Mandelson praises the Coalition: the theology of ecumenical politics
When the Liberal-Conservative Coalition was forged (and with a not irregular frequency since), there was talk of a re-alignment of British politics. There is, we are told, so much upon which the two parties agree that the Cameron-Clegg partnership feels as though it is more natural and conducive to the common good than (say) a Cameron-Carswell partnership: that Cameron’s doctrine is liberal conservatism and Clegg’s is conservative liberalism, so let them get on with it.
And now Lord Mandelson is trying to get in on the act, claiming that certain coalition policies are Blairite hallowed ground and that New Labour was the genesis.
And he is, of course, quite right.
England does not do revolution, in either the political or religious realms: while Europe was revelling in bloody revolutions, England’s was relatively bloodless, even glorious; while Europe’s Reformation took ecclesiology and theology from one extreme to the other, England’s was the perfect via media. Her natural disposition is for reform that is gradual, incremental, always in accord with Burkean organic principles.
So please don’t expect a political earthquake tomorrow announcing a seismic merger between the New Labour Blairite rump, ‘Orange Book’ Liberal Democrats or ‘Big Society’ Conservatives.
But His Grace is damned if he can put much of hair’s breadth between them.
They all favour prioritising the eradication of the nation’s £1trillion debt and addressing the fiscal deficit.
They all favour welfare reform.
They are all economically and socially liberal.
They are all sold out (quite literally) on the idea of man-made global warming.
They all favour ‘carbon neutrality’ and ‘green taxation’.
They all favour wealth redistribution as the primary means of the alleviation of poverty.
They all favour devolution and decentralisation.
They all (now) favour tighter controls on non-EU immigration, achieved through some kind of ‘points’ system.
They all favour the reform of education and the academy programme independent of LEAs.
They all favour health reform through the introduction of market mechanisms.
They all favour constitutional reform, be it the House of Lords or the electoral system.
They are all in favour of the UK’s continuing membership of the EU.
And they all favour a ‘new kind of politics’.
Nick Clegg summed it up in the autumn of 2007, when he said: “I want the Liberal Democrats to stand for a new kind of politics. A politics of people, not systems; of communities, not bureaucracies; of individual innovation, not administrative inter-vention. The days of big government solutions – of ‘the man in Whitehall knows best’ – are now coming to an end.”
David Cameron, speaking in the same month, used similar language: “We’ve always been motivated by a strong and instinctive scepticism about the capacity of bureaucratic systems to deliver progress. Instead, we’ve always preferred to place our trust in the ingenuity of human beings, collaborating in messy and unplanned interaction, to deliver the best outcomes.”
And so they have set out to create ‘a new progressive alliance to decentralise British politics’.
David Cameron’s vision of a ‘Big Society’ is essentially the occupation of the ‘centre ground’ of politics with appeals to ‘middle England’.
It doesn’t have to mean anything specific or achieve anything quantitative: there are no targets by which its success or failure may be measured. It is a feeling; a way of talking about community themes and public service, of fraternity and security.
Which brings His Grace to the theology.
For that which is politically or theologically ecumenical must, by definition, have universal appeal. To be ecumenical is to be outward-looking, tolerant, compassionate and enlightened: it is to be content with coalition.
To be dogmatic in either theology or politics is to be introspective, intolerant, unloving, uncompassionate and, dare one say it, bigoted. It is to express a tendency towards the doctrine of the Taliban; to be separatist, pure, orthodox and, in the final analysis, right.
Or at least that is how political ideology and theological orthodoxy are now invariably portrayed.
So, in this pervading spirit of coalition compromise and accommodation, it comes as no surprise that an Oxford college (Pembroke) has achieved an historic first by inviting an imam to preach in its historic chapel.
The pulpits of Oxford’s colleges have been occupied by ministers of the gospel since the 13th century: their sermons have been variable, their styles diverse, and their theology ‘developed’.
But it was all essentially Christian.
The invitation to Dr Taj Hargey – from the Summertown Islamic Congregation in Oxford – has taken ecumenicity to a whole different plane.
And it is even more alarming that his sermon was preceded by the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, which was read out by an 11-year-old girl.
Imagine: ‘There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet’ ringing out from the hallowed pulpits of Oxford.
They can get away with it, of course, because it is proclaimed in Arabic.
The whole initiative was the brainchild of the Rev Dr Andrew Teal, of Pembroke College, who said he had been trying to get a Muslim imam to deliver a sermon at the chapel for many years.
Not enough priests and vicars?
He said: “We wanted to do something which brought together Christianity and Islam, but not to create a third thing.”
A third thing?
Like a Christian-Muslim coalition, perhaps?
Dr Teal said the invitation was possible because ‘the two faiths are actually very close’.
East and West are very close.
While Abraham might be a key figure in both religions, and both might share the personages of the prophets of the Old Testament and some of their writings, but that is where ‘very close’ ends.
There is no unifying doctrine of God and no agreement on the path of salvation: the Isa of the Qur’an is not the Jesus of the New Testament.
Play ecumenics with politics, by all means.
But the ‘centre ground’ of theology is shifting sand.
Especially in Oxford.