I haven’t enjoyed a meaningful vote in a General Election for a long time. The reason is that my M.P. is the Speaker of the House of Commons and, by convention, the main political parties do not stand against the speaker. But, all may be about to change.
For the last couple of days, following the ‘debate’ in the House of Commons earlier this week I have been thinking about what I might ask a parliamentary candidate eager for my vote. Of course between now and the General Election (whenever this might be) a lot may well have changed. But, even so, my questions and reflections very probably to have less to do with policy but rather with character and integrity.
My ‘leading question’ might well be along these lines:
‘Can you tell me how you hope to conduct yourself in public life, particularly when in the chamber of the House of Commons?’
This, as a Church of England Christian, seems to be an important initial theo-political question. In some ways it supersedes (I nearly wrote Trumps!) policy questions. Let me explain: the Church of England, as a national and established church, exists, in part, to serve the nation. This need not, of course, imply being subservient to the nation, but it does mean that we are called on to care deeply for the nation and all who have a stake in it. Caring for the nation surely necessitates a commitment to both pray for the nation and a willingness to speak truth to power.
In praying for the nation the Church of England frequently does so through her liturgical texts; we are after all a liturgical church. In the prayer of intercession in the Book of Common Prayer Holy Communion service we find the following theo-poliical, but non partisan, petition:
‘We beseech thee also to save and defend all Christian Kings, Princes and Governors; and specially thy servant ELIZABETH our Queen; that under her we may be godly and quietly governed: And grant unto her whole council, and to all that are put in authority under her, that they may truly and indifferently minister justice, to the punishment of wickedness, and to the maintenance of thy true religion and virtue.’
These I would want to strongly suggest are important words. These ancient words contain much contemporary wisdom. Quiteness, restraint, and modesty in language should be, from a Christian perspective, central to discourse, however contentious the subject, for as we read in the Book of Proverbs: ‘The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit,’ (18, 21). Being ‘godly and quietly governed,’ it seems, may be a matter of life and death.
Of course restraint in rhetoric isn’t sufficient. If we are to live together well, in harmony, in shalom, something else is required: a commitment to justice and truth. Prayer During the Day on Wednesday concludes with the following petition: ‘May God grant to the world, justice, truth and peace.’ So when discerning from a liturgical, and theo-political, perspective which candidate to vote for their demonstrable commitment to global affairs (the world – its people and the created order), justice and truth should be of paramount concern.
In a sense I will seek to exercise a high degree of party political indifference when making my judgement, instead seeking to identify the candidate who is most likely to conduct themselves with integrity and with a commitment to those things we Anglicans pray for: decency, modesty, restraint, justice (for both people and the environment), truth and peace, for these I believe to be the theo-political fruits of a virtuous politics.
How politicians conduct themselves alongside their commitment to integrity and virtue matters and, it matters greatly. For as Rowan Williams has written in his reflection on William Wilberforce (in Twenty Christian Luminaries): ‘The public climate has the capacity to make people less than they might be,’ even, as the Proverb rightly insists, to the point of life and death.
As Christians we have a moral responsibility to help fashion and create a healthy and virtuous political environment. The way we do this is through our prayers and the electoral choices we make. Perhaps as Christians, contentious as it sounds, our best contribution may result from indifference to party politics? Perhaps it is more important to vote for those who commit to decency and restraint in rhetoric and a similar commitment to the pursuit of justice, truth and peace, in the hope that all of us might be more than we could otherwise be?