With great interest and a good deal of surprise I have read Who is my neighbour? A letter from the House of Bishops to the people and parishes of the Church of England for the General Election 2015. I was surprised, for I had received the impression that this was a one-sided document, unfairly slanted toward the Labour Party. Nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout the document it is constantly made clear that no party is more ‘Christian’ than another.
Rather the concern is for a ‘new direction’ for all parties. So toward the end of the letter the Anglican bishops state:
It will already be clear that we do not see the way forward as a choice between ‘right’ and ‘left’. Nor are we trying to split the difference, imagining that the truth lies equidistant between extremes. We are emphasising an approach to politics which can trace its roots on both left and right and which could be embraced by any of the mainstream parties without being untrue to their own (92).
I wonder whether those members of the Tory press who have been so critical of this letter have taken on board the positive comments made on David Cameron’s idea of The Big Society:
The Church of England strongly supported The Big Society. We saw that the philosophy it represented commanded support from well beyond the Conservative party. The title of the project is not what matters. The time may not have been ripe for the ideas to be translated into practical policies. But the ideals that The Big Society stood for should not be consigned to the political dustbin – they could still be the foundation for the new approach to politics, economics and community which we seek (95).
I find the analysis of the present political malaise helpful:
The different parties have failed to offer attractive visions of the kind of society and culture they wish to see, or distinctive goals they might pursue. Instead, we are subjected to sterile arguments about who might manage the existing system best. There is no idealism in this prospectus (29).
How true that is. Recently I was at a local constituency party dinner, and was deeply saddened that there was no vision for the nation as a whole – self-interest was to the fore. Clearly economics is important, but at the end of the day vision is more important than economics. In the words of the Proverbs 29.18: “Where there is no vision, the people perish”. Sadly, so many politicians are partisan. To quote the bishops again:
The time has surely come to move beyond ‘retail politics’, where parties tailor their policies to the groups whose votes they need… Instead of treating politics as an extension of consumerism, we should focus on the common good, the participation of more people developing a political vision and constructive ways to talk about communities and how they relate to one another (32).
I liked the emphasis on the need for true community:
Our political life would be enhanced if we could acknowledge that a modern nation, where ties of kindred and neighbourliness are often very weak, requires state-sponsored action to underpin the welfare of each citizen – but that this provision must neither supplant local voluntary action and neighbourliness where they exist, nor ignore the way in which dependence on state provision can undermine individual initiative and responsibility. Beveridge understood that if the state is given too much power to shape society it will stifle the very voluntarism that prevents the state from being hopelessly overburdened by human need (38).
This is but the briefest of summaries of a letter from which all Christians (and politicians!) could benefit. It is a political document only in the sense that it encourages Christians to help shape our nation for the good. For, as the document rightly states:
Christians everywhere and throughout the ages have prayed, as part of The Lord’s Prayer, ‘They Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven’. That is why politics and the life of the Christian disciple cannot be separated. That is why the church calls its members to play a full part in the political life of the nation and to support politicians and the government with their prayers (12).