It’s time for the Church to get serious about the things that really matter, says George Pitcher. And that means less time on same-sex relationships and more on the lost, the poor and the marginalised

Keir Starmer Labour Prime Minister

Source: Alamy

The first trope to emerge of our new Labour government is that it is serious. It’s said the adults are back in the room, led in by the calm and sensible Keir Starmer, “unburdened by doctrine”, he claims, treading lightly on our lives and always putting the country before party interests.

The purpose of this piety, which doesn’t actually mean anything when you poke it, is to put clear blue water between the new administration and the past 14 years of Tory “chaos”, a slogan that saw Labour through its election campaign to victory.

Like Tony Blair before him, Starmer is spinning an air of serious competence, in contrast to what Labour would like us to see as an essentially trivial and childish Conservative regime. That isn’t fair, not least because Rishi Sunak is a serious and substantial person.

It was really prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss who trashed the Tory reputation for seriousness with performances straight out of the panto tradition.

The idea that what we think now is all that matters is a consequence of the assault on tradition

As with Blair, the image of being serious can be made to stick. And if it sticks long enough, it can become the zeitgeist. Cultural history may well come to record that chaotic and clowning Conservatives were succeeded by serious and stable socialists.

The climate of our times, perhaps from now until the mid-2030s – and maybe even beyond if we don’t bring in clowns again – could well be defined by the single word ‘serious’. It may not be much fun, but then neither were Partygate or the mini-budget.

A serious mission

A question arises over how seriousness might affect other areas of our lives beyond the political. I have a particular interest in our national religious life, with specific reference to our established Anglican Church and other Christian denominations.

Starmer says he’s an atheist. Presumably a serious one (imagine him saying he hasn’t really thought about it – no, I can’t either). But he said in his interview with this magazine that he wants to co-opt churches in his mission of national renewal.

If that is to be so, then our Church must get serious too. Isn’t it so already? No, not really. Way too much time and attention invested in whether same-sex unions can be blessed at church; far too little expended on how we love our neighbours and serve the poor and marginalised.

If we’re to be taken seriously, to be serious enough to play a serious role in Starmer’s serious age, then we’re going to have to step up to the plate. That will mean emerging from an era of grotesque abuse of the vulnerable, with a sense of public service that this new government has claimed as its own, with crystal clear social and economic priorities.

Liberal meaningless

Anglicans and Roman Catholics should have all that in abundance. But too many of us have not. The fault line, one is sorry to say, is a liberalism into which faith trickles away into meaninglessness.

I’m sorry to say, because I would count myself a liberal catholic (Anglo-Catholic, that is). The trouble is that theological liberalism has come to mean, well, anything you want it to mean, beyond any critical reason. It’s now become little more than trying to be a bit nice.

It’s a shock to wake up and realise, as I did, that you’re socially conservative – for the family as socially foundational; against assisted suicide and euthanasia and resistant to biological gender becoming socially meaningless – but supportive of a social-market economy. On the model of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship, I’d be a Christian Democrat in a heartbeat.

If we’re to be taken seriously, we’re going to have to step up to the plate

There is both political and religious orthodoxy here. Political because Christian democracy, unlike Starmer, is burdened by doctrine. And religious orthodoxy too because it’s rooted in the scriptural law of the Beatitudes and the revolution in human worth that they heralded.

A dirty word

Like orthodoxy, tradition has become a dirty word in a liberal hegemony, associated with liturgical obsessions. These eclipse the accrued and lived experience of those of faith over the past two millennia. The idea that what we think now is all that matters is a consequence of the assault on tradition, which might celebrate a social gospel and servant ministry over arcane vestments and orders of service.

Ultimately, it will be a question of who we are as Church. The choice is between a dwindling social function and a cohesive people that speaks truth to power, enables service and counts the vulnerable as having equal value as the rich and powerful.

If that’s a manifesto that matches Starmer’s, then count me in. But if today’s disciples are to stand up and be counted, then it’s not a case of simply demanding to be taken seriously. We must also offer a serious vision of the future to which people of faith can contribute.