Churches at election time are a sad sight.
Organisations that spend much of their time championing principles of compassion and seeking to serve local communities are suddenly afflicted by an apparent inability to speak when it comes to one of the most important decisions that people around them have to make.
The attitudes adopted by national denominational institutions are particularly disheartening.
Take for example the Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT). It brings together the Baptist Union, Church of Scotland, Methodist Church and United Reformed Church to comment on political issues. They have produced some great statements over the last few years, challenging welfare cuts that increase poverty and calling for an end to the Trident nuclear weapons system. With an election coming up, you might think they would have something to say about how the choices with which we are faced relate to these issues.
In particular, they could point out that a vote for the Tories is a vote to continue with the very policies that they have been criticising. It is a vote for more poverty, more inequality and more war.
Instead, JPIT’s website declares that, “While we all have political opinions, when the Church gets too involved or too close, it begins to lose the detachment that we need to discern God’s will… Election campaigns make this ever more sensitive. Notwithstanding the fact that as registered charities the churches must abide by statutory guidance on impartiality, lobbying and campaigning, it is far more important that the Church sees itself not as any other kind of organisation weighing in on its priorities for manifestos or commitments from future MPs.”
This is odd, because JPIT and its member churches frequently speak up for their priorities and call for particular commitments from MPs the rest of the time. Laws that bar charities and churches from expressing preferences should be challenged, not quietly submitted to.
I make these comments about JPIT not because I do not support JPIT but precisely because I value them so highly. This makes it all the more disappointing.
This of course is before I even get on to the Church of England archbishops’ letter, which echoed Tory slogans about “stability” (this has been widely discussed elsewhere, so I won’t go into it here).
And up and down the UK, there are local churches cautiously saying very little at a time when their words and actions could have a considerable impact.
Thankfully, there are some variations. A friend of mine who is a Methodist minister said in a sermon that he thought that support for the Conservative Party was incompatible with following the Gospel. He was criticised by several members of his congregation. Some of them disagreed with him; I’m glad they felt able to say so and it’s quite right that they challenged him. Far more worryingly, however, some of them agreed with what he said but thought he should not have said it. This is bizarre and dangerous: suggesting that Christians should hide their deeply held principles as they relate to vital events going on in the world around them.
I am not suggesting that clergy and churches should tell their members who to vote for. Members of churches should think through everything they hear for themselves, including everything preached from the pulpit. Churches in which people are discouraged from disagreeing with preachers are not healthy places. This does not mean that clergy and other preachers should refrain from addressing difficult and controversial issues, including choices about voting.
Of course churches should not declare that all Christians should vote the same way. Nor should they refuse to engage in dialogue with those who disagree. This should not stop churches from declaring opposition to Tory government and calling on people to vote to remove it.
Of course some Christians will disagree (I’m not saying that they’re not Christians, but simply that I think they’re mistaken). Of course, unjust laws could be used against us; they should be resisted and challenged. Of course we would be misrepresented; Christians are used to that. None of these are reasons not to do it.
Jesus sided with the poor and marginalised. That is a fundamental aspect of the Gospel. There is no Gospel without that reality. The Conservative Party has spent two centuries promoting the interests of the super-rich. That what’s it’s for. These things are not compatible. Let’s say so.