Archbishops’ election letter – is it ‘pastoral’?

May 11, 2017 by

by Andrew Symes, Church of England Newspaper.

Just over a month until the General Election, and a ‘pastoral letter’ is distributed via the Bishops to all clergy. We’re told that we’re “welcome to use it in services on Sunday”, but is it actually for parishes, or for a wider audience?

Many of the points the letter raises are important. There is a reference to politicians being hounded for their faith: “if we aspire to a politics of maturity and generosity, then the religious faith of any election candidate should not be treated as a vulnerability to be exploited.” Political leaders should be able to be “open about the impact of their faith on their vocation to public service”, the letter continues.

This comment comes as part of a section stressing the value of religious belief in society as a whole. “The assumptions of secularism are not a reliable guide to the way the world works”. Secularists will be annoyed by that, and by the assertion that faith is not just one of many possible motivators for altruistic behaviour, but is “the well-spring for virtues and practices that make for good individuals, strong relationships and flourishing communities”. Because of this, religious communities, especially the churches based on the deep-rooted Christian history of the UK, have a lot to offer, for example, delivery of education and social support, and the ability to offer “compelling counter-narratives” to violent religious extremism.

The letter also addresses problems in society of alienation, apathy and cynicism, “questions of identity” and challenges for the future. Although Brexit isn’t mentioned, it’s clearly alluded to, and in this letter the leaders of the Church of England are making a pitch to be taken seriously as contributors to the debate on what kind of Britain we want going into the future.

Specific political and social priorities are mentioned: housing, healthcare and overseas aid; business, education and the environment. In all these areas the Archbishops urge a continued commitment to care for the most vulnerable. The letter calls on the government to stand up for those persecuted for their religion; it warns about over-reliance on debt, and even mentions marriage and family as something to be “nurtured and supported”, but in such a brief document doesn’t attempt to define or explain this.

The beginning and the end of the letter seem to be addressed to Christians, asking us to pray, to participate, and to “renew love of God and love of neighbour”. But despite the fact that this is billed as a pastoral message, it’s trying to find common ground with people of good will, rather than being specifically biblical or Christian. Most of it seems to be speaking to the nation as a whole, and particular to politicians and opinion formers, about some important broad general issues to do with nation and community which can be agreed on by people of all faiths and none, rather than seeking to bring specifically Christian prophetic insight for the benefit of disciples and worshippers of Christ.

And this perhaps encapsulates the difficult task that the Church of England faces, trying to balance the roles of chaplain to the nation and pastor-teacher to the faithful. As a Christian and a member of the Church, I would like to hear, for example, that the season of Easter reminds us of more than an invitation to love God and neighbour – it’s about the victory of Christ over evil and death, and his sovereignty over life itself. Our citizenship of any nation and submission to earthly rulers is conditional on the understanding that our primary allegiance is to the higher Lord.

While there is no doubt “common grace” of values and virtues shared by believer and unbeliever alike to which the Archbishops’ letter appeals, biblical theology takes seriously the reality of sin, and powers of evil, which would consume us if God did not hold back the worst of lawlessness, and provide, through the cross, a means of atonement and forgiveness. At a time of uncertainty in national vision, I would like to hear a clear trumpet call of repentance, faith in Christ alone, and being filled with the Holy Spirit as the only reliable foundation for the good attitudes and deeds that the letter speaks of.

But of course such sentiments would be dismissed as irrelevant by the politicians, and vilified as odd or even extremist by the media; they would also cause division on theological grounds among church leaders. So our national church can apparently now only speak publicly in generalities about the helpfulness of faith communities and the need to care for the vulnerable. In its desire to keep a voice at the table of power for laudable motives, it has to mute other distinctive aspects of its message which are needed as leaven in the national discourse.

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