Nation needs “fresh moral vision”, say bishops in 52-page letter

Church of England bishops have issued a letter warning that people “feel detached” from politics and calling for a “fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be”.

20/6/13  Ripon Cathedral
20/6/13 Ripon Cathedral

In the Pastoral Letter, the first of its kind delivered ahead of a general election, the House of Bishops urged people to visit the polling booths on May 7, stating it was the “duty” of every Christian adult to vote.

It said that “worrying and unfamiliar trends” were appearing in our national life, adding that there was a “growing appetite to exploit grievances, find scapegoats and create barriers between people and nations”.

But Tory backbenchers accused the bishops of offering a policy prescription with a “very definite left-wing leaning”, while Prime Minister David Cameron urged the Church to recognise the value of work in creating a better society and the dangers of a welfare system that pays people to stay idle.

Speaking at a briefing today, the Bishop of Norwich said it was intended to “counter” arguments from those, including celebrity Russell Brand, that people should not bother to engage with politics and vote.

The Rt Rev Graham James said: “I think we hope that this will animate Christians to engage in politics. What we want them to do is to engage in the political processes.

“We’re conscious that there are a number of voices around, probably the most famous of which is Russell Brand, telling people that they shouldn’t bother with voting and shouldn’t bother to exercise their hard-won democratic freedoms.

“I’m conscious just going around some of our youth groups and speaking to youth leaders that that has had a more profound effect than I had anticipated.

“And while one may think that the bishops of the Church of England don’t quite have the sex appeal of Russell Brand, we think that we should counter it.”

The bishops said the letter was “not a shopping list of policies we would like to see” but a “call for the new direction that we believe our political life ought to take”.

The 52-page letter touches upon a wide range of topics including the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent, Britain’s relationship with the European Union and the concept of the Living Wage.

The bishops focus on the treatment of those on welfare, urging them to be viewed within the narrative of the “person in community”.

The letter states: “There is a deep contradiction in the attitudes of a society which celebrates equality in principle yet treats some people, especially the poor and vulnerable, as unwanted, unvalued and unnoticed.

“It is particularly counter-productive to denigrate those who are in need because this undermines the wider social instinct to support one another in the community.

“For instance, when those who rely on social security payments are all described in terms that imply they are undeserving, dependent and ought to be self-sufficient, it deters others from offering the informal, neighbourly support which could ease some of the burden of the welfare state.”

The letter argues that the claim that religion and political life must be kept separate is “frequently disingenuous” adding that religion “cannot be ignored as a political force”.

It said the low esteem in which politicians were held had “many roots” but “with few exceptions, politicians are not driven merely by cynicism or self-interest”.

The bishops state that the idea that politics is about satisfying the wants of distinct groups to win votes had prevented it from rising above a “kind of Dutch auction”.

The letter calls for a “more serious way of talking about taxation” and the need for an “honest account of how we must live in the future if generations yet to come are not to inherit a denuded and exhausted planet”.

Calling from a stronger political vision, it states: “The different parties have failed to offer attractive visions of the kind of society and culture they wish to see, or distinctive goals they might pursue.

“Instead, we are subjected to sterile arguments about who might manage the existing system best.”

The bishops state that the time has come to move beyond mere “retail politics”, adding: “Instead of treating politics as an extension of consumerism, we should focus on the common good, the participation of more people in developing a political vision and constructive ways to talk about communities and how they relate to one another.”

The letter describes current politics as “adversarial”, adding that “when it descends into tribalism, politics ceases to be about wisdom, balance or humility”.

It goes on: “Placing excessive faith in state intervention on the one hand or the free market on the other, politicians have focused so much on the things they can control directly through economic and social policy that they have neglected to nurture, by word, example or policy, those aspects of life which governments can influence but not control.”

The bishops also observe a tendency to become more and more a “society of strangers”, urging a strengthening of the idea that the nation is a “community of communities”.

Speaking during a visit to Hove, Mr Cameron welcomed the bishops’ engagement in political debate, but stressed the Government’s efforts to create jobs, cut taxes and develop the economy.

“I would say to the bishops, I hope they would welcome that, because work does bring dignity, does bring self-reliance, it does enable people to provide for their families, it creates a stronger society as well as a stronger economy,” said the Prime Minister.

“And a welfare system that pays people to stay idle when they could work - that is not the sign of a strong economy or a strong or good society.”

He made clear he did not object to the Church speaking out on political issues, telling reporters: “On bishops and politics, I’m always keen for anyone to intervene in politics.

“I think it’s good - we want to have a political debate in our country.”

But Conservative backbencher Nadine Dorries said there is a “very definite left-wing leaning” to the intervention from the bishops.

She also insisted the church should stick to getting involved in issues where people are “really seeking the church’s voice”, including on gender abortion.

The MP for Mid Bedfordshire told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The church is always silent when people are seeking its voice and yet seems to be very keen to dive in on political issues when actually no-one is asking it to.”

Ms Dorries added: “Britain endured the longest, deepest recession globally and we suffered the biggest structural deficit. Where were the bishops’ voices when the last Labour government was in a spending frenzy? Where were the warnings then?

“The Bible is very clear about the immorality of leaving our children and grandchildren with debts to pay. The bishops didn’t speak up then and it seems to me as though there is a very definite left-wing leaning to their message and it seems they only want to get involved in any speak when it’s opportune for them to do so.

“And on equality, they’ve only just accepted women as equals and brought in women bishops so on their message of equality in this document which has gone out today, I think their basis or premise for having authority on this is very biased.”