or suggested that the Queen might be upset by what I said, or sought to remind me, as if I didn’t know, what the real political situation was in the 1980s. But, of course, this was a period I lived through as a priest on the streets of Manchester, Salford and Sheffield: areas deeply affected by the divisions of that period and which still bear the brunt of poverty, marginalisation and deprivation. It has to be said that I received far more support, both written and verbal, for the points I made, than opposition, and it is significant that the support centred around a concern for those areas which still experience both the fallout and the results of policies pursued 30 years ago. The problem is that we tend to live in sealed bubbles in this country, and it is hard for comfortable middle-England to understand, let alone experience, what the people of the deprived areas of our land undergo. Here we still have a serious social divide, and it is a divide which is as much a spiritual one as it is about material well-being: it’s simply too easy not to care and to dismiss the problems of the poor as self-inflicted. Much of this attitude benights the current debate about benefits. However, it was the underlying sentiments of those who took offence at what I said that most intrigued me for there was a hidden belief that I had no right to say what I said and should have stayed quiet. It seemed odd that those who seemed to be suggesting that I was somehow being unpatriotic and un-British in what I said should be so un-British in wanting to deny me a basic right of our democracy-the freedom of speech.
Much of this latent sense was encapsulated by suggestions that the Church had no part in politics. So, a recent correspondent to the Grantham Journal wrote this… Dr Ellis and his ilk only weaken the belief in Christianity by speaking out about things they know very little about. We must remember he is a theologian not a politician. To balance this, a letter in The Independent on 13 May said this…I would be happy if they (the bishops) became genuinely political and truly vociferous over issues such as war, poverty, injustice and child abuse. As it is, when challenged to speak out on such things all to often the excuse is “we must not be too political”.
Your’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t!
One would have hoped that this hoary old chestnut would have been well and truly put to bed by now, but perhaps there is still a need to assert that it is an absolute imperative that bishops and the Church-nay all people of faith and conviction-speak out about the economics, social trends, policies and manifestos which affect our well-being at the most fundamental level. For politics is the science of the people, and we are all people. For the Churchman there is strong support and precedent for this. Jesus, to my knowledge, only ever read directly from the Jewish Bible once, and he chose this passage:The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free. It strikes me as being a highly political statement. Further, the very death of Jesus seems to have been precipitated by him coming into conflict with those who held political power in his day and who saw him as a political threat. Move on a few centuries, and we have the Roman Emperor Constantine declaring Christianity the State religion, putting it at the very heart of the Empire’s political life to such an extent that that the seats of temporal power, the basilicas, became Christian churches. On through history, and we must ask ourselves the question as to whether slavery would have been abolished if churchmen like Wilberforce had not stood out against the vested political interest of the day or whether equality for black people in America would ever have been achieved if it hadn’t been for the sacrifice of churchmen like Martin Luther King? And what about those bishops in the House of Lords, the very heartland of British political life: are they only to spout platitudes or are they to set their theological understandings about life and truth to critique the morality and ethics of political policies? And, isn’t it true that the government of the 1980s initiated its ethos by quoting the Christian Saint Francis: Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”
No, it is vital that people of faith join in the condemnation of the injustices, division, hatred and social fracture that political policies often cause and it is particularly important that the bishops do this, to do less would be a deep betrayal of faith. So, the question remains: ‘do you want us to speak out about the oppressive regime in Zimbabwe, the effects of racist politicians on our own streets or the erosion of the NHS, or would you rather we stayed silent and read our Bibles quietly and inoffensively to ourselves?’