Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Church of England bishops' pastoral letter: key points

Aisha Gani                  Guardian/UK                    17 February 2015

The Church of England has
published a 52-page letter outlining its hopes for political parties to discern “a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be” before the general election in May. In it, leading English bishops address themes such as the church’s duty to join the political debate in an increasingly consumerist society, welfare reform and Britain’s role in the world. Here is a breakdown of some of the key sections:

Who is my neighbour? In this section, the bishops outline the principal motivation for the church’s involvement in wider society. It explains that Christians believe that human beings are created in the image of God and states: “But we are not made in isolation. We belong together in a creation which should be cherished and not simply used and consumed.”

The bishops call for a “trajectory for a new kind of politics”. The letter states that its aim is to help church members consider how to negotiate “these dangerous times to build the kind of society which many people say they want”, something voters may feel is not offered by political parties.

The duty of the church to engage in political debate. The church has an obligation to engage with the political process, according to the letter, and the bishops write that Christians “share responsibility with all citizens to participate in the democratic structures of our nation”.

The bishops assert that the claim that religion and political life must be kept separate is “frequently disingenuous”, and allege that politicians and pundits are happy for the church to speak on political issues as long as the church agrees with their perspective.

Political neutrality. The authors reject the notion that the letter tells church members to “vote for this party or that party”, and write that if this is the perception “they have misunderstood it”. Anglicans do not have a single view, the bishops write, on which political party has the best mix of answers to the challenges voters face.

What should voters ask of candidates? The Anglican bishops write that this election provides the opportunity to “sow the seeds of a new politics” and encourage voters to support candidates and policies that demonstrate the following six values:

 -Halting and reversing the accumulation of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands, whether those of the state, corporations or individuals.
-Involving people at a deeper level in the decisions that affect them most.
-Recognising the distinctive communities, whether defined by geography, religion or culture, which make up the nation and enabling all to thrive and participate together.
-Treating the electorate as people with roots, commitments and traditions and addressing us all in terms of the common good and not just as self-interested consumers.
-Demonstrating that the weak, the dependent, the sick, the aged and the vulnerable are persons of equal value to everybody else.
-Offering the electorate a grown-up debate about Britain’s place in the world order and the possibilities and obligations that entails.

The UK’s political culture. The public feel detached from political life, according to the letter, and “all political parties struggle to communicate a convincing vision”. The bishops argue that it is time to move beyond “retail politics” and instead focus on the common good – that includes the participation of more people in developing a political vision.

The role of the state. The bishops write that different communities have different needs – and may choose different priorities. But they say there is a “chill factor” when law and regulation intrude too far into everyday life. The letter demands A richer justification for the state, a better account of the purposes of government, and a more serious way of talking about taxation. The role of the intermediary institution – for example housing associations and credit unions – is acknowledged, and the bishops write how such organisations are overlooked by policymakers, and so struggle to be influential.

Role of the family. The letter says: ‘We are most human when we know ourselves to be dependent on others.’ The letter explains: We are most human when we know ourselves to be dependent on others. That is something we first learn in families, if we are fortunate enough to experience the blessings of family life. And it adds: “Families are not only for children.”

The economy. The bishops write that the UK faces a banking and housing crisis. The letter urges economics to be understood as a moral discipline and claims that the UK economy has an excessive emphasis on competition and resembles social Darwinism. It states how: Consumption, rather than production, has come to define us, and individualism has tended to estrange people from one another.

Poverty and inequality. The bishops say that material inequality has widened and in practical terms back a
living wage. The letter states:

The Biblical tradition is not only ‘biased to the poor’, as often noted, but warns constantly against too much power falling into too few hands. When it does, human sympathies are strained to breaking point.

Unemployment. The letter says that it is good news that UK unemployment has not risen as high as was predicted. It adds: ‘Worklessness has long been acknowledged as corrosive of human dignity and sense of identity.’

Welfare reform. The bishops write in strong terms that political life would be enhanced if “state-sponsored action to underpin the welfare of each citizen” is acknowledged. Their letter warns against “stirring up resentment against some identifiable ‘other’” and dehumanising social groups.

Health. The letter raises the issue of loneliness in society and states: If the care of severely disabled people, the terminally ill or people with dementia was shared in the context of a supportive network of friends, neighbours and allies, the fear of being a burden on others would not lead so many to undervalue their own life, even to the point of seeking to end it.

Immigration. Neighbourliness is a key theme, and the bishops say: There is a growing appetite to exploit grievances, find scapegoats and create barriers between people and nations.

Education. The bishops write that schools should try to model a community of communities. They add: The letter says that schools should try to ‘model a community of communities’ The purpose of education is not simply to prepare people to be economic units but to nurture their ability to flourish as themselves and to seek the flourishing of others.

Environment. The bishops write that they support policies that respect the natural environment: We belong together in a creation which should be cherished and not simply used and consumed.

Britain’s global role.The need for strong international allies is called for, and the bishops add: Without a grasp of the power and meaning of religion, it is impossible to understand the dynamics of global politics today. Yet, “our perceptions of cultural and political interdependence lag far behind”, according to the letter.

Defence and war. Military intervention by Britain is not always wrong, write the bishops, yet “support should not be offered blindly”.

International development. The bishops support overseas aid, and write: The government is to be commended for committing 0.7% of GDP to overseas aid when budgets have been so hard pressed. Their letter goes on: For any party to abandon or reduce this commitment would be globally irresponsible in pragmatic terms as well as indicating that the moral imperatives of mutuality and reconciliation counted for nothing.”

 Threat from extremism and religiously inspired conflict. The Anglican leaders write that the constant threat to the stability of all nations is a reminder of “our interdependence”. [Abbrev.]

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