Pastoral letters, Green Reports and Episcopal leadership

Let me start with two quotes from the liberal theologian Marcus Borg:

‘To abandon politics means leaving the structure of society to those who are most concerned to secure their own interests.’

‘All are not called to be activists. But all are called to take seriously God’s dream for a more just and non violent world.’

I think Borg was correct (sadly he recently died – hence ‘was.’) 

My rationale is twofold: every Sunday we pray ‘thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven’ and, in making this prayer we presumably believe certain things about the nature of the kingdom of heaven? Secondly, Jesus was political. He took the title Lord – the preferred title of Roman Rulers – he spoke an awful lot about money and, how those on the margins of society were treated. He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, on a donkey, just as the Roman elite were processing into the city through another posher gate, behind Pilate.

The Bishops Pastoral letter ‘enjoyed’ a mix reception, both inside and outside the Church. The bishops wouldn’t have expected anything else!

So were they right to place the political classes under the spotlight?

I suggest they were because its part of their prophetic ministry, and prophets have never been made to feel especially welcome in their own country (didn’t Jesus have something to say about this?) Their own country in this sense includes both the nation state and, the church itself.

The letter  sought to bring into the national consciousness several of Christianity’s major themes: neighbourliness, equity, justice, protection for the marginalised, the moral obligation on those who can bear the greatest burden to bear the greatest burden, community, solidarity, transparency, participation and subsidiarity.

Surely, it would be a bit of a stretch to suggest the Church shouldn’t talk about distinctively Christian motifs?

Yes, subjects such as defence were discussed,with many arguing that this is simply none of the Church’s bees wax. But, wasn’t it a certain Christian theologian (Aquinas) who first got us thinking about the moral justification for war?

Just as politicians stand in a line called tradition so do bishops and, any attempt to cut them off from, or redefine, the tradition in which they stand is disingenuous. 

Those dismissing the right – or in my view obligation – of Bishops to enter the political arena showed a distinctively dodgy and ‘politically reductive’ grasp of Christian theology.

Tim Montgomerie on News Night (17th February) stressed time and again that Christianity’s concern is individual morality, which it is, whilst refusing to accept that corporate morality has always been central to the Judea Christian tradition.

Even the most superficial reading of the canon should demonstrate this. The prophets talked (on behalf of God and his values) to a nation, Jesus spent a lot of time talking to the elite groups within that nation such as the Scribes and Pharisees and, St. Paul initiated the idea of the pastoral letter, by writing to entire Christian communities.

Nominally the U.K. remains a Christian country so it would be somewhat surprising if the nations Christian leaders – bishops- didn’t address the political classes through the use of Pastoral Letters, because that is what the tradition indicates Christian leaders do.

The Times sought to reduce the role of Bishops to ‘the soothing and saving of troubled soles.’ Of course the political classes might prefer a church which sought only to save souls and provide instruction in personal morality (confident in the knowledge that over time such a church would get smaller and smaller) but it can never be the establishments role to define the boundaries of church. That is a possible path to some form of earthly Armageddon.

One more thought before I criticise the Church: aren’t the views expressed by Tim Montgomerie and in The Times editorial (18th February) simply reflections of a society that has become progressively individualistic and placed far too much misguided faith in trickle down socio-economic theory?

The Times critique of the Bishops Pastoral Letter also included the following:

‘Where it seeks to cut more sharply into the political debate it is variously hypocritical and wrong……….the church is certainly in no place to lecture government on equality so soon after consecrating its first woman bishop after years of delay.’ 

I have a lot (or as Cilla Black would have said ‘an awful, awful lot’) of sympathy with this observation.

Whist I suspect that many secular commentators (including Tim Montgomerie and the writer of the Times editorial) would prefer a church operating at the margins of public life, focused only on saving souls and private morality, I also suspect that a Church, or Corpus, that manifestly embodied virtues of neighbourliness, justice, transparency, equity, charity, hospitality, inclusivity in its internal dealings would act as a lightening rod to the polis. (This might mean becoming very unpopular indeed.)

What would this mean for the Church? Perhaps our Bishops could make a start with the following four commitments:

  • Paying the living wage to all employees (today’s ‘bad news’)
  • A style of leadership that fosters widespread debate and participation even when such participation might prove uncomfortable and challenging to its ‘leaders’ (the Green Report and Issues of Human Sexuality, for instance)
  • Transparency (the workings of the Crown Nomination Committee)
  • Participation and representation on all synods and review groups by those at the margins of Church life and, less reliance on the insights of the powerful and elite?

You never know an institution that embodied such values might just prove to be irresistibly attractive?

The Bishops in their leadership of the Church stand at a cross roads, they have begun in their critique of the political system to look ‘for the old paths, where is the good way,’ if they are to fulfil Jeremiah’s injunction they must, in their internal dealings ‘walk therein’ (Jeremiah 6, 16.)


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