16 January 2015

Ten Commandments of Political Anglicanism


There are two coalitions in Britain today. The one in power in Whitehall between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. We all know about that one. Much less discussed is the more informal but still powerful coalition between Conservative ministers and the Labour leaders of northern England’s great cities. More devolution of power to these cities has taken place in this parliament than during the Labour years. The bias to London in infrastructure spending is being addressed as George Osborne sets out major plans to build new road and rail links across the North. It is proposed that the proceeds of fracking will stay in the northern economy to accelerate its development. There’s a lot more to be done, of course, but a lot is underway.

One person who has observed this second coalition in action is Ed Miliband. He has been furious at his party colleagues’ co-operation with cities minister Greg Clark, in particular, but Labour’s municipal leaders have ignored his encouragements to break ties with the Tories. It is against this background that the latest political intervention by Anglican Archbishops should be judged. As Lord Heseltine told BBC Radio 4 yesterday they seemed “out of touch” and simply unaware of what was being done to rebalance the UK economy after years of growth that had been built unsustainably on debt and unaffordable public sector employment growth.

Unemployment is falling across the north, infrastructure is being renewed and new cross-party alliances are being formed. None of this was adequately acknowledged in the latest deeply questionable intervention from the Church of England. Instead we got the same tired talk of inequality and public spending cuts. Too much of the Anglican hierarchy (although not its congregations who are more streetwise) seems enslaved to a statist, materialist, leftist and, sadly, secular way of thinking. Here are ten commandments that seem to dominate the Church’s political thinking – and why each is fundamentally flawed.

 1. Forgive Those Who Leave Us In Debt

The global recession hit every major economy but Britain endured a longer, deeper recession and a bigger structural deficit. The Church of England should have been much more angry, much earlier at the growth of indebtedness in this country (both government and household debt). When the last Labour government was spending like a drunken sailor the Church was not issuing loud warnings. It should have been.  The Bible is clear about the immorality of leaving debts for children and grandchildren to repay. Because the British state is living beyond its means we’re already paying £1 billion in interest payments every week. That sum will grow in the years to come because of the coalition’s failure to eliminate the deficit in this parliament – as was promised. Servicing costs will be up at £70 billion within two or three years – more than the nation spends on schools, housing or defence.

2. Blessed Is The State That Believes In Santa Claus

Marvin Olasky has argued that societies “build systems of charity in the image of the god they worship, whether distant deist, bumbling bon vivant, or ‘whatever goes’ gopher.” Or, ideally, loving Father. Do we see God as a cosmic Santa Claus who dispenses goodies outside of any ongoing relationship with us or do we see God as more like a loving father who loves us enough to sometimes withhold aid? A Father Christmas welfare state isn’t really interested in building adult citizens. A welfare state that does its best to imitate a loving parent will do all it can to teach us to become adult citizens with a moral code and a set of skills that allow us to stand on our own two feet. A sugardaddy, Santa Claus-style state is not ultimately a good state. A state that ties conditions to the aid it dispenses will produce a more industrious, independent citizenry. The highest form of giving, according to the medieval Jewish scholar Moses Maimoides in his eight step hierarchy of giving involves a form of giving that will result in the beneficiary no longer needing to rely upon others. It may involve a loan, grant, partnership, or a job but the aim is, according to CS Lewis in the ‘Four Loves’, to makes ourselves redundant for the beneficiary in question. Lewis wrote: “the proper aim of giving is to put the recipient in a state where he no longer needs our gift. We feed children in order that they may soon be able to feed themselves; we teach them in order that they may soon not need our teaching.  Thus a heavy task is laid upon this Gift-love. It must work towards its own abdication.  We must aim at making ourselves superfluous. The hour when we can say “They need me no longer” shall be our reward.”

3. Love Your Neighbour With All Of The State’s Heart

Christians commanded to love our neighbour cannot be indifferent to politics and what government does. So much of public policy affects our neighbourhoods and it is important that good people run for public office but the commandment to love our neighbour is a very personal one. We cannot surrender our responsibilities to those in need to the state. At the end of our lives the sheep will be separated from the goats according to whether we, personally, tended the sick, visited the lonely, befriended the prisoner and clothed the homeless. Getting the state to look after the poor is a “stingy compassion”. A stingy compassion is one where we don’t love our neighbours ourselves but pay others to do so. It’s one where we don’t give our children the time that they need to flourish but instead shower them with toys and use TV and game stations as babysitters. It’s where we run schools that give children soft grades rather than the skills that will prepare them for success in life. A feed-and-forget welfare state is one in which we give the unemployed enough money to eat and be housed but not enough care so that they actually become independent people. The Church should be calling us all to a higher form of compassion – expanding society-based care and seeing state-based care as a care of last resort, albeit an often essential carer of last resort. The family, above all others, is the institution that provides most welfare, education, redistribution and moral transmission. In a political environment where both of the two main parties are essentially materialist in focus – the Conservatives in trusting in the market and the Labour Party in the state – the Church could be calling the nation to a more relational view of the good life. The Bible consistently defines poverty in relational terms. Special and constant mention is made of the widow, the orphan, the stranger and immigrant in our midst. Few loves are greater than the love of parents for their children and the championing of that great, enduring love should be the central theme of the public policy ministry of the Church.

4. Deliver Us From Self-Interest

Actually, please don’t. “Self-love, my liege,” wrote William Shakespeare, “is not so vile a sin, as self-neglecting.” Self-interest is often the very opposite of selfish as Adam Smith recognised in the first of his two great books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. When the baker, the brewer and the butcher go to work and provide us all with our dinners they are as much working for their own families as for themselves. In a brilliant piece for yesterday’s Telegraph Ryan Bourne noted how the quest to provide new goods for oneself and one’s family had produced happiness and wealth on a scale that is unparalleled in world history. The desire to invent, innovate and create riches has driven much human progress but is rarely celebrated by the Church of England. Lord Hailsham regretted that: “The great advances which have been made in human happiness have been just as much due to the spinning jenny, the internal combustion engine, and the generation of steam as to the moral sublimity of a Shaftesbury, a Florence Nightingale, an Elizabeth Fry, or a Mother Teresa… a Henry Ford or a George Stephenson are just as much worthy of admiration as the great social reformers, and benefactors of their day.”  Amen.

5. Money Is At The Root Of All Social Evil

In terms of misquoted Bible verses 1 Timothy 6:10 must be at least in the top five. Money itself is not evil – it’s the love of money that Christians are warned about. It’s when people become consumed by storing up treasure for themselves on earth and do so to the exclusion of all other things. “Earn all you can, give all you can, save all you can,” was John Wesley’s great injunction to us.  You can only be a Good Samaritan if you have some means to begin with – as Margaret Thatcher famously argued.

6. Honour The Centralised State Above The Competitive Market

Seeing wealth creation as some kind of second class form of public service is only one public policy sin that the Church can fall into. The other is to constantly preach against market failure but to neglect the seriousness of state failure and the possibility of abuse of state power. Anyone who has ever read the eighth chapter of 1 Samuel should never make that mistake. While the clergy are absolutely right to sermonise against multinationals or private business people who behave badly, greed and sin and all other human frailties are also prevalent in the public sector or in the trade unions. I think of the Mid Staffordshire hospital tragedy or the education sector unions that keep bad teachers in jobs at the expense of the children they teach. Yes, there is greed in the City and in private firms but there is also greed in a public sector workforce that protects its pay, perks and pensions at the expense of private sector taxpayers of equivalent skills who are less well-paid. In the market bad companies lose money and go bankrupt. In the state sector, in contrast, politicians are reluctant to close failing projects – they hide their failure by throwing more money at them. It has been said that “capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity without hell”. State projects don’t go bankrupt – they get more subsidy. In many ways it is therefore more important that the church holds the state sector to account.

 7. Each Perkin Gaineth At another Perkin’s Expense (Politically Correct Standard Revised Social Responsibility Bible)

Like the Greens, too many in the Church don’t like economic growth. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York told The Telegraph that it was a “lie” to assume that economic growth is the answer to Britain’s economic problems. It’s true that growth is not sufficient for a good society – I’ve already noted the importance of relationships for social justice – but it’s a necessary thing. It’s an essential thing if you are to avoid what economists call a “zero sum game” – where one person can only gain at another’s expense. Without growth sections of society start warring with each other – each fighting to enlarge its slice of the cake.  Those interested in a peaceful society will spend as much time thinking about wealth creation as wealth distribution and the factors that lead to wealth (and job) creation. Those factors include a light tax burden, limited government intervention and as few trade barriers as possible.

8. The Greatest Evil Is Inequality

“Evil” was the word used by John Sentamu to describe inequality in Britain. It’s a strong word. Inequality is also the current focus of the global left and given that I’ve already dedicated a previous ten point guide to inequality. I won’t revisit the subject at length again here. I do, however, fear the church is focused on the wrong thing. The public want jobs and higher incomes for the poor – even if that produces more inequality. Poverty is a greater “evil” than inequality.

9. Speak Not So Much Of God But Of Politics

During the 1980s and 1990s the one bishop who tried hardest to understand Thatcherism was Bill Westwood, the Bishop of Peterborough. Interviewed in 1989 he wondered if his fellow clergymen’s interest in criticising government policies reflected something more serious than politicisation. He feared it was a displacement activity. “Some of us,” he said, “find it too demanding to have a gospel for those who are getting on. Many of our young men want to head for the inner cities, where the going may be hard but where they can find people waiting to be looked after. If you go to the suburbs, on the other hand, half the congregation may have been to university, they ask a lot of questions and you’ve got to be on your toes.” With church attendance in decline books like “On Rock or Sand” should ideally be dedicated to the central, pressing challenge for the Church of why people no longer believe in the Good News. In the greatest story ever told. Instead we have endless and not particularly enlightening contributions to public policy debates from the Lords Not-So-Spirtual on the bishops’ benches.  

10. The Biggest Hearts Lean To The Left

Even if Labour governments tend to leave taxes, debts and unemployment higher than when they entered office they’re often given the benefit of the doubt because their heart is avowedly in the right place – even though the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. But, perhaps, the Church should spend more time with this question: Is the best way of beating poverty to build an ever larger welfare state or is there another, superior way? Conservatives believe that a good education, a strong family and a job are better poverty-fighters than government. Evidence would suggest that these are, indeed, the best pathways out of poverty. They’re also the only affordable poverty-fighters in this age of austerity. Most voters agree. Perhaps Ecclesiastes was right after all: “The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left”!

Tim Montgomerie is a leader writer for the The Times and founder of the Centre for Social Justice.