Inspiration for this post
Last week’s Theos report on the voting habits of christians, catholics and those of other faiths seemed to prompt a bit of comment. I haven’t witnessed a hornet’s nest, more the recognition of some uncomfortable truths. The headline that got the most attention was that the Church of England remains the Tory party at prayer.
From my perspective, the most interesting aspect was about the variability in nonconformist churches. I’ve written before a little about my political views and how they relate to my faith, but I want to take an alternative look at here.
Background to my thinking
To those who would claim that christianity is inherently apolitical, I would recommend reading through the New Testament after some reading literature about Roman culture in the first centuries BC & AD, playing a game of “spot the counter imperial rhetoric”.
To give something of an order of priorities, to me as a christian, Christ comes first. How we understand the person, teachings, life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth are paramount. We may use a variety of tools (variously coming the umbrella term ‘theology’, though some are identifiable by other names such as history or philosophy) to understand him, but this is the way to approach questions of faith and God. To drive straight at these topics without going via Jesus is like trying to walk through a brick wall while ignoring the door. This task is not individualistic, but is to be undertaken as a community, an ekklesia, a church. That is not to be corporatist, either; we each have our own responsibility, just as I have my particular duties within my company. I am not my company and could not possibly fulfill all its duties. I need the help of my colleagues.
Out of this understanding comes a revised worldview. This, to my understanding, is the sort of thing Paul refers to in Romans 12 where he speaks of the renewal of the mind. This worldview expresses itself a variety of ways. Amongst the many colours, shades, shapes and flavours this manifests itself, politics is one them. To try to remove politics from the worldview strikes me as artificial. It says “I will let this thing called christianity inform and potentially change my views on A, B and C, but not X, Y and Z”.
From this revised mindset we can then ask what kind of politics this entails. I have given a sketch of what this mindset looks like before. To summarise, I find the position I am in can broadly be described as left-wing. This statement must be understood carefully. I would not claim that christianity is inherently left wing or right wing. These are terms that came into our language from the French Revolution. To apply them retrospectively to Jesus and his early followers is anachronistic. What I do is find my worldview based on my best understanding of the relevant issues involved and then look at who my nearest neighbours are.
From political views to party politics
Of course, not everyone agrees with me. That much seems clear from the Theos report. But there is a factor missing here, which is the link between political views and political parties. While I describe myself as left-wing and have views on various topics that could be described similarly, it does not follow that that means I should wholly and unequivocally support a particular political party.
This was epitomised last week during a Twitter exchange with the organisation, Christians on the Left (formerly the Christian Socialists). I stated that I could not become a member because they are affiliated to the Labour party. Some take the view that it is better to be a part of a party with whom you disagree so that you can attempt to change it, others like that is idealistic and foolhardy, preferring to stand on your own principles rather than kowtow to the whims of the party leaders and whatever manifesto their spin doctors have produced. You won’t be surprised to read that I fall into the latter group. I will not be a member of a political party nor be a member of an organisation that has a close affiliation with a political party.
That doesn’t mean I abstain from voting for people who members of political parties. As I went some way to explaining before the referendum on the alternative vote system I am also a pragmatist and have voted tactically in the past. This has led, in the past, to me voting for Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and independent candidates, at one election or another. Ideally, I would like to be able to vote for individual local representatives, based on their own policies and ideas as well as to vote for cabinet members who, having met a requirement for suitable experience (e.g. an education secretary who has worked in a school or a health secretary who has worked as a doctor or a nurse). That’s my kind of idealism, but I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime.
For now, I settle with trying to make the best of bad system. Though it may surprise some, I bite my tongue a lot when it comes to political matters. No more so than in the office where I am surrounded by conservatives (indeed Conservatives) who views sicken me. But this is not the place to moan about my workmates.
The main point
So, with that slightly lengthy preamble over, what of the title of this piece? If I find the values of individualism and greed which lie at the heart of what it means to be a right-winger to be an anathema to my christian beliefs, why am I happy to worship alongside conservatives?
It is because of the order of things referred to above. First and foremost, the ecclesiology I hold to is one of inclusiveness and unity. We are to be one Church abiding in Jesus Christ. Everything else comes second. We may disagree about some of the consequences of what it means to be a christian, but so long as we are looking at the same Jesus, then we can stand side by side.
It is because of this that I am happy to worship alongside conservatives, creationists, homophobes, misogynists and any other type of person who holds views contrary to me own. Yes, I think they are all wrong and would dearly love them to think through their views, but that should not be an obstacle to fellowship. Yes, it may cause difficulties and make us all assess what the tone should be that we use when univocally declare the gospel of the coming of kingdom of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, but that doesn’t mean we should stay silent on the matter until we agree on every secondary or tertiary matter.
Unity in the Church (including cooperation and shared fellowship between churches) is something I have, in recent months, come to prioritise more than I have done before.
To look at it the other way round, imagine if churches were not welcoming to those who disagreed with one or two points of emphasis. We would end up shutting people out. The first people I want in churches are sinners, a category in which I include myself. Just as I may view conservatives as the “weaker brother” I know they probably view me similarly, thinking that my left-wing ideas of caring for people are immature or naive.
If we are to understand that the CofE leadership is broadly liberal, then having a conservative membership may actually speak to the leadership’s credit. If they have fostered an environment where any and all feel welcome, then that is something to be commended. I might not agree with someone’s voting patterns, and I am glad I live in a country where I can say so. OK, the Tories may have just pushed through a gagging law preventing religious organisations and other charities from criticising their policies, which is rather worrying. However, as that was not part of their manifesto or the coalition agreement, those who voted for the Tories last time cannot really be held responsible for the passing of such a draconian measure.
We can have our discussions over party politics, over matters of socio-economic policy and I think it’s fine in the short term for us to disagree over how the gospel impacts those. But when it comes to church, let us put aside those differences and worship the risen and living God together.