Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Bishops should address their own failings first

I have never held the view, as some do, that the Church and/or Bishops shouldn't comment on matters political. Faith leaders have a role and a duty to voice their concerns, and society is wise enough to filter those views through a prism of theological liberalism, just as our Reform Jews filtered the traditional views of Jonathan Sachs. 

My concerns over yesterday's headlines is not based on a view that the Bishops shouldn't have a voice. It's about the material inaccuracies of the comments and how they willingly based their assumptions on a flawed premise. 

According to Pastoral letter "the Church of England finds its voice through being a presence in every community" and "recognises the inherent danger in the current situation where people are disengaging from politics, arguing that restoring faith in both politicians and the political process requires a new politics that engages at both a deeper more local level within a wider, broader vision for the country as a whole."   It is this basis of "disengagement" which is the driving argument behind the Bishops' wider assumptions and deserves greater scrutiny. 

I fail to see how a church, whose own internal figures show regular worshippers have now fallen to around 1% of the UK population, can lecture any group about their failings to "engage more deeply". And they should remember that political parties actively engage 4% of the population and annual involvement of 35% - 68% at election time. All of us who believe in politics as a vehicle for good must be dismayed at how our trade is viewed by many, but I suspect I would to put my own house in order before taking the moral high ground and lecturing others. 

Now is the section I really object to, "Unless we exercise the democratic rights that our ancestors struggled for, we will share responsibility for the failures of the political classes..."

I think we should pause at this point and remember that almost all of the great social reforms of the last 100 years came from politics, not faith. In fact, the Church of England was one of the major roadblocks to social reform and liberation.  Universal suffrage was opposed by the Church of England. The foundation of Trades Unions was opposed by the Church of England. The right of access to family planning was opposed by the Church of England.  The right to divorce a violent husband was opposed by the Church of England. An equal age of consent was opposed by the Church of England. And of course the Church opposed Civil Partnerships and Same Same Marriage. 

And even today, twenty one years after the ordination of women to the priesthood, the Church still sanctions sexism and homophobia, albeit grotesquely wrapped in an ugly cope of "tradition". The Church still has Provincial Episcopal Visitors "flying bishops" to provide pastoral support and oversight to parishes which refuse to recognise the ordination of women. Opponents of women priests will argue that this is not based on sexism or bigotry but a traditional interpretation of scripture. I am sorry, but can you image the outrage if any other national organisation employed peripatetic managers who toured the UK supporting branches who refused to employ black people on the grounds they are not traditionally British? They would be scorned and prosecuted - and rightfully so. But we turn a blind-eye to such discrimination where the Church is concerned. It is one thing that individual members of the Church of England still hold such unreconstructed views but quite another that the Church panders to such prejudices - not dissimilar to UKIP criticising racism whilst continuing to use dog whistle messages to keep them inside their tent.

So yes - Bishops are entitled to speak out politically - but they should take care  when they do so and should perhaps have the honesty to address their own failings too.

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