The Church of England and Politics: Why Not?

by Joseph Markus

The Archbishop of Canterbury, in his Christmas Day sermon, waded determinedly into murky political waters. He challenged, in short, the breakdown of community life or, rather more accurately, the idea of a community view of life.

From the ‘urban rioter’ to the speculator, off on an ‘acquisitive adventure’, the common image is one of ‘atoms spinning apart in the dark’.

He is right, in my view at least, to lament the extreme atomism that is a hallmark of a modern and liberal democracy. We live in a social context and it seems only right that some importance is attributed to that context. Mutual obligations are an integral part of social life, though how far those bonds go may be disputed.

He has caused controversy through this, and other, brief forays into politics—his guest editorship of the New Statesman, his call for a ‘Tobin tax’ on financial transactions, as well as his position in relation to Occupy LSX, being previous examples. This most recent instance has provoked some ire amongst senior politicians and financiers, clear from the headline of The Times from Boxing Day: ‘Archbishop under fire for “political” riot sermon’.

The proposition that the Church must be separate from the state must be correct. But the idea that the Church cannot take a political stance is patently false.

We could rely on the feminist axiom, that the personal is political, but we needn’t even go that far. The Church, and Church doctrine, have an interest in how people live. The way a society is ordered, and the way conflicts within that society are mediated, brings into play—and necessarily so—some form of politics. Morals and ethics are centrepieces of that debate.

While Downing Street made no comment, Gary Streeter, the Tory chairman of the all-party Christians in Parliament group, speaking to The Times, claimed that matters of politics and morals are distinct. That is one distinction that I cannot support. As spiritual leader of the Church of England, the Archbishop has a particular interest and, one might suggest, authority to speak out.

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