Gavin Ashenden writes about the Church of England Bishops’ Pastoral/Political letter
There are moments in a nation’s political history when there might come a time for a College of bishops to make a stand against some political extremism of either the left or the right, in the name of a humanity that is made in God’s image; a theological intervention as a matter of holy principle.
But that is not the case in England, now. There is an election coming with political power up for grabs, and the bishops have entered the electoral fray. The have however dressed their intervention up in a lofty way, suggesting they are helping along a conversation that they alone can facilitate.
They have based their 52 page letter on the supposition that they have an angle to bring to elections discussions that no one else can provide. But their presentation of neutrality is false. Behind a cosmetic front, crafted with care in the first few pages, their real political prejudices seep out.
In their haste to attack the present Government, they present figures that are false.
Seemingly unable to bear to tell the truth about the real fall in the numbers of the unemployed under this Government, they disguise the fact; they appear ot to want want to believe that in-work poverty has fallen – so they say, contrary to other facts that it has risen.
They choose to attack aspects of globalisation the Left typically decries, and are silent on the advantages the Right celebrates.
They have views on the complexity of nuclear deterrent. They choose to attack the Trident programme which the Left has always done, without any accompanying analysis of wider or compensating defence issues.
They claim the poor are being discarded as the Left always does, and ignore the claims of the Right to have defended the poor from a dysfunctional Welfare system, and to have made substantial improvements.
It was clumsy take such trouble attempting to present the appearance of an even handed and apolitical approach, only to allow the soft socialism which has been endemic amongst Anglican clergy and particularly Anglican bishops, to emerge without restraint as the text develops.
When they were taken to task for this surrender of their spiritual credentials in order to play party politics, two bishops, Norwich and Leicester, writing in the Times newspaper, claimed that the C of E’s daily ministry in partnership with schools, universities, hospitals and mother and toddlers groups gave them a right to make comments. That sounds quite impressive. But it is a piece of self congratulation that sits awkwardly with the real truth, the facts on the ground.
There is scarcely a vestige of Christianity left in the Church of England Schools where Christian identity and the articulation of any element of the Gospel have been abdicated for decades. The universities accept chaplaincies on the condition the chaplains submit to the authority of secular multiculturalism; hospitals mainly put up more or less ungraciously with Christian chaplains – just; and Mother and Toddlers groups tend to be grateful for cheap premises but are seldom presented with the Gospel in any direct way; there is no flood of Mothers and Toddlers seeking baptism and membership of the Electoral roll. This list of agencies with which the Church interacts for their mutual benefit does not provide a platform for dispensing sophisticated political guidance.
There are some good points in the Bishops’ political letter. They should be acknowledged. The emphasis on food banks and credit unions are worthwhile and impressive. But too much of the letter resorts to the waving of a moral finger to offer good advice without any suggestion of how the advice can be implemented.
And when we look at the Church of England’s own record on some of the issues one wonders that they had the nerve to speak out as they did.
For example, the bishops rightly lament tribalism in the political process. The House of Commons is a deeply unattractive bear pit of conflicting tribal loyalties. But this would have been a more convincing rebuke if the General Synod of the Church of England has not been an exact mirror of the House of Commons with its three main warring tribal parties, all seeking to undermine and attack each other in confrontational religious politics. How is it the Bishops feel able to lecture the politicians when their own governing body is equally as dysfunctionally tribal with the Evangelical, Liberal and Catholic groups in systemic struggle with each other? When did they ever take and implement the very advice for themselves they claim to have the right to offer the democratic secular process? Having failed to mend the Church, how is that they feel able to mend the secular state?
They rightly lament the projective dismissal of the alien ‘other’ in society, but they treat it as though it was a lamentable by-product of the psychological process. There is no Christian diagnosis of the presence of evil in the human heart by which accusation and division flourish unchecked. Having dismissed the dynamic of the reality of the devil from their increasingly watered down baptism liturgies, they fail to equip the people of God and they fail to warn the country about the reality of the spiritual conflict which lies behind the divisions and accusations within our society.
It was Lent for goodness sake. At all times, Lent might be the moment to offer help to society to reflect on to the existence and ravages of evil, and the rescue that the Risen Christ offers. But they have abandoned their spiritual charisms for the language and chatter of the TV couch therapists.
They present the ‘European project’ as one to be embraced. Culturally they are right. Europe was formed by Catholic Christian culture. But that is not their point. They make no reference to the fact that the European cultural identity that has emerged in the last few decades has sought to wipe out the Christian narrative from its own self understanding, and by the pursuit of laws of multicultural egalitarianism, tie the hands of Christian witness and presence. They don’t even manage to make a distinction between cultural and trading Europe, and the unelected political Europe with pursuit of the control of currency and accompanying legislative ambition.
One could go through this long letter one paragraph at a time, but the analysis would not be worthwhile.
There is a deeper flaw – a systemic failure that goes to the heart of the project.
The Church was born through the impetus and gifting of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus rejected the political paradigm throughout his ministry, calling people into a Kingdom that could not be seen or measured except through a perception of the Spirit.
Whenever he was asked a political question, he replied with another question- refusing to allow His invitation to the Kingdom of Heaven to be derailed or side-tracked by the provisionality of whatever the politics of the situation were.
He made it clear His kingdom was not of this world. He did not endorse any political position. He gave no hope of eradicating poverty or of making the world a fairer place. He taught the opposite. He said very clearly that the prince of this world is the devil. Nicodemus, wily politician and seasoned religious figure needed to be born again if he was to get the currency and the potency of this Kingdom, and understand the real struggle between good and evil. The Church has always struggled when the metaphysics of the ‘twice born’ are in the limiting hands of the ‘once born’.
The mark of the ‘once-born’ is that they interpret aspects of the teaching of Christ within their old pragmatic, material and political world-view. The twice born see the struggle at a deeper dimension. The twice born have experienced the devil and spiritual conflict; they have tasted hell and heaven and flee one for the other; they have learnt to navigate not by intellect and power, but my trust and prayer. They have begun to exercise the gifts of the Spirit, prioritising salvation and the metaphysics of the Kingdom, over the pragmatic and political.
As one reviews the sweep of human history we see this tension between the political and practical on one hand and the spiritual and supernatural on the other. Even St Francis had to learn it. “Build my Church” the Lord said to him, and he went after the bricks; he didn’t realise that bricks were symptom of the Church not the Church itself, because he was making a transition from the world of sense to the world of Spirit.
Whenever the Church is led by the ‘once-born’, it slips inexorably into the political, since they have little access to the metaphysics of the Kingdom. Indeed that is one of the ways one discerns the health of the Church. The ‘once-born’ start paying lip service to prayer and take up politics.
Throughout history, spiritual renewal has sidestepped the categories of the material and political and turned its back on power and pragmatic influence, longing instead for spiritual potency and transformation.
But the bishops of the Church of England have exposed themselves in this letter.
They have chosen to talk the language of politics instead of the language of repentance and the Kingdom.
In a document like this one looks for a declaration of the presuppositions and categories of value that inform it. It slips in a little Christian vocabulary, but near the end self discloses its real credentials.
“This letter is about building a vision of a better kind of world, a better
society and better politics. Underlying those ideas is the concept
of virtue – what it means to be a good person, a good politician, a
good neighbour or a good community.”
‘Virtue’ is the language of Aristotle not Jesus. The ‘better world’ is not found in the Gospels. It’s a political idea. The Christian is on a pilgrimage to the New Jerusalem. The bishops wants to rebuild and improve the old one. They might be helped by reading either a little Bunyan or some of St Augustine on the City of God. You can’t help wondering if these bishops have ever read or understood either? Earlier the pastoral letter talks about the hope that people will be happy and reach their full potential. This is Carl Gustav Jung, not Jesus Christ. Jesus calls to repentance. The bishops don’t mention it – not even thought they are releasing the letter in Lent!
I suspect they are deeply afraid. They are responsible for a dying organisation upon whom they have imposed the secular stranglehold of the new heresy of equality. Stripped of spiritual potency by their accommodation with secular paradigms, they are making a last desperate grab for secular significance, since they seem to have lost confidence in their spiritual heritage.
The twin temptation of ‘status’ and ‘Erastian identity’ may have overcome them. The Church of England has always struggled painfully with both. But whenever spiritual renewal came, notably through Wesley or Newman, it came by turning its back on the State and a political accommodation with it.
The pastoral letter draws on the world of what Paul called ‘sarx’, the ‘flesh’- but in the sense of the ‘here and now’, the material, the political rather than the world of the Spirit. Socialism borrows some of the ethics of the Gospel, but without any understanding that the ethics belong to a higher and spiritual narrative. As secular ethics they can never be maintained except by the imposition of power and force, which is of course the recourse of Marxism. For some time now, as the Church of England’s leaders have lost their spiritual footing and discernment, they have slipped into the easy but vacant socialism that is the superficial alternative to the Gospel.
The lure of the coming election with the empty and deceptive temptation that they could enter the political process and gain political status, proved too much for them. Not that there was much status to be had. In the Guardian, a socialist newspaper a few days later a commentator wrote sympathetically “Other than being vaguely in favour of Christianity, they haven’t really got an axe to grind. They probably just wanted to be nice.”
Even the ‘Times’ newspaper smelt the incongruity between their spiritual responsibilities and their socialist yearnings.
It is astonishing that in the self referential world they have come to inhabit they have failed to realise that if they tie the Church of England to one political party, they will fail to have the capacity to act as bishops for Christians who choose not to identify with those politics. You cannot be a bishop and a politician. By choosing to enter the world of party politics, however much they sought to disguise it in their preamble, they sacrifice the right to be recognised as bishops by those who need bishops.
This of course plays into a wider agenda which they appear not to have noticed.
With their consecration of women, they have recently broken the language of Christian gender. True to their soft Marxist cultural roots, they have imposed womanhood in the place of the ‘father in God’ in Holy Orders. They are about to further break the Christian narrative of gender by affirming the right of the State to redefine marriage as capable of embracing homosexual attraction.
Convinced that they are on the right side of progressive history when in fact they are on the wrong side of salvation history, they are forfeiting the right to be bishops of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
They should not be surprised if, having given up shepherding the flock of Christ, and adopted a secular value system by which they hope to win themselves kudos from people who already despise Christianity, an alternative Anglicanism emerges.
It is likely to be in the same way that in the USA, a Church that had abandoned the Gospels for a secular culture, was replaced by an Anglicanism rooted in Scripture and Tradition.
There may emerge new bishops, Anglican and Apostolically authentic, but not C of E, ready to give the sacramental assurance and spiritual sustenance for the biblically faithful Christians that the Church of England has turned its back on. The sheep will lift up their heads to be fed, and will choose between a diet of political narrative, or the Word and Presence of the living Christ.