The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, probably isn’t going to suffer the fate of 12th-century Thomas a Becket, happily. But the response of some to the bishops’ pre-election pastoral letter has been to echo Henry II’s cry ‘Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ It’s as if the Church of England has committed a cardinal sin by getting involved in politics.
Let me make it clear. The bishops’ letter isn’t party-political, but it does say important things about Britain today. One East London MP, Jon Cruddas, has called it ‘a profound, complex letter’ and ‘as conservative as it is radical’. It dares to say some important things, even though they’re not fashionable, and calls for people of all political beliefs to work for the common good.
Whether we’re from the Right or the Left, the letter says some challenging things. It argues that neither the post-war collectivism of nationalisation, the NHS and the Welfare State nor the free-market revolution of the 1980s give us all the answers to the problems of Britain in the 21st century. Both have failed. What we need, it argues, is an understanding that people aren’t just commodities or economic units but individuals capable of making decisions, exercising responsibility and living with others in positive relationships that bring peace and prosperity to communities – in short, that we need to build a consensus that we will work together for the common good.
Some will still question why the bishops are getting involved in politics at all. Dom Helder Camara, famously said ‘When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor they call me a communist.’ The Archbishop of Canterbury is no communist, but he is right to be asking difficult questions of our political parties.
As the general election draws near, the media will be full of people turning everything into party-political point-scoring. That’s inevitable. But we need to rise above that and have a long-term conversation about how we can make things better for the common good. That’s true whatever our politics – or our faith.