Two months away from the election, I’d like to take a couple of limping steps backward, and try and gain a little long-distance, wide-angle perspective on the House of Bishops’ “pastoral letter… to the people and parishes of the Church of England”; rather than examining certain linked elements of it in exhaustive detail (as I have been doing – and fairly continually – for nearly two weeks, now), and the reactions those passages have provoked.
This slight change of tack (not really a tergiversation, as such) was prompted by reading Who is my neighbour? as a whole – rather than being steered by the bishops’ own “guide to the pastoral letter and its contents” (whose description I had taken at face value). This, in turn, was provoked by an early paragraph in the letter itself:
 We are suggesting the trajectory for a new kind of politics – one which works constructively with a ferment of different ideas and competing visions. Although we have numerous specific concerns about particular issues in national life today – and will no doubt be developing those ideas in other places – here we want to move beyond flagging up lists of issues to dig deeper into questions about the trajectory of our political life and visions of the kind of society we want to be and which political life should serve. If anyone claims that this letter is “really” saying “Vote for this party or that party”, they have misunderstood it.
So had I “misunderstood it”? Well, actually, no: I don’t think I had. (Feel free to disagree, though: it’s what the ‘Post a comment’ box is for.) You may reason that either I, or the bishops, “doth protest too much, methinks” – but, although I would like to try and remain objective, it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it, that I shall be making the case for the defence? For instance (he said, trying to get this stumbling block out of the way), they write in the excerpt above that “we want to move beyond flagging up lists of issues” – and yet that is exactly what their guide (which they really should have renamed – it is entitled “What it Says” within) does. Perhaps they would have been better just issuing their “pastoral letter” as a standalone document, with no surrounding contextual aids (or keeping these private, for their clergy to use) – not even the press release that accompanied its publication – as this, of course, is how most congregational readers will encounter the letter.
[Introduction and paragraph 3] …This letter from the Church of England’s House of Bishops is addressed to all members of the church... we hope that others, who may not profess church allegiance, will nevertheless join in the conversation and engage with the ideas we are sharing here…. [It] is intended to help church members and others consider the question: how can we 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?
I still believe, though (as, obviously do the Conservatives), that, with their overall view, the Church of England (now) leans leftwards; and it is relatively easy to gather enough evidence to make the case that the Bible does, too. (I remember spending an ‘interesting’ evening at university, over thirty years ago, debating whether or not Jesus was a socialist – some students going so far as to argue that he was a communist, or even a Marxist… – so this is not a stunningly original thought.) But in allying the bishops with the Green Party, perhaps I am being subjective (“as a result of my own biases”); and perceiving a correlation that isn’t there? It is certainly one Who is my neighbour? (and the accompanying release – quoted from, below) tries hard to stop me from seeing or making:
The letter specifically avoids advocacy for one any [sic] political party but instead encourages those in the Church to seek from political candidates a commitment to building a society of common bonds over individual consumerism. The bishops say Britain is hungry for a new approach to political life which reaffirms our ties at a national, regional, community and neighbourhood level. There is a need for a strong corrective to halt the move towards increasing social isolation, they say, through strengthening the idea that that Britain is still a “community of communities.” This, they say, is a theme which has roots in the historic traditions of different parties: “We are seeking, not a string of policy offers, but a way of conceiving and ordering our political and economic life which can be pursued in a conservative idiom, a socialist idiom, a liberal idiom – and by others not aligned to party.”
But I really do not believe, or agree with, (paragraph 92) the bishops’ claim that they “are emphasising an approach to politics which can trace its roots on both left and right and which could be embraced by any of the mainstream parties without being untrue to their own histories.” This would be a new kind of politics: with its roots deeply entrenched in humanity and community – “a new politics that engages at both a deeper more local level within a wider, broader vision for the country as a whole”.
One thing I do concur with, support and understand, though, is “The right and duty of the Church to speak into [sic] political debate”:
 “…the church has an obligation to engage constructively with the political process, and Christians share responsibility with all citizens to participate in the democratic structures of our nation. We offer these reflections because we believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is enormously relevant to the questions which the coming Election will throw into sharp relief.
This is, after all, a democratic country: where anyone can freely make their views known without major repercussions. And, as Will Hutton wrote: “The majority of the country may no longer have faith, but those who lead the church do – and they remind the rest of us of our forgotten Christian roots.” So, if your adherents, your constituents, form a major part of the electorate; and you have strong feelings – that originate from your “faith”, your beliefs; and which you do your best to practice every day (what the Catholic bishops, in their homologue, describe as witnessing “to the mercy of Christ through the faithfulness of our lives and the world we wish to build”) – about the way the country is run (especially if it is diverging from your convictions at a rate of knots); how that affects those who you care for… then I can understand why you feel so obligated. (Especially as I write for many of the same reasons – and not just because I am an egocentric wordsmith: who bescribbles to try and distract himself.) This is not a country where expressing a critical opinion about church or state routinely leads to imprisonment; public torture; execution; or lynching. Thank God.
Although, whilst I was writing this, I received an email from Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA) – of which I am sad to say I was once a member. I left because, in my judgment, the organization, and the “new atheism” it proselytizes, have become – ironically – too “evangelical” themselves; and it appears to regard its own views and opinions as the only ones that are correct and worth holding. Its egoistic unwillingness to listen (especially contrasted with the recent emergence of a growing number of interfaith groups); its militancy; and its rejection (and apparent desire for eradication) of all religion(s) (whilst appearing to have become a quasi one itself); appear to me to be as harmful as the pig-headedness of radical Islamism.
You don’t have to take my word for it, though. Here is an extract from the email:
…the Church of England has been lobbying particularly aggressively lately, and we now know from a source in Whitehall that they have been systematically working against us on issues like assisted dying, humanist marriage, and making space for non-religious worldviews such as Humanism in Religious Studies….
I will [therefore] be discussing some of the approaches we would like to take in 2015 and asking for your help to stand up for humanist causes in the face of targeted lobbying of Government from our opponents.
That use of the word “opponents”, I think, shows just how paranoiac and radicalized they have become (maybe without realizing it). To me, this sounds like a call to arms – to fight a battle in a war that they manufactured. But this is not a war. And are we really meant to believe naïvely – if they themselves admit to having “a source in Whitehall” – that they aren’t also “lobbying”…? (“I’m not saying the Church of England is perfect, by any means….”) If you believe in something, stand up for it: but please don’t make your utterances so bellicose. Negotiate: and make inclusiveness part of your portfolio; not ignorance a weapon in your arsenal.
Atheism isn’t necessarily equated with humanism (in fact, there are both religious and secular versions); nor does it mean – as I tried to explain in my last post – that your lack of a belief in any deity means that those who do believe are in any way diminished, or need to be ‘converted’ from their ‘unscientific’ faith. Having different belief systems – as long as they get along together; rather than seeking to destroy each other – is surely a good thing? We don’t have to belong to any sort of group; never mind all being in the same one. Soon we’ll all be wearing Zhongshan suits; and going on long marches. How would religion fare in such an officially atheistic state…?
Okay: this has a tinge of reductio ad absurdum, I’ll admit – but the “new” (or active) atheistic intolerance (verging on hatred) of religion isn’t much different to intolerance (verging on hatred) of race or disability. And we all know where that leads…. Personally, as I have made clear previously: although I do not believe in any god (i.e. I am a passive atheist), I do believe that “without religion the human race would be considerably worse off and there would be little hope for the future.”