The former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, called his short autobiography `The Calling of a Cuckoo`. The title recalled how the then Prime Minister had mocked his- quite learned- assessment of the country`s economic situation. “It wouldn`t be spring without the call of the cuckoo in the land” was the rather cheap shot to which he was subjected.
And this is typical of the kind of mud-slinging that happens when politicians and religious leaders have a difference of opinion; mediated by a voracious press. It`s as if each is saying to the other- “What are you doing on my turf?”
So, a few weeks ago, Archbishop Rowan made, as Archbishop (and a member of the Lord`s it must be noted) some observations about our nation`s economic situation. And recently the Prime Minister offered his thoughts on faith and the task of the Church. And the press have lapped it up.
Now, by and large I resist the temptation to be draw into these kinds of things. And so when I am drawn in I like to think that I will tread very carefully because one can so easily be misunderstood. Political matters, it seems to me, are better dealt with by discussion and dialogue rather than monologue. Let`s be clear, I wouldn`t dream of patronising you by suggesting how you should vote (for my task is to call people to pray). But I would say that if more of us prayed about our political opinions the better we should be.
However, these `spats` between our political and faith leaders keep happening, and my sense is that they will continue in these difficult days- so my question is: `How are we to view them if we are not to be caught up in the caricatures give to us by the press?`
Firstly, (I say with my tongue in cheek) I think Alistair Campbell was right to caution Tony Blair. I think he knew that when politicians attempt, as he called it, to `Do God` that they are about as successful as the average Vicar`s attempts to `Do` economics` (and I include myself in this). For the results are often quite simply crass.
One politician famously suggested that the real issue behind the parable of the Good Samaritan was that he was the one who `had the cash to do the job`. So you see what I mean. Therefore the important thing is to ensure that the tone of the discussion is not about polemic or point-scoring but about respect and realism.
Politics- the way the community and our common life is conducted, concerns us all and it is far too important to be left to the politicians. However, as someone noted, we must remember that politics is the “Art of the possible”.
Therefore, it is right that we begin by commending those who have been called to public life. Elevating public service to a Vocation would do its reputation no end of good. I believe that we would do well to applaud the idealism, energy and commitment of many- who simply want to get things done, for the good of us all. And it is equally important that we pray for our politicians in the decisions and (many) temptations they face.
On the other hand, we mustn`t be naive or blind to the presence of rogues in politicians` clothing; to those whose agenda is self-serving, or those whose vision of our common life is destructive. Nor must we forget the many constraints politicians face. They have to get themselves elected. They have to appeal to the (often less noble) desires of others. There are things they simply cannot say (which we can). And to some extent it is inevitable that they will serve sectional or vested interests. So often they will be tempted to promise what (they know in reality) may be much harder to deliver.
To be fair, however, we must be realistic about our own role in this. There is a fair amount of collusion here. Such are our expectations of our leaders that they are almost compelled to make messianic speeches in which the slogans pour forth with pseudo-religious fervour. It doesn`t matter whether it`s: “Things can only get better”, or “There`s no alternative”, or “You`ve never had it so good” (remember that one?) it is because we have failed to register the humanity and fallibility that lie behind the grand rhetoric that we have landed ourselves in a state of semi-permanent disillusionment with our political leaders. Let`s be real: they cannot deliver `heaven on earth`.
It`s also worth being honest about the state of the political parties. For all the bluster, they are facing huge challenges. In many cases they have financial problems. They are struggling for membership and they are trying to get a hearing from an apathetic and disengaged community. From this list you may think we have a great deal in common! But let`s also remember that each of the political parties would give their eye-teeth for the network of community presence and involvement which we have. And this, I would suggest (without cynicism) is why I believe the Prime Minister has chosen to address these matters now. The reality is that we are a constituency- we have a vote.
So, our relationship- this dialogue between politicians and our faith community- must be carried out with respect and realism. However, there are things which we must challenge our politicians about, especially when they attempt to attract the `religious vote`.
Firstly, because we are regarded as a constituency to be courted- behind this lies the thought that we must be useful. (I know it`s obvious- but if we weren`t, we wouldn`t be courted at all!) In other words, this, it seems to me, is an indication that we may be moving away from the days in which politicians (as over the last couple of generations) have felt able to push us to the margins of our common life. Not anymore.
Such is the dis-ease I certain sections of our society- some politicians are beginning to realise that we have a role to play after all. I`ll return to this in a moment.
However, the first thing we have to do is to clearly acknowledge this marginalisation that has taken place over the years. Successive governments of every colour have systematically dismantled the networks we have created for good. I`m not suggesting we stamp our feet or start shouting `we told you so` and all the rest. But we need to name the blind prejudice there is and has been against people of faith along with a mistaken assumption that belief would die out in their `brave new world`.
Secondly, we need to make it clear to our politicians that Christians, people of faith, will always be a `fly in the ointment`. We will participate. We will vote. But we will never be able to sign up to the ideology of any particular party because such ideologies are always a partial and lesser vision than the one given in the Scriptures.
This, for me, is the great irony in the Prime Minister calling for the Church to speak to the whole nation. For the problem is that we DO, and we inevitably challenge the vested interests that a politician needs to curry favour with. No, on the contrary, it is WE who are calling on our politicians to speak to the whole country- and especially to its marginalised members. For it is evident when they are not. Notice the language they use. So often they describe themselves as being `in power`. It`s the politician who understands the bigger picture who talks of `governing`. There is a distinct difference. The two are not the same.
But the real clue that the politician doesn`t `get it` is when they fall into the trap of thinking that when we talk of faith we are talking about `being good`. For so often the politician`s vision of faith is to reduce everything to a somewhat crude moralism. They want us to `teach the people right from wrong`- as if this were our primary agenda. So often the politician`s vision of the Church is that we are those who will in effect keep things in order. As enforcers of some moral code we come to resemble a branch of the Inquisition or the Taleban. I exaggerate for effect- but you see, it is in this way that we are thought to be useful. This is why we are courted. But we`ll have none of it.
The clue that the politician doesn`t get it is that they will studiously avoid talking of Christ. You see, it`s so difficult to pigeon-hole him as the teacher of a moral code. Indeed, He told the people: `Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven`. (Matthew 5.20)`
In other words, the Christian`s call is not about `being good` but about `exceedingly good`. In fact the call is to holiness. A holiness and a sanctity which you can`t embody through your own efforts; less still through instruction but only through the inner working of the Holy Spirit. But of course this is a dynamic the average politician simply cannot comprehend.
Our politicians, in this sense, seem somewhat naive; not just about the realities of sin in the human heart but also about the limitations of their own influence and agenda. Again, they really cannot deliver a `heaven on earth`.
So this is why Advent and Christmas is such a subversive time. For we are forced to confront the bigger- and political- picture. Ultimately the need is for a Saviour. The one who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. And the call is to cooperate with God in the transformation of His creation. For the Saviour we await in Advent came not to make us more `religious`- but to bring life in all its fullness.
The Saviour we celebrate at Christmas is called `Lord` and `King`: those titles are just a little political don`t you think? For these are titles that judge and put into perspective all pretensions to power and authority in this world. Why do you think St. John was so keen to record what it was like when Christ met Pilate, the representative of the Emperor himself?
And the Saviour we welcome came into a world of great political turmoil (no change there then!) with the task of inaugurating a new world order. A world order that politicians are called to co-operate with.
It is for us to get stuck in as well. To work with them and to hold them to account when they fall short. Our daily prayer should be with Mary: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord”. But this is also a good prayer for a politician. And even perhaps, a Prime Minister.