Have the Conservative Party written off the Church of England?
This week has seen the first meeting of the ninth General Synod of the Church of England, inaugurated by its Supreme Governor Her Majesty the Queen, and attended by the State shepherds of the sheep to discuss the pressing spiritual and political issues of the day.
The Conservative Party’s response?
On Tuesday, the Synod debated a key theme of Conservative policy: The Big Society. The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Timothy Stevens, said that the programme had begun to unleash a new wave of energy in the churches for practical social action. The Synod enthusiastically welcomed the concept of the Big Society as an opportunity for the Church and a way of emphasising work that is already being done.
The Conservative Party’s response?
They put out an email celebrating ‘Inter Faith Week’, ‘urging everyone to get involved in inter faith activities and make connections with people of different beliefs’.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles attended the opening of the General Synod, but nothing was reported by the Conservative Party or the Government: no email was circulated to celebrate the Church’s contribution to the ‘Big Society’ or its important role in public life.
Instead, he focused on multi-faith themes: “Collaboration builds stronger understanding and helps people to concentrate on the values they hold in common – without ever losing their unique strengths,” he said.
And the Conservative Party reminded us: ‘As well as aiming to strengthen bonds between people of different faiths, Inter Faith Week also seeks to increase understanding and collaboration between people of religious and non-religious beliefs.’
There is no longer a privileged place for the Church of England in the Conservative Party; just an expression of ecumenical, multi-faith mish-mash to unite ‘people of religious and non-religious beliefs’.
And the Conservative blogs were no better.
The Party’s own blog said not a word about the Established Church all week.
But neither did any Conservative blog.
The Blue Blog doesn’t even have a category heading into which a discussion could be placed, unless the Church is now merely a component of ‘Community Relations’.
The Spectator's Coffee House has a CofE category, but Theo Hobson uttered not one syllable (in fact, he has only ever uttered one article on the Established Church, and that was more than a year ago on the matter of the Pope's visit).
And the nation’s foremost ConservativeHome blog steered clear of the subject altogether, following its decision to commission and publish an article on Remembrance Sunday which proposed that Islam should be adopted as the state religion.
It is curious, if not a little hypocritical, that the blog which castigated the Archbishop of Canterbury for daring to comment on Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms has absolutely nothing to say when an entire Synod debate is dedicated to exploring the Christian roots of a major theme of the Cameron Government. You would think that ConservativeHome might at least mention the Church’s ‘Big Society’ debate.
Not a word.
Instead, its editor Tim Montgomerie wrote a piece for The Times berating the Church for talking about nothing but homosexuality.
And thereby simply gave further expression to the media caricature that this is indeed the case.
What about the Church of England’s social housing programmes? Its inner-city work among the poor and disenfranchised? The fact that it runs thousands of schools? Its advocacy work for prisoners of conscience in repressive regimes? It unparalleled dedication to charity concerns? Its voluntary work with the elderly, disabled and other vulnerable groups?
The Church does not only talk endlessly about these things; it does them. But the media aren’t very interested, you see: they wish to focus on the drama of division, contention and conflict.
Just as they do with the Conservative Party.
The Church of England is the national embodiment of the ‘Big Society’ and has been for centuries. But the media focus has been the endless debates, committees, reports, schisms and not-quite-schisms on the issue of homosexuality.
Yet behind the scenes, without a word of thanks or appreciation, they simply get on with being acutely engaged in social action; expressing compassion to the alienated, outcast, oppressed and persecuted, irrespective of their gender, skin colour, sexuality or religion. And they were doing it while David Cameron was still a whining schoolboy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly past Bekynton to Lower Chapel.
Margaret Thatcher, a Protestant Nonconformist, knew and understood. In a speech in 1977 she observed:
‘The Tories began as a church party, concerned with the Church and State, in that order, before our concern extended to the economy, and many other fields which politics now touches. Religion gives us not only values – a scheme of things in which economic, social, penal policy have their place – but also our historical roots. For through the Old Testament our spiritual roots go back to the early days of civilisation and man’s search for God’.The reality is that David Cameron doesn’t really ‘do’ Church: he doesn’t understand its foundational precepts and he doesn’t grasp its constitutional significance. The CofE does not form part PPE, even at Oxford.
And what the Conservative Party does not do, the Conservative blogs do not do.
And when they do, their narrative evidences precisely the same obsessions as the BBC: homosexuality and Islam.
In Statecraft, Margaret Thatcher wrote: ‘I believe in what are often referred to as “Judaeo-Christian” values: indeed my whole political philosophy is based on them’. In her second volume The Path to Power she went further: ‘Although I have always resisted the argument that a Christian has to be a Conservative, I have never lost my conviction that there is a deep and providential harmony between the kind of political economy I favour and the insights of Christianity.’
David Cameron’s Conservative Party would do well to reflect seriously on the constitutional importance, historical significance and the social and community imperative of the Church of England.
Before it is too late.