The Labour Party at prayer. Credit: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

February 12, 2021   4 mins

It was in 1917 that the high-born suffragette Maude Royden coined that oft-quoted phrase linking the Church of England and the Tories: “The Church should go forward along the path of progress and be no longer satisfied only to represent the Conservative Party at prayer.” Over a century later, one might imagine the very opposite complaint: that the Church should no longer be satisfied to be only the Labour Party at prayer. That little world “only” being rather important in both cases, for if the Church of England is to be, in any credible sense, the church of the English people, there is something highly troubling about it having been captured so thoroughly by one political perspective.

A survey just out reveals only 6% of Church of England clergy admitted to voting Tory at the last election, whereas a whopping 40% voted Labour, believing that Jeremy Corbyn would make a better prime minister. Yes, it is a very small survey, but even accounting for a considerable margin of error, this is a remarkable finding. Indeed, what is also fascinating is how the number for Pentecostal church leaders was so dramatically different: among this group 49% voted Conservative whereas just 12% voted Labour.

This is especially interesting given that Pentecostal churches are predominantly made up of black Christians. Yes, IPSOS found that only 20% of BAME voters in general went for the Tories, but of that 20%, I’d bet a very high percentage were what the press likes to call “very religious”. And even disregarding that, it seems that minority voters are over three times as likely to vote Tory than the clergy of the Church of England.

As a recently Tory-voting clergyman in a black-majority, inner-city parish in the Church of England, I am unsurprised at these figures — both by the voting patterns of my fellow Anglicans and by those of our Pentecostal brothers and sisters, some of whom we share our church building with. It is clearly now the Pentecostal churches that have become the Tory party at prayer.

But what on earth happened to the C of E?

Historically, the Tory Party and the established Church were joined at the hip. But the sort of vision that once united them — a kind of gentle, originally rural, communitarianism, under God and the Queen — has been abandoned by both sides, the Tories becoming more libertarian, the Church more progressive. Whereas both were once brought together by the idea of human beings flourishing when rooted in community, over time both progressives and libertarians came to agree with each other that this was little more than some fusty bogus nostalgia, with one side exiting stage Left, the other stage Right.

That the Church should lean to the Left makes a certain kind of sense. It quite rightly recognises a Gospel imperative to care for the poor. But what makes less sense, to me at least, is that this imperative can best be realised by abandoning the idea of human rootedness in community and replacing it with an issues-based identity politics that can be achieved by campaigns run from head office. This is the core of what is behind the current debates within the Church about the role of the parish. Perhaps this is also why I think of myself as a Tory Socialist — a strange beast admittedly, but one put together by what I take to be the internal and historical logic of the Church that I love and serve.

If these new figures are anything to go by, the majority of the clergy of the Church of England must surely find the people who sit in the pews, listening to their sermons, a considerable disappointment to them. For whereas it seems that only a handful of clergy voted Tory at the last election, over 47% of the population did. And while there is no breakdown for how Church of England members themselves voted in 2019, two years earlier some 58% of them voted Tory — and that is quite some disconnect. (And similarly, churchgoing Anglicans supported Brexit in large numbers, something not true of most of the men and women giving them Communion.)

The idea of the establishment was once of an alliance between the state and the Church, both supporting each other in the best interests of the country. Before the constitutional reforms of New Labour, the prime minister was able to influence the appointment of bishops. Although many bishops and clergy hated it, this did allow an elected government to bring to bear on the Church something of the perspective of the country as a whole. In 2007, the Presbyterian-minded Gordon Brown gave up the right of prime ministers to influence the appointment of bishops, making No. 10 simply a post box between the Church and the Crown. Looking back, this may well have been the point at which the establishment began to fall apart.

Though the Church and the state would have often furious rows — Bishop of Durham, Faith in the City etc. — the constitutional ties between them meant that they were forced to find a way to come back together. After the Brown Reforms, this was no longer so true. No more could a Tory PM like Margaret Thatcher encourage the Church to think outside of its progressive clerical bubble through her influence over episcopal appointments. And indeed, when the next coronation comes round, who knows what reforms there will be — to the coronation oath, for instance — that will weaken the Church’s relationship with the state?

Traditionally, the maintenance of this balance of interests was at the heart of what it was to be a Tory. Personally, I don’t really give two hoots about the constitutional machinery of the establishment. I am a parish priest and all that stuff operates well above my pay grade. At least, that is what I used to think. But now I have come — albeit a little grudgingly — to regard the establishment as a necessary part of the plumbing that links the Church with the people it serves. It is a way of stopping us retreating into our own echo chambers of narrowly construed moral virtue.

Among those I have described as progressive, I too believe that the clergy of the Church of England should reflect the sort of people who sit in our pews. It must do so in terms of gender, ethnicity and sexuality. Also, unless you believe that the clergy are somehow more morally enlightened than the laity — and I don’t — then it needs better to reflect their politics as well.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.