The Bishop of St David’s ‘Never trust a Tory’ tweet has re-ignited a debate about the ‘politicisation’ of the clergy. But church leaders should not be muted when it comes to public life, argues Tim Farron. They should speak graciously, but they should speak
The Church in Wales announced last week that the Bishop of St David’s, Dr Joanna Penberthy, is on sick leave amidst pressure to resign over a partisan political tweet against the Conservative party. Now let me say that I believe she was absolutely out of order with her tweet. She has since apologised, as have the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Bangor. But the fact that she is now on sick leave speaks volumes about the intense stress generated on all sides by the state of today’s political discourse.
The Bishop’s comments have re-ignited a debate about the ‘politicisation’ of the clergy, including from Conservative MP Chris Loder, who ticked her off being a “politician wearing a mitre, not a bishop”. But in an article in The Sherborne Times, Mr Loder makes a controversial ecclesiastical statement of his own. Citing an understandable concern that parishioners will be alienated by clergy taking sides in political debates, he argues for church leaders to display “complete political neutrality, so that politicians can focus on the earthly things whilst the Church can focus on its own health and wellbeing and, of course, the divine.”
Now this seems to me to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the Church. Of course church leaders should not be waving party membership cards around and castigating anyone of another political creed, but “complete political neutrality” implies that they should also refrain from calling out government policies that are wrong, maybe even deeply morally wrong.
To be political is to care about how society is run and how its people are treated. The Bible is very clear that God cares deeply about how we treat one another, and equally clear that those in authority are placed there by him – but that they need to be held to account for their actions.
The problem is that our culture believes faith should be private; internalised and focussed on a disembodied escape from this world. This notion has its roots in the ancient Greek Platonic concept of the body and soul being separate entities, and was cemented by the Enlightenment’s insistence that faith and reason are opposite and incompatible. It is so entrenched in our Western mindset that it is massively difficult for us to think outside of it.
God’s kingdom is physical as well as spiritual
But it’s nonsense. I believe in an almighty God to whom I owe everything, who has offered me complete undeserved forgiveness and calls me to show the same grace and mercy to others. Why would it make sense for me to leave that radical world view at the door when I put on my ‘MP hat’ and pretend I didn’t believe that? We wouldn’t ask a Marxist to leave their world view outside the room before they came in.
Likewise, church leaders should not be muted when it comes to public life. They should speak graciously, but they should speak.
A practical gospel
Christians certainly should not expect our governments to bring about human salvation. The Bible is clear that only Jesus can do this. And he has called us to tell others this good news. But to insist that politicians should focus on ‘earthly’ things whilst the Church concentrates on the ‘divine’ is to deny the hugely practical side of the Jesus of the gospels.
Jesus came to save souls, but he also reached and changed people’s hearts by healing them and feeding them and caring for their bodies. He rebuked as hypocrites those who performed outward religiosity but then didn’t back it up with practical generosity. Indeed, justice runs as a major thread through the Bible and we see that God expects his people to enact it. In Isaiah 59:16 it says: “The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no-one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene.” The Old Testament books of the law are full of commands to ensure that people do not take advantage of one another but act generously to look after the widows, orphans and foreigners in their communities.
To be political is to care about how society is run and how its people are treated
In reality, the Church is hugely involved in practical measures to tackle the evils of poverty and neglect. Church communities have stepped into the gap left by the state to run foodbanks, debt counselling and other services at the hearts of their neighbourhoods. It is the outworking of God’s love for his people. I have been part of the South Lakeland Resilience Group since March 2020, which contains school leaders, public health professionals, councillors and – amongst others – a Church representative. No one bats an eyelid that the Church is there: everyone sees their relevance due to the practical role they play.
We are wary of labelling these actions as ‘politics’ and a false divide has been established between those who think of the church’s role as otherworldly and those whose faith is grounded in the gritty reality of local communities. But these aims should not be separated. God’s kingdom is physical as well as spiritual. The early Christians in Acts came together to ensure that they “gave to anyone who had need”. And, as part of the same process, “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:45, 47)
Ultimately, politics falls within the scope of ‘all things’ that Christ creates, redeems and rules. Instead of gritting our teeth and enduring this world until we can escape elsewhere, the Bible talks of the hope of a creation of a new heaven and a new earth. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see that God has chosen not to withdraw from the mess that his creation has made, but to break into it, in human form, and to act from within the world to put it to rights. If Jesus has not withdrawn from our world, it is reasonable to assume that bishops, vicars, pastors and priests should follow that example.
We are not seeking salvation from the earth but of it. Jesus rolled up his sleeves and washed the disciples’ feet, and he asks us to work alongside him, to reflect him into his world, to carry out acts of mercy and justice and to draw people to him. This will sometimes mean that a politician will have to endure a rebuke from a pastor. It can be sobering, but it’s never done me any harm!