Archbishop of York attacks Gordon Brown's government
Margaret Thatcher endured years of abuse at the hands of turbulent priests, and Cranmer is delighted that the tradition is being continued. He commends Dr Sentamu’s speech reproduced below to his readers and communicants. It was given at a dinner organised by the Institute of Jewish Policy Research, and concerns the role of religion in politics. Although Cranmer does not agree with it all, it is cogent and incisive piece, and a damning critique of New(-ish) Labour under Gordon Brown.
My Lords, ladies and Honoured Guests all: Shalom. Peace be with you. And in my mother tongue, Katonda Abere Mamwe.
I am greatly honoured to receive the Gold Award from the JPR not least due to the eminence of some of the previous recipients. I was saddened to read recently of the death of one of those recipients: William Frankell.
Although I never met William Frankell I am only too aware of his immeasurable influence upon the development of the institute and of his passionate interest in its work. William Frankell received this award four years ago and I know from that alone how much this award means. Thank you for giving me this honour.
I also want to acknowledge the openhearted generosity of the institute in inviting me, a Christian deacon, priest and bishop to share my thoughts with you. Lord Haskell has been characteristically generous in his introduction, it is a reflection of both his generosity and spirit that I have come to know well through our shared time together as trustees of the John Smith Institute.
As Simon is about to stand down from his role of Chair of Trustees for that group, let me take this opportunity to pay public tribute to his dedication in all that he has done, often unnoticed by the great and the good, in working for a vision of a fairer society. It is that generosity of spirit, and care for the other, which runs like a golden thread through his work for think-tanks, trusts, organisations an the House of Lords.
Standing before you this evening I feel like an undergraduate at Cambridge who, on revising his study of the Hebrew Scriptures, decided to concentrate on the Kings of Israel.
There was not a single question on Kings but plenty on the Prophets. The first question was: "Compare and contrast the Prophets Elijah and Elisha".
Our friend began his answer thus. "Be it far from me to compare and contrast such great men. Being a humble student I will compare and contrast King David and King Solomon”.
The title given to me by those who invited me is “The Role of Religion in Politics Today”.
I come lately from the city of York where, in 1190, at Clifford Tower, in York Castle, a mob who called themselves Christians set the tower alight, filled with Jews who had sheltered there for safety – many died in the inferno, some took their own lives and those who escaped the fire were massacred. I belong to a religious tradition which, at times, has organised Crusades and Inquisitions, treating Jews as less than human. For me, as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew, I am sorry and deeply ashamed. And especially over the Holocaust: where God was violated and blasphemed. Lord have mercy!
So while I am confident in my faith, joyful in my praise of the Almighty and privileged to serve alongside people of all faiths and none, I am also aware of the ambiguity of organised religion.
Organised religion is always ambiguous. It can be both an instrument for good or for great evil. When I consider the history of organised religions the world over and look at the present state of our world and the countless acts of violence committed in the name of God, is it any wonder that the third commandment given to Moses on Mount Sinai was not to misuse the name of the Lord?
Such acknowledgements of wickedness give succour to those dogmatic atheists or illiberal secularists for whom any Utopian vision requires the eradication of all religion. Yet we only have to look to the Third Reich, the former Soviet Union and the present regimes of North Korea and Burma to consider that a society without religion rapidly loses faith in humanity.
People become essential means of production – except, of course, the ruling classes.
It isn’t by accident that every totalitarian movement of the last century sought to eradicate the influence of belief in God prior to imposing its despotic will.
In our new century organised religion has become not so much the enemy to be eradicated but the tool to be abused.
Whether it be the so called Salafi-Jihadism of Al Qaeda claiming the lives of innocent people perversely in the name of Allah or those narrowly focussed political parties attempting to usurp religious values and heritage, the purveyors of hatred and violence cover their wickedness with a religious cloak, or to use the words of Rabbi Lionel Blue, “the terrorists covering their own inner violence under a fig leaf of faith”.
Such abusers of religion lay easy claim to centuries of heritage with their lip service whilst their actions, and in some cases perverse ideologies, twist out of shape the garment of faith woven over centuries by faithful scholars and adherents.
For those who claim the mantle of faith, the ultimate injunction must be for us to know God better, to know God more, and to love and serve our neighbour better. In doing this we fulfil our obligations not only to God but also to the society which we share.
Such duties and obligations form the bedrock of a religious approach to politics that extends far beyond the comparatively modern term of “social justice”.
Rather the prophets and the law lay the foundation for our primacy of care for the other and in so doing lay down the foundation for the role of religion in politics.
As Jim Wallis, of the Sojourners, noted in his foreword to a recent report on the role of Christianity in Britain today:
For Christians a commitment to the kingdom mandates that we seek the “common good” of the societies in which we live. Catholic social teaching is rich with the idea of the common good, as are Protestant traditions with their idea of the “public good”.
The common good is not simply a concept embedded within the Christian tradition. Jewish concepts of shalom and tikkun are concerned with the common good, and the idea is also rooted deep in the history and theology of Islam.
The common good suggests that the good of each individual is necessarily and vitally connected to the good of all.
It is a test for all the key questions that we face: from family values to foreign policy, from the housing we dwell in to the social values that dwell within us, from health care to healing of our national fears and divisions, from the distribution of our resources to determining the things we value most, from the things that make for peace on a global level to the community level, from our definitions of justice to our practice of it, from what we'd like to change to what gives us hope for ever changing it.
Of course there are some for whom this business of our worship of God and the loving and serving our neighbour means that we should have no place in the political arena. As Bismark said, “Politics is the art of the possible”, and we need to look at what is possible and good within our communities.
It is perhaps no surprise that it is when I receive a letter from a correspondent supporting my views I am congratulated for my apparent bravery in speaking out, whilst those who disagree with my stance castigate me in the most telling terms for getting involved in politics – didn’t I know that religion and politics should not mix ?
The word Politics derives from the Greek for Polis – the City, for the place where life was lived and public business was done. How can anyone think that God is unconcerned or unconnected with any parts of our lives, public or private, or that we can build arenas which become no go areas for God?
God is intimately involved with the world, and we are his people must be also. At the same time, we are people who have put our trust in God and worship him, and this is part of our identity as citizens of the world. We must remember that Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights protects not only the holding of religious beliefs, but also the ‘manifestation’ of those beliefs – “in worship, teaching, practice and observance”. Though we must be clear that ‘practice and observance’ does not mean simply the narrow context of corporate worship.
Religion concerns the spirit in humanity, whereby we are able to recognize what is truth and what is justice; whereas law is only the application, often imperfectly, of truth and justice in our everyday affairs.
Politics has to do with the well-being of the City – a city which must be safe, generous and welcoming.
Speaking in a Christian context, Desmond Tutu put it this way: “I don’t know what Bible people are reading when they say religion and politics do not mix”.
Not only do religion and politics mix, they must mix because religion enables politics to rediscover our duties and obligations to one another, to focus on service and community and to maintain a sense of liberty as a bulwark against an over-reaching state. I would like to consider each of these briefly in turn.
One of the many mantras of the New Labour party of a decade ago was that of “rights and responsibilities”: the idea that along with entitlement comes obligation.
Unfortunately the combination of a rapacious consumerist appetite upon this mantra has led to the situation where seemingly unfettered rights and entitlements have come to the fore whilst responsibility has not simply gone out of fashion but seems to have fallen off the radar.
The language of social justice may ring out in the phraseology of policy makers but it is a hollow call if at the same time our duties to one another, our responsibility to care for and look out for one another is lost.
There is a danger that instead of seeing in one another the infinite worth of divine creation, that gives birth to our caring, we instead concentrate on what our own entitlement is and how we can utilise it to the full.
This is where religion can act as a corollary as a constant imperative to act not in our own interest but in the interest of others.
Is it any wonder that organisations in Britain such as the Hospice Movement, Amnesty International, Shelter, the Samaritans and countless other organisations and movements have been founded and motivated by those with a religious faith who recognise the responsibility and duty towards the other ?
More recently the Drop the Debt campaign, and Jubilee campaigns, taking the Biblical idea of Jubilee to reinterpret it as a measure of freeing the most indebted in our world from crippling debt, have demonstrated that such care and concern is not limited to the religious alone but are founded on religious ideas which are adopted by a wider society.
The work of Micah Challenge in holding our own Government and others to account over the Millennium Development Goals remains an urgent work and one in which I would encourage you all to join in.
One of my predecessors in York, Stuart Blanch, told the story of how the Devil was once asked what he missed most after he was cast out of heave:
“He thought for a moment, and replied-"I miss most the sound of the trumpet in the morning." What did the Devil mean?
It is true that he had chosen to reign in hell rather than serve in heaven; he preferred to be a law unto himself instead of an observer of the law of God; he had decided to pursue his own objectives rather than the objectives which God had prescribed for him.
In short, he was free. But what did he miss? What was this sound of the trumpet?
Like most men who served in the Forces during the second world war I did not relish the early call, the fixed routines, square bashing, seemingly irrational regulations. That trumpet call represented a serious loss of freedom. But at the end of a week’s leave I was glad to climb into uniform again and resume my painful servitude. I found it onerous to be free.”[ The Trumpet in the Morning Stuart Blanch (1979) p.3]
I know that many people find the same – that there are tensions between the benefits of law and freedom. And we need to also recognise that there is a growing unease about the erosion of freedom in this country as well as the erosion of law.
The trumpet which was once the herald of this nation’s greatness was the imperative of moral responsibility, of doing the right thing, where what was right was informed by a faith based understanding.
Now we are told, if we push for the end of religion in the public arena, in our politics and the public square, we will free ourselves from the shackles of an enslaving and moribund moral responsibility.
However if this is the direction which will shape our politics moral responsibility will be displaced not by reason, science or ethics but by sheer consumerism.
The moral imperative of doing the right thing is in danger of being replaced by the consumerist imperative to buy the right thing. And to buy it now, whatever the cost.
Our country’s politics is capable of being driven by morals based on improving not only our own economic well-being but also that of our neighbour, of improving society not just our own lot.
However the individualism of consumption and the vaunting of individual economic status over our communal well being has led to a politics which has given the market the role of moral guardian. In such a situation it is the weakest who are the first to the wall with the moral outrage of religion against such shabby and unfair treatment being reduced to nothing more than economic commentary.
Thankfully I am by no means the first Archbishop of York to address the question of whether religion and politics mix. In 1942 William Temple published his groundbreaking work, Christianity and the Social Order, where he sought to apply Christian values to the political issues of his day.
Key to this work was William Temple’s identification of three principles: freedom, fellowship and service and how their application might lead to a more just society.
The first of the principles William Temple described as liberty, or the principle of respect for personality in all people.
He explained that 'if each man and woman is a child of God, whom God loves and for whom Christ died, then there is in each a worth absolutely independent of all usefulness to society.”
This is a principle we need to hear afresh, not least in our treatment of the elderly, those refused asylum, young people in the care system, and the severely disabled, who, in my book, are clearly our teachers.
These voiceless members of our society, without votes, and without political advocacy remain of equal worth in the eyes of God and should not be left to fester on political slagheaps.
William Temple’s second social principle was an expression of the social dimension of freedom:
'No man is fitted for an isolated life; every one has needs which he cannot supply for himself; but he needs not only what his neighbours contribute to the equipment of his life but their actual selves as the complement of his own. Man is naturally and incurably social'.[Christianity and the Social Order William Temple (1942) p.62]
As we say in Africa, “I am because we are. I am because I belong; I am because I participate”
Social fellowship teaches responsibility and inter-dependence. It demonstrates the fallacy that people can live disconnected lives, isolated and individualised or atomised from one another. This social fellowship is expressed through family life, school, college, trade union, professional association, city, county, nation, church, synagogue, etc.
It is an understanding that we sink or swim together. That we are bonded together by our common humanity. That we are members of the one race: the human race.
All these groupings need to be fostered by the state, which should give them the freedom they need to guide their own activities. They are crucial because 'Liberty is actual in the various cultural and commercial and local associations that men form. In each of these a man can feel that he counts for something and that others depend on him as he on them'.[Ibid. p.64]
William Temple’s third social principle was one of service: the combination of Freedom and Fellowship as principles of social life find meaning in the obligation of Service'.[Ibid. p.68]
William Temple’s analysis still stands today. Freedom and fellowship operate at their best when we seek not our own welfare first but the general welfare of all people.
Having learnt the infinite worth of each individual, and the value of inter-dependence it is through service to both family and community that society as a whole benefits. Our wider loyalties can be used to check the narrower: we can and should check these keener loyalties - to family, career, and home - by recognising the prior claim of the wider humankind, nation and our global village.
So we may live on an island, but no man or woman is an island.
“So a man rightly does his best for the welfare of his own family, but must never serve his family in ways that injure the nation. A man rightly does his best for his country, but must never serve his country in ways that injure mankind.”[Ibid p.70]
Religion can also act as a bulwark against the excessive interference of both the market and the state.
As I have stated above, William Temple believed that everyone had an equality of worth before God, but he did not see that this implied that everyone should occupy the same kind of position in society and be treated in the same kind of way. In his charge to the clergy of Manchester diocese he argued that: “men are born with different capacities and different gifts, and if you insist upon the principle that everyone must be free to develop his own life [as William Temple did], the result will be an emphasis on Liberty, but there will be no Equality. Whereas if you begin with an insistence that all are to be counted alike, however different their gifts and powers, then of necessity you will put great restraint upon many of the citizens and possibly on all.”[Christ in His Church: Diocesan Charge. William Temple 1925a p.80]
Our current Government is in danger of sacrificing Liberty in favour of an abused form of equality – not a meaningful equality that enables the excluded to be brought into society, but rather an equality based on dictat and bureaucracy, which overreaches into the realm of personal conscience.
Such petty mindedness can be combated with the generosity of the Divine which can be found at the heart of faith and which religion at its best safeguards through the valuing and encouragement not only of the voiceless but of all.
Human rights without the safeguarding of a God-reference tends to set up rights which trump others’ rights when the mood music changes.
Our society needs once more to rediscover the compassion and service at the heart of religion. With the vision and direction provided by religion politics can renew itself and become once more that which we can all seek to engage not only for the benefit of ourselves but for the benefit of our neighbours.
The words of the prophet Micah that echo through the centuries as we hear his injunction anew to – “To do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with the Lord your God”. In practical terms it can be seen in the countless calls throughout the Bible - one part Hebrew and one part Christian - to defend the fatherless, the widow and the orphan.
To welcome the stranger and to share what bread we may have with those who have none.
This religious vision needs once more to become a political vision for all to create a more just society and usher in God’s rule of justice upon earth.
Let us all do it, and let us do it now.