Faith and Politics
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
8 June 2008, 12:00 (Civic Service)
Just before the departure of Avram Grant as manager of Chelsea FC, the columnist Rod Liddle, in his unique, amusing, slightly acerbic and thoroughly cynical way pointed out some worrying similarities between Chelsea Football Club and a certain brand of centre-ground politics. You will have to Google his article for the details, and to discover exactly which particular brand of centre-ground politics he had in his sights, but let me give you a clue – it includes ditching charisma in favour of efficiency in a leader. No real clues there then.
I would like to propose another connection – namely the similarities between politics and religion as we hurtle away from Planet Stability into the unknown, social, political and religious territory of this new millennium. Think for a moment about the similarities and the challenges we both face as politicians and religious leaders:
We seem unable to capture the hearts and minds of young people in our respective constituencies.
We both find falling numbers engaging with the formal machinery of church and state.
We are trapped in an understanding of community that is rooted in neighbourhoods and fails to grasp the new forms that community is taking these days.
We could both be said to be victims of society’s growing mistrust of institutions.
We find ourselves clinging to the glory days of power and influence, but disinclined to accept that many of the major decisions affecting people’s lives today are taken by multi-national companies over which we have no power and little influence.
We are beset by internal disputes and, of course.......
- We suffer from chronic problems of image and public trust. Sinning vicars and lying politicians fuel the public’s hatred of hypocrisy and give religion and politics a bad name.
None of which is a very hopeful litany, is it. Little wonder that after the subject of death, the two things most people are disinclined to talk about are religion and politics.
So what should religion and politics do – pack up and go home? There are some who would say yes and about time too, but actually both religion and politics have a huge amount to offer to a flourishing society.
Let me tell you about a conversation I had a while ago with Neil Elliott, a university chaplain in Birmingham.
Neil had been away for 3 months on sabbatical and when I asked him what he’d been doing I thought his reply was meant to be a joke. ‘I’ve been snowboarding’ he said, ‘and I’m writing up some research on Christianity and snowboarding’. Yeah, right!
But it was true. And the more I listened to him, the more intrigued I became. Snowboarders are the new church, he argued. They are a highly supportive community; they live their lives ‘off piste’, pushing the envelope of possibility on the edge of adventure, at high risk. Why? Because in those moments of soaring down the mountain, holding your balance only by pushing against a slippery reality, fully committed and totally engaged, risking everything, they reach a state of heightened spiritual awareness sadly denied to most churchgoers through the normal Sunday diet of Anglican worship.
I’m précising hard, but you get the idea. The founder of our faith was one of the most adventurous people you could meet. Jesus climbed mountains, walked on water, sailed in storms, touched lepers, lived alone in the desert for 40 days, spent the most productive years of his life with no home and no income, and spent most his life walking towards situations most of us would intuitively walk away from. But somehow he has spawned a church that 2000 years later feels so different from this. Petty. Inert. Risk-averse. Institutional. Rule-bound. Exclusive. Not a particularly attractive proposition.
If we’re going to reconnect with the world out there, we need to recover our sense of risky adventure, we need to learn to snow-board. And to its credit, this is what the church has been trying to do for some years now. Out of the spotlight of media attention, there are some green shoots of new growth starting to spring up.
And I would dare to suggest that, in the same way that the Church has launched a whole range of new approaches under its Fresh Expressions initiatives, so politics needs to find new ways of engaging with people.
The concept of a democratic deficit has spawned virtually a whole new industry and political leaders on all sides make the right noises about addressing the causes and symptoms of democratic deficit, but nothing much seems to make a real difference.
Where are the creative pioneer thinkers in Medway’s political community who can help to address this? How much of Council discussion time is devoted to looking at issues of democratic deficit?
The Youth Parliament is a terrific initiative replicated around the country. How can we build on it, drawing in schools, colleges and voluntary sector youth organisations, in order to inspire political engagement among the young people of Medway?
All of us recognise the difficulties in becoming a councillor these days. Time and financial constraints have always been there, but they are exacerbated by sociological changes that have swept this country in the last two decades. Where is the Council’s strategy for growing, recruiting and retaining new councillors of the calibre necessary to support the emerging vision for Medway?
Maybe a think-tank is already in place to look at these issues but, if not, why not? If people’s lack of engagement with religion and politics is something to do with a lack of inspiration and vision, then this is something that has crept up on us almost unawares over the past quarter of a century.
I became a priest in the mid-1980s. It was an extraordinary time for the Church of England, a time when the church took on the government of the day and bloodied its nose, a time when it shook off its image of the Tory party at prayer and nailed its commitment to the poor to the mast. With the publication of the report “Faith in the City” in 1984, an inspirational handbook and vision was offered to many young priests of the time, myself included. We were forged in this furnace, a commitment to the margins of society. It was an inspirational time, a moment in history when individuals were motivated by an inspiring vision. I have to say that things feel very different now and it grieves me.
Today’s readings, which offer so much hope and dignity to the poor, reinforce the sense that when religion and politics offer a real vision then people will want to get involved. If we are too comfortable, too middle of the road, then we won’t inspire anyone. The danger of centre-ground politics and the danger of middle-of-the-road religion is that it lacks passion.
I began this sermon with an oblique side swipe courtesy of Rod Liddle at Gordon Brown. Let me right the political balance in my closing remarks.
Jim Wallis, who has been at this sort of thing so long you could likely call him a veteran campaigner on faith and politics in the United States, has recently published a new book “Seven Ways to Change the World” and sub-titled “Reviving Faith and Politics”. In the preface to the British edition of this book, he recounts the following story:
“I vividly remember a conversation with the then-Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, now the Prime Minister. It was a private breakfast and we were talking about poverty, as we had for the last 10 years. He said, ‘For the first time we have the knowledge, the information, the technology and the resources to end extreme poverty as we know it. What we lack is the moral and political will’. Then the Scotsman who was so passionate about the issue of global poverty leaned across the table at 11 Downing Street and said ‘That is your job, in the churches’. Brown knows it is his responsibility too and the recent speeches he has made are a virtual blueprint for a vision of globalisation that is inclusive of the most vulnerable across the globe.”
Our job, all of us, whether we are more at home in religion or politics, is to inspire a moral, political and, I would add, spiritual will in the lives of the people who are around us, to make a difference in a world that needs to find a whole new set of answers. That is a significant task, to inspire and motivate a world grown tired and cynical.
I don’t know about you, but I’m off to buy myself a snowboard.