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How political should the Archbishop be?

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, Credit: Leon Neal / Getty

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, Credit: Leon Neal / Getty

September 17, 2018   6 mins

The post of Archbishop of Canterbury has never been a particularly safe one, nor one that wasn’t political. Thomas à Becket, Thomas Cranmer and William Laud (murdered by over-zealous acolytes of Henry II, burnt at the stake for heresy, and beheaded for treason, respectively), all died for publicly disagreeing with what the Church would call the temporal, or what we’d now call the political, powers of their day.

Justin Welby, the current incumbent of the See, needn’t worry about a similar fate. He has, however, come in for a degree of criticism for his speech to the Trades Union Congress conference, in which he condemned zero-hours contracts and the gig economy as “the return of an ancient evil”, apologised for the Church of England’s historical opposition to the trade union movement, lambasted payday loan companies and Amazon, criticised the tax system, and said that he dreamed of government putting charities such as food banks, night shelters and debt advice clinics out of business.

Some of the criticism was that a religious figure should take any political stance. A more reasonable objection, in my view, was that Welby’s speech was excessively party political – a distinction he himself made during it, though while denying that his position was party political. The third criticism, which came soon after the speech, was that it was hypocritical, since it turned out that the Church of England itself not only employs people on zero-hours contracts, but that the Archbishops’ Council (which Welby chairs) expressly advised that they do so, and that the Church Commissioners, who handle the Church’s finances, own quite a lot of shares in Amazon.

The first objection is a non-starter. Anyone who thinks that the clergy should stay out of politics, or that religiously-motivated politicians “shouldn’t do God” (as Alastair Campbell advised Tony Blair, arguing that it was a recipe for trouble) is on a hiding to nothing. Religion and politics are both ways in which people attempt to make sense of the world, ensure justice and attempt to correct iniquities. On any reading of the Bible, it is impossible for any Christian, let alone any clergyman, not to scream from any available pulpit for a radical rethinking of the world in which we live.

What is not obvious is a solution provided by the material world, let alone the policies of Jeremy Corbyn in 2018. The direct teachings of Jesus provided by the Gospels are non-existent when it comes to specific instructions on issues that seem to be of high priority to many people who call themselves Christians (homosexuality, birth-control, race, class, redistribution of wealth). They are, however, painfully direct about things which often seem impossible aspirations: love God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself.

One of the most remarkable things about Jesus –and an indication of the powerfulness of his teachings – is that he was totally obscure for most of his life, and active as a preacher for no more than a year or 18 months. He was sufficiently popular to acquire a following, but sufficently unpopular to be crucified.

Yet within a hundred years, Roman writers describe his followers as “dangerous”, and a serious political threat. Not much more than two centuries later, their ideas conquer the known world, and create civilization as the West knows it. A third of the world’s population is nominally Christian, and even secular, liberal, post-religious societies – in other words, most developed countries – have been largely shaped by Christianity.

In historical terms, then, religious power has often been political. Much of European history is the story of clashes between the Church (which usually meant the Roman Catholic Church or the Pope of the day) and national monarchs and governments. The episcopal seat of Canterbury has been a hugely important political power for at least the last thousand years. The Archbishop is not a sort of Anglican Pope, but he is primus inter pares for millions of Christians, and also sits in the House of Lords as a legislator (Welby sat, for example, on the Parliamentary Committee for Banking Standards).

There are plenty of arguments for disestablishing the Church of England, but none for saying that clergy should not take political positions on speak out on political matters. The Archbishop’s position, however, requires a more balanced approach than Welby seems able to take. The criticism of his speech as party political is much more well-founded.

In it, he conflated the teachings of the church with what are more or less the current policies of the Labour Party. This fits in with his previously expressed opposition to, for example, the Government’s Universal Credit policy, caps on benefit and his scepticism about Brexit.

The speech expressly referred to capital as something that “reduced human dignity and treated labour as mere resource” and cited John McDonnell, the Labour Shadow Chancellor. In this, he probably resembles the vast majority of Anglican clergy who (unlike the majority of Anglican laity) express a clear preference for the policy solutions of the Left.

Yet, when the conflict between church and state is prompted directly by the teachings of Jesus, it is quite unlike the conflicts between competing political powers. The power of Christianity’s message is that it is a challenge to the material world, and to material power. Much of Christ’s teaching, notably the Sermon on the Mount, demands a literal inversion of norms: the elevation of the poor, the meek, the downtrodden. The Gospels are clear, however, that Jesus actively resisted attempts to characterise his message as political: it transcends politics.

Injunctions against the exploitation of the poor, and that “justice should flow down like waters, and righteousness like an everlasting stream”, are Biblical, political, and very much part of the Archbishop’s business.

What isn’t a similar imperative is the assumption that the ends of the Kingdom of God are identical to the exhortations of the Labour Party, the Guardian’s leader column and the lazy assumption that a caring and just society always requires government intervention, public spending and greater power for the trades unions.

It’s hard to see, to take a fairly obvious example, why taking a portion of people’s earning by compulsion, and then redistributing it to the poor through a wasteful and inefficient bureaucracy should be more virtuous than people freely giving their money to the poor. Yet that’s what many now assume – as Welby did in his call for government to put church-run voluntary food banks out of business.

Even those who defend aspects of the tax system and the welfare state ought to recognise that both can become not only a trap for the poor, but a danger to the morals of those who are enjoined by the Church to care for the less-fortunate, by absolving them from their own duties. There are those on the Left, and in the Church, who seem to think that some charitable provision is in itself a disgrace, because it is doing work that ought to be handled by the State. There’s no Christian mandate for a particular political system.

It’s perhaps unlucky, or if you think that way, poetic justice, that Welby should have chosen to start his speech to the TUC with a quotation from the Book of Amos. Because the whole passage which he cited is directed at religious hypocrites. It comes from a section in which the Lord tells the people of Israel that their prayers and sacrifices are in vain if they persist in their “treading upon the poor” and other sins. The almost immediate revelation that the Church employs zero-hours contracts and invests in Amazon, who had been condemned by the Archbishop, were held up as evidence of hypocrisy (which the modern world sees as one of the greatest of all sins).

It’s certainly inconsistent of the Archbishop, but it’s evidence of the limited nature of his alignment of virtuous political behaviour with the priorities of socialism. The economic evidence certainly doesn’t automatically condemn low taxes, flexible working, or reduced government as evils, or leading to oppression. Quite the reverse.

If the Archbishop’s priority is the welfare of low-paid workers, he should perhaps have noted that only 12% of those of zero-hours contracts object to them, and the vast majority actually welcome the chance to work flexibly. He might have spotted that unemployment is at an all-time low.

He could also note that increased globalisation and freedom in markets have led to huge improvements in wealth and well-being and lifted billions out of poverty. In 1820, 95% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty; today, the numbers are almost reversed, with well over 90% not in extreme poverty.

In the past century, free markets have increased the world’s GDP ten-fold, led to global increases in life-expectancy, a reduction in child mortality from more than 50% in the vast majority of countries to less than 5% in all but a few, and all while the population and their standards of living have grown at a phenomenal rate which the Left once insisted was unsustainable.

The Bible condemns the misapplied love of wealth, and its elevation above the love of God, but it also actively encourages its creation and spread, and the evidence suggests that the best way of overcoming the evils of poverty is not socialism. There are certainly notable remaining inequalities of wealth globally; but they are between countries which have embraced free markets and those which persist in socialist or crony capitalist systems.

The Archbishop’s background is, rather unusually for a clergyman, in business, since he worked as an oil executive until the late 1980s. So it is unlikely that he is altogether unaware of these straightforward economic truths. Unfortunately, he has failed to grasp that inequality and poverty are reduced by markets, and that the real examples of exploitation and injustice that he notes are largely the products of attempts to subvert them, either by corporate distortions, government interventions, or discredited socialist economic plans.

He might take a lesson from the remaining Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered, and whom I missed out from the earlier list. In 1381, Simon Sudbury was dragged out of the Tower of London and on nearby Tower Hill had his head hacked off by a mob. His offence was that he had approved of the introduction of more taxes.

Andrew McKie is a political columnist for The Herald and former Obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph


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