Thursday, 19 February 2015

House of Bishops' letter and questions arising

The Bishops of the Church of England issued a pastoral letter this week aimed primarily at members of their church congregations.  The letter set out their reflections on some of the wider issues affecting the political discourse as we approach the General Election on 7th May.  It was wide ranging and they were very careful to spell out that it was not their wish-list, that Christians of good conscience come to radically different conclusions on the specifics of political policy.  They were, however, concerned with the general moral tone and direction of travel.

Their letter falls into four broad areas:
background on how Christians view the world and therefore politics,
the importance of the corporate against individualism or isolationism,
the fundamental equality and worth of everyone,
and fairness.

It has taken me two reads of this letter to distill its message and even then I am not clear how policy makers and electors might take it forward.  It comes over to me as only being half written - what it is lacking is a series of questions that would help its messages find firm ground to settle on and also give it some bite into the current political debates.  So below is my attempt at a brief summary and a formulation of some questions that might arise.

1. View point

Everyone views the world from somewhere and they have a basic philosophical narrative through which they interpret what they see.  This goes for religious perspectives and secular ones.  The secular assumption that they offer the neutral stance in a sea of otherwise competing convictions is a fallacy - they are part of that sea.  The hostile press reports on this letter reveal the assumptions of the writers; they have assumed lefty bishops are Tory bashing and so that is what they have seen.  That assertion cannot be justified from the letter.

Far from withering on the vine of secularisation religion remains vibrant and central.  It is impossible to understand global politics today without understanding religion.   The bishops base their letter in basic notions of human beings and the world being created by God and that we belong together.   Christianity is grounded in the incarnation, God taking such an interest in human life that he comes among it, and through the resurrection suffering does not have the final word.  There is hope.  We live 'between times'; we do not assume that perfection can be achieved.  Grace and sin are in tension in everyone, so no one person or party can be assumed to have grasped ultimate truth for all times: all are bound to be wrong at times!  They include themselves in this.  Nonetheless Christianity assumes involvement in every aspect of life; it is not merely some private concern, and believes there are moral precepts which have an important insight for shaping policy, even if not offering a direct programmatic formula as such.

Many are disillusioned with politics and voter disengagement is a serious challenge to our democratic system.  There is a growing appetite to exploit grievances, find scapegoats and create barriers between people and nations.  This presents a dangerous threat to stability and peace.

Questions arising for policy makers and electors:

How do you take different faith perspectives seriously, recognising that secular is not the arbiter but one view among them? 
We belong together, how can you challenge and avoid the politics of separation and division? 
Many are disillusioned with politics today, how do you express vision that connects the imagination with the common good?

2.  Corporate over individualism

There is a tendency for parties to target specific demographic groupings.  Politics thus is treated as an extension of consumerism, where it should feed the common good, how we relate to one another.  Persons are persons in community.  Both the post-War government of Clement Attlee establishing the welfare state and Margaret Thatcher's 1980s political revolution, coming from different perspectives assumed a place for duty towards one another and communal support to undergird welfare or to be released by free markets.  The effect has actually been that both have limited these: the state taking on too much and the market emphasising individualism.  Both have damaged the corporate identity.  Adam Smith, the great economics thinker, said that without a degree of shared morality, the market is not protected against its in-built tendency to generate cartels and monopolies which undermine the principles of the market itself.

The bishops discuss just what kind of society we are: a society of strangers or a community of communities.  Increased mobility, communication technologies leading to impersonal relationships, consumption defining us points to a society of strangers.  On the other hand many people are rooted in particular places and the network of relationships which they build there making life sociable, neighbourly and giving life worth.  These bonds tie us together and the political challenge is how these can be strengthened.

Questions arising for policy makers and electors:

Rather than appealing to a politics of division how do we shape a politics that honours all and recognises that we belong together? 
What is the balance between heavy state intervention in people's lives and one which sits light to regulation? 
How do we provide a safety net without creating dependency and how do we provide incentives for work while not leaving people vulnerable and unsupported? 
How can the bonds that unite diverse communities be strengthened?

3.  Fundamental equality and worth of everyone

All are equal and yet this is undermined by the way our political discourse often refers to those who are sick, disabled, terminally ill or unable to live the life that a consumer society celebrates.  The foreigner in our midst is often vilified and scapegoated.  There are questions about the impact of migration on particular communities and asking about resourcing these communities is not racist.  Some language in how they are referred to is, however.  Good international relationships require all nations to recognise their interdependence.  We share a common cultural heritage with Europe, which brings a particular bond.  How this is reflected in a union is a debatable point.  Globalisation also affects the effective independence of a sovereign nation.  A related matter is international aid and the bishops praise the government for maintaining 0.7% of GDP contribution to international aid and relief.  Reliance on nuclear weapons is predicated on an assumption of mutually assured destruction.  There is a moral debate around the legitimacy of this in itself: for some that provides an assurance of peace, for others it is a grotesque prospect no sane person could countenance.  The geo-political scene has changed and so the questions need framing to take account of different global strategic realities.

Good schools educate, they don't just train economic units.  This means that they enable the person to flourish as themselves and realise their potential.  Faith and home customs need to be honoured while introducing students to what it means to live among others who have different backgrounds and histories.

Questions arising for policy makers and electors:

How do policies ensure that everyone is treated as of equal worth and value? 
How do we respond to the challenges and opportunities of migration?  How do we ensure those who come here are not treated as figures of hate nor scapegoats for all the world's ills? 
What is Britain's place in the world as a global trader and within an international community of communities? 
How open or closed should Britain be to the world and Europe?  How independent or interdependent are we on Europe and the rest of the world?  
What is the justification for an aid budget - is this every nation for themselves or do we have an obligation to support those less fortunate than ourselves? 
How does Britain defend itself in a world with different threats to when Trident and other weaponry were first developed?  
What is education for?  How do we ensure that all achieve their full potential and are prepared for the world they will live and work in?

4.  Fairness

There are disparities between parts of the country and sections within communities.  Migration has brought immense social change in many parts of the country and rapid change has often impacted most acutely on communities least equipped to handle it.  The greatest burden of austerity has not been borne by those with the broadest shoulders.  There is a burgeoning occurrence of in-work poverty due to low wages and the bishops advocate, along with many others, the living wage and credit unions.  Access to affordable housing is also seen as a pressing need.  They repeat the three tests by which to judge austerity measures, affirmed by General Synod back in 2013:

  • Is it fair?
  • Is it generous?
  • Is it sustainable?

These questions challenge policy initiatives to ensure that reducing national debt is not disproportionately shouldered by those least able to cope.

Questions for policy makers and electors:

How is cohesion strengthened when some communities are experiencing rapid social change? 
What is an acceptable cost for bringing the public finances into balance?  Is there a level that is too harsh to be borne and how should the burden be shared across the community? 
Is there a speed at which this must take place? 
How much is fair pay?  What level should a minimum wage be set at?  Is it right for governments to pick up the cost when pay is not enough and thus subsidise employers? 
What form of housing is an acceptable minimum and how should this be provided?

Final observations

The questions above flow out of my reading of the House of Bishops letter.  Are there other questions which have not been touched on?

For instance there is nothing above about health provision, care for the elderly and vulnerable.  There is nothing about justice, policing or local council funding levels.  They were clear that their remit was to look at the underlying political discourse, but for that to be tangible it has to translate into policy decisions.

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