They CoE has put out a letter to its flock this week, urging congregations to vote in the general election. A lot of it, as Conor Burns put very well, is naïve. But that’s not the worst of it. It tries to tread a careful non-partisan line for a bit, saying that what is needed from May 2015 is “a new approach to political life that will change the political weather as decisively as did the administrations of 1945 and 1979.” So Atlee or Thatcher, either one will do. Then we get this:
“The ideals that the Big Society stood for should not be consigned to the political dustbin.”
Democracy is “failing” they decree. There’s also a bit about Russell Brand and bishops not being sexy that I’ll spare you from. However, just in case the Big Society endorsement made you think the CoE was collectively voting Tory, think again. The rest of the letter reads like a full blown attack on the Coalition.
‘We have seen the burgeoning of in-work poverty – people who despite working hard, cannot earn enough to live decently. That is why the CoE has backed the concept of the Living Wage.’
‘It has been widely observed that the greatest burdens of austerity have not been borne by those with the broadest shoulders.’
The letter also offers thoughts on electoral reform:
‘Our electoral system often means that the outcomes turn on a very small group of people within the overall electorate. The result is that any capacious political vision is stifled.’
Whenever it wades into the political debate, the Anglican Church struggles to not end up sounding partisan, one way or another, and usually ends up annoying both ends of the political spectrum. So yesterday you had the right-wing press saying the CoE was trying to get Ed Miliband elected and the left-wing press….well, actually they weren’t bitching all that much, come to think of it. Perhaps the CoE really is trying to get Ed Miliband into Number 10.
But seriously, did they really need to send out a 52-page letter (did I mention it’s 52-pages long?) outlining a bunch of mushy politics? If the goal is to get people to vote, could they not have thought of a better way of going about it? I understand that the Church of England is searching for ways to make itself relevant in the 21st century. But 52-page letters about our failing democracy is not the way to do it.
Given we have an established church in this country, in other words, an officially sanctioned blur between the church and the state, the CoE wading into any political debate is decidedly dodgy. And yet they do it all the time; this is just the latest in a string of political treatises issued by them. I propose a deal: we either become a secular state, with official separation of church and state (the bishops losing their seats in the House of Lords, for instance) and the Church of England can say whatever it likes; or we continue with the current arrangement on the proviso that the church stays well clear of politics. I’d prefer the former, but I’d settle for the latter.
If big businesses can voice their political views I don’t see why the church shouldn’t have the right to do the same. I don’t think David Cameron should be overly concerned about the CoE’s letter given that in the grand scheme of things: a) few people will read it and even less will read it in its entirety; b) it could be argued that big businesses, even celebrities like Russell Brand, are now more influential than the church; and finally, c) most people would expect the letter to sound left-wing and anodyne which is partly what compounds point a).