When God does politics

Has the Church of England really "climbed down from years of political radicalism"?

May 11, 2017
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, pictured in 2016 ©Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, pictured in 2016 ©Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images

Before the 2015 General Election the Church of England produced a 52 page document explaining how and why Christians should vote, which told them a great deal but not which party they should actually vote for. We don’t know if anyone read it to the end.

This year, they produced a three page document and at least one person must have read it through: Jason Groves, the political editor of the Daily Mail. He had no doubt what it said: “THE leaders of the Church of England yesterday climbed down from years of political radicalism and support for left-wing causes. Its two senior archbishops sent an election letter to the faithful in which they abandoned their previous criticism of the Trident nuclear deterrent, their opposition to military intervention in the Middle East, and their support for European unity.”

It’s not quite as clear to the rest of us that the leaders of the Church are now in favour of Middle Eastern wars and European disunity, topped off with a threat of nuclear holocaust. None the less, the Mail’s spin was widely read. It looked like news. The picture of the Church as the opposition of last resort to Tory government took root in the Thatcher years, when the One Nation paternalism of Archbishop Robert Runcie and most of his Bishops was set up against the freedom of the market. This was reinforced under Rowan Williams, a self-described “hairy Leftie,” during the Blair years, but nothing much seemed to change when he was replaced by the Etonian Justin Welby.

Welby is a complex figure, almost as tangled as a Rowan Williams paragraph. He was born and nourished at the heart of the Establishment. He has all its mannerisms, charm, and ruthless confidence with power but at the same time he seems to carry inside him an angry, clever, lonely teenage boy who will always be an outsider.

The cutting down of 52 pages of waffle to three is a very Welby gesture. So is the fact that the three pages which remain are still waffle. But they are carefully judged. The Labour Party may be going back to the ‘80s, but the Church of England can’t afford to follow it there.

One important point is that the leadership of the Church of England is very profoundly out of step with most of the people who call themselves members. The great majority of them don’t actually go to church, but they want it to be there anyway. They are socially much more liberal, but economically and politically much more authoritarian than the bishops and clergy. I know of only one priest who voted for Brexit (though there must be more) and it is rumoured that one of the 103 bishops might have done. But among the laity, research by Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University suggests that sentiment was almost reversed. In all the age groups where they are found in numbers significant enough to measure, self-identified Anglicans were about 20 per cent more likely to vote “Leave” than their peers.

They are also profoundly nostalgic, hostile to foreigners (a comprehensive YouGov survey in 2013 found that 41 per cent of them did not believe immigration had benefited Britain “in any way at all”) and to welfare recipients: they are in fact natural May voters. Since the overwhelming majority don’t actually go to church, it might not be obvious that their opinions matter to the C of E, but they do.

Just as successful politicians give a great deal of thought—sometimes even more thought—to those who don't vote for them but might do so than they do to their core supporters, so shrewd Bishops pay serious attention to the “marginal” cases. Although only those who regularly attend pay the £750m the church raises annually, those who don't keep alive the memory that people ought to go to church, so they and their children form a pool of possible recruits. Among those who do attend regularly, opinion is more in line with the Church’s leadership.

For evangelicals and liberals alike, to be a Christian is something that ought to cut you off and distinguish you from wider society. But that is not how the mushy middle of the Church of England congregation traditionally saw things: for them the church was part of being English, and the important word in the denomination was not “Church,” but “England.” That England has gone, which is why the Church is going too, but the Archbishops have made a gesture towards it with this year’s election paper.