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Who is my Neighbour? How the Church can stop politics from eating itself up

17th February 2015

Malcolm Brown asks what it takes to stimulate grown up debate about politics for people and communities in the real world.

Today, the Church of England’s House of Bishops issued a Pastoral Letter entitled Who is my Neighbour? – the first such extensive and reflective contribution to any election debate. It expresses dismay at ‘retail politics’ and anxiety about accumulations of power wherever they are found – whether in the state or the market. It contrasts the atomised individualism of a ‘society of strangers’ with a richer vision of society where the bonds of neighbourliness are strengthened, ‘welcoming our opponents as well as our supporters into a messy, noisy, yet rich and creative community of communities.’

The letter contrasts the visions on offer in 2015 with the agendas of 1945 and 1979 – the two post-War elections which ‘changed the political weather’ – but argues that neither is discussed today with the subtlety they deserve. Beveridge saw that, without strong voluntary and community action, the state could never bear the whole burden of securing the people’s welfare. And Margaret Thatcher couched her market reforms within a rhetoric of Victorian Values, similarly stressing responsibility and duty to neighbour.

That is the heart of the bishops’ agenda – restoring a politics of community to redress the damage to mutuality which the binary politics of state vs. market have bequeathed. It is a cross party agenda which is not yet mainstream in any party. An agenda explicitly rooted in scripture and Christian belief. A challenge to the depressing prospect of ‘politics as usual’. A vision worth voting for.

So how has this modest proposal been received? Whether from the Guardian or the Daily Mail, the media response is to interpret it as attack on the Coalition. David Cameron has reacted as if the letter was a rehash of earlier disputes about welfare reform. The letter has been mined for quotes to fit this pre-ordained template and the politicians have risen to the bait like programmed automata.

But the letter does not comment on the Coalition’s welfare reforms. Its wariness about an overweening state has been overlooked. Its commendation of the Big Society (a Conservative policy, lest we forget) as a fine example of the politics it wants to see is barely remarked upon. The letter talks about how we, as a society, talk about our fellow citizens and it warns against scapegoating ‘the identifiable “other”… whether… immigrants, welfare claimants, bankers or oligarchs.’ But is that not a fundamental Christian principle?

Try listening to the rhythms of a text. The letter is full of paired paragraphs – one critiquing the mindset of the right coupled with one making a parallel point, in mirrored language, against the mindset of the left. The core message is that neither is offering a hopeful prospectus at this election.

In short, the bishops have been thoroughly vindicated. If the responses of the media and the Prime Minister are typical of our political culture, it is unfit for purpose. Thoughtful reflections on the electorate’s disengagement are conjured into party political statements to be rubbished on party political terms. Seemingly, the Church’s views matter enough to raise alarm.

The Church’s voice matters because on both sides of the House are politicians who share a similar analysis and the same sense of direction. The bishops’ vision has roots, not only in the Christian faith, but in the deeper traditions, not yet dead, of all the main political parties. If the letter helps bring these political voices from the margin to the mainstream, and can build a hopeful narrative in the country at large, perhaps the wisdom of the Church may prevent politics from eating itself up.

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