But these are indeed critical moments in our national life, and thankfully our bishops rarely presume to have 'the last word' in such moments. With whatever authority they seek to speak, their interventions are invitations (implicit or explicit) to further reflection and conversation - and it is to that implicit invitation that I cannot help but respond - with some 'wonderings' that can claim no more authority than the bishops' statement, and certainly no more claim to be 'the last word' of a vital ongoing conversation.
I can only imagine the anguished discussions, in person, on the phone, by email, between the bishops in the process of agreeing this unanimous statement. The felt importance of presenting a 'united front', a single message - when they will no doubt have, among themselves, had passionate disagreements about the content, the tone, and even whether they should be saying anything public at all. I feel for them in those struggles. None of this is easy. To say anything, as much as to say nothing, is risky, costly, weighty in its responsibility.
But I fear their statement is both a mis-step in the present fraught moment, and also a symptom of a longer-term issue with what has, by some of its leading proponents, been labelled "Anglican Social Theology" (avoiding the term "political" is, in itself, one of the key issues here).
To take the present moment first, I'm going to quote liberally from a fellow Anglican priest, Revd Jonnie Parkin, who to my mind hits a number of the nails squarely on the head. After beginning by underlining that "there is much I agree with in this statement," and praising it for its "compassion, respect and a passionate concern for the marginalised to be at the centre of our thinking, speaking, and acting," Jonnie identifies six key problems with the statement:
- "Theresa May's government did try to implement the decision of the referendum but it became increasingly clear that this was exceptionally difficult without doing harm to the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the peace process in Northern Ireland, and the economic, cultural and scientific interests of the UK."
- "In attempting to be even handed, the bishops appear to have told off the bullied as well as the bullies. Truth, compassion and justice should never be sacrificed for the appearance of even-handedness."
- "There is considerable concern that the pro-Leave campaigns during the referendum not only deliberately misled the population, preying on their fears and prejudices, but has also since then 'shifted the goal-posts' to a harder Brexit [from] what they were publicly calling for."
- "The church's attempts to reconcile apparently irreconcilable views cannot always be held up as an example of how to promote unity, as very often that unity is at the expense of the spiritual and personal wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable members of society and our church."
- "Since the referendum the public voted in a General Election. It is that parliament, voted for by the public more recently than the referendum result, that has been unable thus far to enact that earlier vote. We are a parliamentary democracy."
- "The bishops' statement could be interpreted as supporting the Conservative Party's policy of not offering any deal to the public for a confirmatory vote. This would be tantamount to endorsing one party's policies over the others."
But what if there's a longer pattern here? What if the bishops' statement isn't just a misjudgement of the complexities of the current moment, but betrays instincts that are more deeply ingrained in the Church of England's patterns of public speaking? And what if the current moment is possibly the most critical yet, not just for the future of the UK as a whole, but for the Church of England's ongoing capacity to find words - and indeed actions - of faithfulness and truthfulness in public conversation?
Back in 1984, just before the CofE's publication of the influential Faith in the City report, theologian David Nicholls (in a brief booklet co-written with one Rowan Williams), wrote this biting critique of the tradition of "Anglican Social Theology" going back to Archbishop William Temple:
"We often refuse to take seriously issues of power and conflict which are central to the activity of politics. 'Social' has a more gentle and consensual ring about it [than 'political'] and, after all, is not Christianity all about caring and meaningful relationships?" Responding to the claim from one of his contemporaries "that the whole Christian gospel can be summed up in the word 'reconciliation'," Nicholls goes on to reflect wryly that "the only persons reconciled as a result of the ministry of Jesus were Herod and Pilate" (Nicholls 1984:28, 31).
The current dilemma for the Church of England is hardly new, then. But here are just one or two thoughts on what feel like the contours of it right now.
- The CofE has a deep natural tendency to be supportive of state institutions (e.g. government, parliament, law courts) - it is one of them, after all. But what happens when those state institutions come into conflict with at all (i.e. government vs parliament and the law courts right now)?
- Similarly, the CofE has a deep natural tendency to seek to be a voice of peace, harmony and calm, especially in turbulent and divisive times, and to avoid 'taking sides' in any way that might be perceived as politically 'partisan'. But surely its stated concern (even in this latest statement) to "listen … especially with the poor, with the marginalized, and with those whose voices are often not heard in our national conversation" requires a power analysis that can't always sit on the fence?
- One of the particular dangers of this present moment, however, is the way the political conversation has become dominated by the populist binary of "the people vs the liberal elite". However simplistic, even untrue, this binary might well be, the CofE's bishops are surely desperately anxious to avoid being labelled as being on the side of the "liberal elite". But even outside the binary populist narrative, that, inescapably, is who they are. Who we are. Of course, both "liberal" and "elite" could do with some unpicking, but class is a huge issue for the Church of England - and an issue because the Church is dominated by those from the upper end of the class ladder. Even many of us clergy who live and work in low-income areas have sufficient socio-economic capital that we have chosen to live here - and could equally choose to re-locate somewhere else. For the vast majority of the Church of England (and especially its clergy and bishops), even where we share day-to-day life with those with direct experience of poverty, it is not the life we live ourselves. This gap can paralyse those of us within the CofE that want to speak into political conversation - and doubly so when the "people vs elite" binary sets the terms of the debate.
- So the bishops may desperately want to be "on the side of the people", through lived solidarity and attentive listening, but again the populist binary lays a trap. On the side of which "people"? Which "poor", which "marginalized", which of the "often not heard"? And here, as well as the class complexity of the Brexit vote (detailed research suggests that the Leave vote was as significant among 'middle-class' as 'working-class' voters, if not even more so), there is inescapably a race dimension too - and here the Church of England's makeup is no less problematic. Leave voters were overwhelmingly White - and so, still, is the makeup of the Church of England's leadership. Brexit became, through the machinations of the Leave campaign, focused on immigration above all other issues, and the rise in race-related hate crime since the EU referendum has exposed the extent to which (as Anthony Reddie's new book highlights with unflinching clarity) the Leave vote was entangled with a fierce nostalgia for some imagined glory days of a homogenously White "Great Britain" at the centre of a global Empire. In the Brexit campaign and ongoing, increasingly inflammatory rhetoric, class and race intersect - almost always meaning that the voices of people of colour (who are also more likely than White people to be among the poorest) are "marginalized" and "not heard" even more often than the voices of White working-class people. The Church of England could choose to take a vocal and visible stand in solidarity with those on the receiving end of every-more-vicious racist attacks - but, paralysed by our own institutional Whiteness, and institutional racism, it again seems hard for us to be able to speak convincingly - and certainly impossible to speak innocently. Perhaps aware that the majority of White churchgoers voted Leave, the bishops may also be worried about alienating a large part of their own 'core constituency' by challenging the inherently racist Whiteness of much Brexit-related speech.
- The language of a "divided society", then, masks profound imbalances of power. Appeals for "respect", seeking "reconciliation", and even the call to "love one another", without rigorous analysis of how power is unevenly distributed, risk legitimising the 'status quo' (however fleeting) in favour of those currently with most power - and entrenching class stratification and societal racism / White supremacism.
- There is one further dimension to highlight - with both long-term and short-term dimensions. At the heart of the current incendiary rhetoric is the present Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. A white, upper-class male, well-schooled in patronising and bullying all those around him, especially those who have less power than he has (which, in his current position, is just about everybody). There is a gendered dimension to add to those of class and race - seen most clearly in his sneering dismissal of the fears of female MPs for their own safety, dealing with daily verbal abuse and threats of violence and murder. Again, the Church of England that is still crippled by an innate patriarchal sexism, finds itself in a position from which is very difficult to make criticism of others.
- If, in addition, there have (and I'm speculating here) been any threats from the Prime Minister's office to reduce or remove the constitutional privileges that the Church of England currently enjoys (bishops in the House of Lords, for example), as part of what appears to be a threatened "bonfire of institutions" (see e.g. the overt threats to the future status of the Supreme Court in the wake of the latter's judgment last week), then that can only be an added pressure on the Church of England's bishops to avoid specific criticism of the Prime Minister in their public statements.
Here, then, is the dilemma confronting the Church of England, in a nutshell: how do we 'own up' with penitent honesty to our own profoundly imbalanced and compromised social location and institutional reality (dominated by White, upper-/middle-class men), while seeking complex solidarities with diverse and marginalized 'others' who present challenges to both the church and wider society, and courageously challenging the powers-that-be where power is both concentrated and abused? The answer must, surely, include a willingness to give up - or be stripped of - most of the traces of institutional power that the Church of England, especially, continues to benefit from - even that of presuming to speak into political debate with some kind of 'authoritative voice'. It must also, equally certainly, include an unshakeable commitment to listen acutely, attentively, enduringly, and with a radical receptivity, to the many within, and beyond the Church who are not White, or not middle-class, or not male, in ways that challenge and change us, to our very DNA. Only in the context of that ongoing commitment to listening, repentance and change can we humbly and courageously seek to 'speak truth to power'.