Should Archbishops (or Bishops) stop speaking out on political issues?

Well this is number 10 in my series of TQTWTAIN (Theological Questions To Which The Answer Is No) and is asked explicitly and implicitly in the Telegraph by two writers Christina Odone and Mary Riddell

Both writers share a common bond in thinking that the Church should not be involved in politics.

So Christina writes:

The Archbishop, with his doubts about the ethics of the commando raid on Osama’s compound, is drawing a moral equivalence between a terrorist leader and an unarmed civilian. This equivalence may be popular in Left-wing circles (though even the New Stateman allows that the killing is “welcome”), and the Archbishop feels comfortable in those quarters; but when he addresses the nation, as he did this morning, he should not speak as a Guardian reader but as a religious leader. And as such, surely he sees that drawing parallels between Osama and any other unarmed man is a mistake.

Mary says:

Bishops should, in general, keep out of politics. Churches, estimable as they may be, simply represent a strand of opinion that  should carry no undue sway. The Archbishop of Canterbury has, in the eyes of many people, strayed across that line by criticising the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Admittedly, Mary Riddell allows that in this case there is a moral issue at stake and that therefore he is allowed  to:

The archbishop is right to speak out. His point is not political but a matter of morality and ethics.

I think that both of them are seriously flawed. For starters you cannot separate politics and morality as so many of the decisions that politicians take are at root moral ones with moral implications. The rules of engagement that politicians used to attack Osama bin Laden are moral issues. Should you shoot to kill ? Should you give someone a chance to surrender? These are moral questions.

But its further than that. Religious leaders are part of society. When they speak they also have a right to participate. The issue is not that they get reported but rather that the fringe religious figures who represent very few (such as the Christian Voice) are prominently reported.

Church congregation at Springfield

Church congregation

In the UK over 1 million people regularly go to the Anglican church alone each week. Now compare the activism in the churches with political parties and you realise that more people are engaged directly with the church than are with political parties! Indeed the figures published by the House of Commons on political membership sees a total of 476,000 members for all the three main parties combined. Yet political party members have a voice that the media lap up!

In addition there is the case of the newspapers. They only have a voice because people choose to buy them (or in my case read them online – sorry Times). Their columnists pontifications should carry no undue sway either!

Then there is the faiths themselves. Certainly in the Christian faith there is a belief that politics is important. And that it is important to engage with politics and politicians. Jesus engaged with the political debates of the day and there is no way that he kept out of politics. He was highly critical of the politicians such as Herod in his day. Many of his best run ins – “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and render unto God that which is God’s” is in itself a political and a religious statement. He was not saying that Caesar had primacy – God did as he made plain in his conversation with Pilate.

So where is the main issue? Well I think that nowadays its an issue of surrogacy. The issue is the concern that religious opinions will be forced on an unwilling population. I suspect what is on peoples minds is the example of somewhere like Iran (and maybe even Islam generally) where the Guardian reported on a bust-up between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei

Clerics close to Khamenei have launched a campaign to highlight his role in Iranian politics, saying that to disobey him is equal to apostasy, as he is “God’s representative on earth”.

As an aside it is somewhat ironic in that they are both are reactionary and deserve each other unlike the Iranian people who deserve neither.

But this idea doesn’t hold water in this country. The nearest that we ever came to a theocracy in this country since the Middle Ages was in Cromwellian England and that was nearly four hundred years ago!

So when in this country politicians want to make decisions about policy that impinges on millions of people then Archbishops and Bishops have a right and a duty to speak up. They are not overstepping the mark but are often speaking on behalf not only of their members but also often on behalf of millions of others. You only have to remember the Faith in the City report of the 1980’s challenging the impact of policies on the poor.

Does that mean that they can’t be criticised? Of course it doesn’t! That is what democracy is about. We debate and argue and vote and decide.

So, by all means disagree with the Archbishops/ Bishops but please no more rubbish about keeping out of politics. For Christians and those of other faiths I am sure everything is both political and religious.


5 comments on “Should Archbishops (or Bishops) stop speaking out on political issues?

  1. Steve
    May 9, 2011 at 9:12 pm #

    Dear Will,

    Since “politics” covers pretty much anything you care to define as political, it’s a hard act to follow, but in this case religious types had staked a prior claim:

    1. You shall have no other gods before me
    2. You shall not make for yourself an idol
    3. Do not take the name of the Lord in vain
    4. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy
    5. Honour your father and mother
    6. You shall not kill
    7. You shall not commit adultery
    8. You shall not steal
    9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour
    10. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

    This is difficult for politicians and in this case they got a red card for number 6 (even if you add the contentious “unlawfully” to it), so I support Archbishops banging their staves on the floor and shouting “foul”.

    Maybe we should ask politicians to stay off religious turf too, but actually I think we’d quite like it if some of them had more of a moral framework.



    • Will Cookson
      May 11, 2011 at 6:34 pm #

      Hi Steve, well I think that its fine for both to talk to each other!

      Of course, in Christianity the 10 commandments don’t take pride of place. That is taken up by Jesus’ summary of the Torah (or Law) – love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and love your neighbour as yourself.

  2. Chris
    May 9, 2011 at 11:16 pm #

    Depends on the subject, in this case yes absolutely. It was right for the Archbishop to provide a counter view, especially as most of the mainstream political opinion has been all very similar.


  3. Geoff C
    May 9, 2011 at 11:47 pm #

    People are affected by both, and both religeon and politics cause great debate and argument and dissagreement (unfortunately). The bigger problem is where they are in dissagreement. We are supposed to submit to the law of the land – but sometimes that is in dissagreement with religious belief. This is where the biggest problems begin.
    Should one speak out on the other subject – well I guess there is no point burying ones head in the sand – so I reckon they should


  1. bin laden with questions « the blog of kevin - May 12, 2011

    […] on the Wild West model of being beyond the law, writing in the Guardian and quoted by Ian Paul; Will Cookson has offered a response to that and to the question of whether Bishops have anything to say on […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s