My maternal grandparents lived in Blackburn, Lancashire. In fact I was born in Blackburn. It may not be obvious but I am a proud Lancashire Lad. My grandparents were a particular sort of Anglican. Grandpa George played the organ in the cathedral church. Grandma Grace was a member of various church groups and was heavily involved with various local charities, particularly one that supported what was then referred to as handicapped children. My grandparents were good people but they were also the particular type of Church of England member who felt that there were two things that shouldn’t be discussed in polite company: religion and politics! At this point I need to say that they were probably the only people on who lived on Ramsgreave Drive who read the Daily Telegraph and that they did live in a constituency which was represented by Barbara Castle and then a young firebrand Jack Straw. So maybe admitting that you were a Tory was simply to invite a whole load of ridicule and pain?
Well I can’t help but talk about religion these days, but should I, as a representative minister in the Church of England, talk about politics? I think the answer is yes. And it’s yes for various reasons: first, the Church of England is a national and established church. Our bishops, twenty six of them, sit in the legislature as something called Lords Spiritual. They don’t vote en bloc and they are free to both speak and vote. Over the years our bishops have made a significant difference to the law of the land. Archbishop William Temple was one of the leading advocates for the welfare state and was a co-author of the Beveridge Report. The much sainted Michael Ramsey introduced the Wolfenden Report in the House of Lords and was the first peer to speak in favour of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Recently the Bishop of St. Albans has helped shape legislation with regards to fixed odd betting terminals. Archbishop Justin takes his role as a public theologian incredibly seriously, as does our own bishop, Steven. The Church of England is established by parliament -we are the agent and not the principal – and we are supposed to take a full and participatory role in both supporting and holding government to account. We are supposed to ask, of the state, difficult, challenging, affirming, ethical and religious questions. And, we are also mandated to pray for the country; our liturgy makes this clear.
Our prayers aren’t however limited to praying for the monarch, her ministers and parliament, for to stop here would be truly limiting, for our most important prayer, the prayer of the Church, provides us with the aspirations of faith: a world characterised by God’s values - ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,’ and a world in which everyone has their base needs tended to ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ If we want to see a Godly world, we need to start with imagining heaven. We live in a world devoid of imagination and aspiration. As Christians we need to be ensure that imagination and aspiration are integral to public and political discourse.
But, secondly, and most importantly I would want to argue, and argue strongly, that Jesus' own ministry was highly political; not party political but political. Jesus was a master at teasing out the ethical and religious questions, with perhaps the most obvious one being this: ‘who is my neighbour?’ This, it strikes me, isn’t simply a question for the biblical age but for all ages. The importance of good neighbourliness, both in terms of domestic and international policy, is something that the church should always hold before the nation’s conscience. Jesus, throughout his ministry, dared to speak truth to power, such that he was able to self-describe as the fulfilment of the law and the prophets. Jesus' ministry commenced with his ownership of the Isaiah prophecy and ended with him being charged by the religious elite and sentenced by the political elite. Jesus cared deeply about justice and the plight of the poor. If you think about his healing miracles what they did, alongside the act of physical healing, was to help integrate the hitherto excluded back into community and society.
The issues that Jesus sought to address are all issues that effect our national life and the way we relate to the world and to each other. We, as people of faith, must like Jesus and the psalmist ‘sing of faithfulness and justice.’ Like the writer of Proverbs we must look first and foremost to the religious tradition so that we too are people of ‘wisdom,’ ‘knowledge,’ and ‘discretion.’ We must, as Jesus instructs us act with humility, not seeking to be the greatest, the perhaps self-interested greatest, but the ‘one who serves.’
We, you and I, don’t have all of the answers, or at least not the party political answers, but there again that is not our starting point, for our starting point must always be our faith. As people of faith we must always seek to make sure that we seek God’s ‘good advice and sound wisdom.’ We must always make sure that we are not crudely seduced by ‘pride and arrogance…..the way of evil….and perverted (or politically contrived) speech.’
We may not have all the answers, but what our tradition gives us, for free, is the right questions. I think my grandparents, sorry, were wrong, for if we truly care about ‘our National Life,’ as a Church, we must always dare to speak ‘truth to power,’ whilst making sure that we also hold our leaders, spiritual and political, before God in prayer. Amen.