18 April 2015

The Church of England’s Bishops are a bunch of lefties

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The manifestos have been published, the debates continue, the polls remain pretty much tied…..and the world has gone mad. Everybody is bashing the ‘tax avoiders’ as if the payment of the minimum amount of tax under the law (anyone made a pension contribution recently?) should be illegal. Depressingly, the Tories are offering ‘a plan for every stage of your life.’  Please, no.

So, I thought I might look for some spiritual guidance for the election. Thought for the Day may continue to be filled with 1960s economics and 1970s sociology (the producers really do need to get out more) but perhaps the Bishops of the established church might have something useful to say. Perhaps something about a vision for freedom, enterprise, morality and family?

I turned to the Church of England’s House of Bishops pastoral letter on the General Election. I have just finished reading it and when I have woken up I will write something about it.

Actually, there isn’t much to say about the content. All 50 pages and 125 paragraphs. It’s not drivel mostly. Rather it is full of platitudes, of the ‘motherhood and apple pie’ variety, a degree of arrogance, some errors and a few yawning gaps. Mostly, however, it is just dull. The letter uses tortuous language and terminology that numbs the brain. I heard that one diocese had held a meeting to discuss it and around 14 people turned up. Gosh, that many.

There is no spiritual guidance, just politics, although, naturally, that is denied. Unsurprisingly, it is the politics of the Left, also denied! The economics is sparse. There is nothing of substance about either enterprise or freedom, about the imperative of wealth creation or the role of business, the encouragement of entrepreneurship or even of personal responsibility and the place of the family.

The responsibility mainly seems to be that of the state, ‘we need a richer justification for the state,’ says paragraph 27. At least this helps explain about Thought for the Day. It isn’t just the trendy-lefty vicars spouting Keynesianism as the gospel, but TFTD is actually a sad reflection of a deep institutional malaise. The Church is dominated by ‘group-think.’ It only appoints leaders who comply with the group-think or at least don’t challenge it. And the group-think is Leftist, statist and inimical to a vision for enterprise with responsibility because the Church’s group-think sees these things as incompatible. Lessons in history as well as economics would help. Actually the Church rather reminds me of the BBC.

I need to confess (a very spiritual thing to do). I didn’t want to read the thing at all. Partially that was because of low expectations but it was also because I have to admit to holding a politically incorrect view about the role of the Bishops in politics.

I am a practising Christian. I have written a biography of the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-1885) the great Tory evangelical social reformer. He understood there was a place for the state, but also its limits. He pioneered voluntary societies from early micro-credit to free schools. I am clear that Christians are called to exercise their faith in politics, public service and so on. Wilberforce and Shaftesbury (both Tories) are, of course, examples par excellence. Both were elected to office repeatedly by constituents.

I am uneasy about the Bishops.

A Bishop is entitled to express any political view they wish. However, that view remains the political opinion of an unelected private individual. It represents no-one but the Bishop – or in Church group-speak, the House of Bishops. Did they really all agree to it? I heard of one dissenter who thought the whole thing should never have been published. But it was, and we are told it speaks for them all. The Bishops have a historic place in the Lords I hear you say. Yes, to offer spiritual insight and guidance to the nation but not as a platform for their institutionally-shaped personal political opinions.

So, to the letter.

The title is Who is my neighbour? That is not a question I have heard anybody ask. Naturally, the more spiritually-minded of you will recall that this was a question asked by Jesus in relating the parable of the Good Samaritan. Here the person in need received assistance from a person of a different origin when there was normally antipathy between the two groups. The letter uses the parable to make an entirely expected, but unjustified, leap to current debates about immigration. Perhaps this is less surprising when the theological paragraphs (10-21) were so utterly meaningless.

Let me illustrate the dullness – briefly, I promise.

Paragraph 2 states that the Bishops ‘support policies which respect the natural environment, enhance human dignity and honour the image of God in our neighbour.’ Meaningless because I have never met a Christian who would disagree with that, or someone of no faith who disagreed with the sentiment. The letter is full of such platitudes and truisms. ‘The low esteem in which politicians are held today has many roots’ (paragraph 22). That one must have taken months of agonising to come up with. The tortuous nature of the letter is further exposed in the sections following paragraph 43. This is what that particular paragraph says:

‘Today, a fundamental question is about the extent of social solidarity in Britain. Are we a “society of strangers” or are we a “community of communities”?

Sorry Bishops. That is not a fundamental question. No-one is asking it. No-one understands what you are going on about. No-one is speaking your language.

Parts of the letter sound a good deal like self-justification, on occasion even desperation. ‘…religion cannot be ignored as political force’ – paragraph 8. At times this falls into arrogance. The letter, say the Bishops, is intended to help us ‘negotiate these dangerous times to build the kind of society which many people say they want but which is not yet being expressed in the vision of any of the parties’ (paragraph 3). Who? How many? Pure arrogance. Or maybe they mean the immorality of burdening future generations with ever increasing national debt? Oh, that didn’t get mentioned. This is reinforced in the laughable paragraph 27. ‘..we need a richer justification for the state, a better account of the purposes of government and a more serious way of talking about taxation.’ Now, I remember. That is why Jesus died. Alternatively we could adopt a vision of a necessary but small state, a government that sees legislation as a last resort rather than at the heart of its purpose and a low tax economy. Perhaps that is what they meant?

The Bishops tell us that they are not presenting a shopping list of policies but a call for a new direction (and which direction might that be then?). This is true, they didn’t present a list. Still, trident (not in favour), overseas aid (in favour), the EU (in favour – shock, horror), immigration (blah blah) and the Living Wage (in favour) all manage to pop up.

On overseas aid the idea of a 0.7% commitment of GDP – for ‘any party to abandon or reduce this commitment would be globally irresponsible.’ So, that is the same sort of ‘dialogue’ as the letter calls for about migration (paragraph 105). Apparently not. More shocking is that the Bishops do not even engage with the role of business and enterprise in economic development and reducing world poverty. There is no mention of micro-credit or social impact investing. Just inter-governmental aid transfers.

The Living Wage is assumed to be a good idea without any discussion of entry-level jobs, consequential increases in unemployment or who decides on the level and how it is to be funded. Even Vince Cable has made clear that he thinks the Living Wage would create unemployment. Nice one Vince.

It’s a pity about the mistakes.

Paragraph 111 states that it ‘is good that unemployment has not risen as high as was predicted.’ Presumably they are talking about the UK? Yes, the UK, where unemployment has fallen from 8.0% in May 2010 to 5.7% in December 2014. Oh, it appears to have gone down. Do I hear an apology? Or is the new politics only for others.

Income inequality is a complex matter and generates a good deal of heat because it feeds into the debate about ‘absolute’ versus ‘relative’ poverty and equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome. In paragraph 75 the Bishops state, without qualification, that in Britain, ‘material inequality continues to widen.’  That’s unfortunate Bishops. The Gini Co-efficient is the widely accepted measure of income inequality. The higher the figure between 0 and 1 the greater the inequalities in incomes. In the UK it reached its height in 2001/02 at 0.362. Another unfortunate fact is that Labour were in power. In 2010/11 the figure was 0.337 and in 2012/13, 0.332. So, although there may be many things to debate, material inequality has been narrowing not widening in the UK.

What about the omissions?

There is nothing about:

  • The role of business in generating wealth, employment and community
  • The central place of the family as a moral community
  • The relationship of political and economic freedom
  • The benefits and incentives of low taxation
  • The limits of the state
  • Personal responsibility

And (forgive me starting a sentence with a conjunction), nothing about the immorality of passing large-scale national debt onto future generations. Nothing about discipline and sacrifice today so that there is indeed a better society tomorrow.

Paragraph 117 talks about intergenerational justice, particularly in respect of the environment. I agree. But how is it possible with any integrity whatsoever to publish that paragraph without any reference to the intergenerational burden of borrowing and debt?

When I began drafting these observations I meant to write, ‘here are three good things to celebrate about the Bishops’ letter.’ My apologies, I cannot find three things. Or two. We will have to make do with one.

There is some potentially fruitful thinking about localism. This is true both in the case of political reform and the role of the voluntary sector. The buzz word is ‘subsidiarity.’ The Bishops make the interesting and helpful point in paragraph 54 that there is no reason to enforce ‘a single standard, determined and enforced nationally…[as]…the only way to order every aspect of public life.’ They add, ‘there is no reason why, in many aspects of social policy, local diversity should not flourish.’ Hear, hear.

I look forward to the Bishops supporting local pay determination for the health and education sectors, for local planning decisions and so on.

So where does this leave us?

Well, it leaves us with a report that:

  • Contains a significant number of clear omissions that leave the report unbalanced
  • Makes underlying assumptions that many would contest
  • Includes more party political positions than they own up to
  • Uses a methodology which assumes the central importance of the church

Spiritual guidance for the election? Certainly not. Political guidance for the election? Not anything of substance. Economic guidance for the electorate? Only if you believe ‘Keynes has risen’ rather than ‘Christ has risen.’

The Bishops bemoan a lack of vision in the political process. They may well be right. Unfortunately, they contribute further to that lack of vision with a letter, or report, that is close to being incomprehensible in places; or rather, it either states the obvious or is so obscure as to be irrelevant by asking questions no-one else is asking and in which no-one is interested. Where the report is clear, it’s the same old left-wing stuff that comes out. Just like Thought for the Day.

The report is not independent and unbiased. It is, rather, fundamentally shaped by the corporatist, statist and Leftist mentality which pervades the leadership of the Churches. No wonder they can’t fill the pews. Perhaps they should return to their spiritual imperatives.

Revd Dr Richard Turnbull is the Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics and a member of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Oxford.