It beggars belief that anyone could have accused the recent publication from the Church of England’s bishops of being left-wing. But they have. According to the Mail, the document entitled Who is my neighbour?, is a “meddling bishops’ left-wing manifesto”. Insanely, the paper goes on to explain how it comprises a ‘shopping list’ of policies, despite the fact that the first page of the document states in what must be about font 36, “this letter is not a shopping list of policies we would like to see” – which indeed it isn’t.
Other coverage was hostile if less egregious. The Telegraph editorial admitted good motives but then criticised the report for containing “a whiff of the conceit that Left-wing ideas are more moral than Rightâ€‘wing ones”. The Church, it claimed, “like the BBC, can exhibit a subconscious prejudice.”
The Guardian was more positive (indeed, I can’t recall reading a more positive Guardian article about the Church in a long while). “Those who actually take the time to read the bishops’ letter will be rewarded with a thoughtful and well-rooted Christian argument,” the paper said.
Such a split might suggest that there was something in the criticism/ praise. The Mail hates it, the Telegraph criticises it and the Guardian applauds it. It must, therefore, by all the rules of logic in the known universe, be the same kind of warmed-over leftism of which the Church of England has been accused for a generation or more.
It isn’t. The document is as explicit as explicit can be: “If anyone claims that this letter is “really” saying “Vote for this party or that party”, they have misunderstood it.” (para. 4) Moreover, this isn’t whitewash.
Mentions of the government are few and far between and when they do come they are cautiously positive. The report praises the government’s Credit Union Expansion Programme. It praises the Big Society, long after it seems the Conservatives got tired of that idea. It remarks that it is “to the credit of our politicians that the impact of the crisis has been less severe in Britain than in some other European countries.” It even praises the freshness of Thatcher’s vision in 1979, just as it does Attlee’s in 1945, giving her credit for her commitment “to restore ‘Victorian Values’’, by which she meant not only unregulated markets but a strong sense of duty, self-help and personal responsibility”, (para, 36) while simultaneously criticising her and subsequent governments for sacrificing those virtues on the altar of market individualism (although their critique is not even as brutal as that).
The bishops are almost painfully fair-minded on certain difficult subjects. On immigration, for example, they recognise “an ugly undercurrent of racism in every debate about [it]” but go on to “challenge the assumption that to question immigration at all must always be racist”, making a point that too many on the liberal left ignored for too long:
“Rapid change has often impacted most acutely on communities which are least equipped to handle it – partly because their experience has often been that change is to their detriment. It is unsurprising that communities which have faced deindustrialisation, the destruction of familiar streets and housing, whose pride in work and craftsmanship has been destroyed by the shift from manufacturing to services and for whom poverty has never been more than one step away should find the rapid shift to a multicultural society difficult to assimilate.” (paras. 104-105)
The whole thrust of the document is that the state vs market pitched battle is wrong and harmful. People are cynical about electoral politics because they see it as a falsely adversarial battle over two falsely salvific doctrines – two proverbially bald men fighting over a toothless comb.
The new vision they call for has two key elements: firstly, recognising that both the market and the state are necessary but not sufficient factors in our social life (cf. paras 38-39) and second, that the historic third leg of the social stool – comprising family, churches, religious groups, and institutions such as schools, Housing Associations, Credit Unions, and the like; often known as ‘civil society’ – is itself essentially to human flourishing but has been badly undermined over recent decades. It in through these intermediate voluntary associations, the bishops rightly say, that community spirit is built, a culture of reciprocity and responsibility is fostered, and people are humanised. The new vision that they call for must be grounded in this territory.
Of course, there are legitimate grounds for criticism, as there are in all political interventions. Perhaps there is a little too much of the “we must reflect more deeply” rhetoric. Perhaps the Telegraph editorial’s point about the bishops altogether ignoring “three-parent babies, euthanasia or gender-selective abortion” has merit. But the document’s clarion call – to bypass the sterile, uninspiring and increasingly tribal claims of ‘left or right’ – in favour of a politics that recognises the need for both state and market but also the need to beat both back from the borders of civil society, on which they have been encroaching for 70 years is entirely sound. The bishops’ call for a “community of communities” rather than a “society of strangers” is reasonable, intelligent and – above all – right.
The extent to which this vision is within the gift or remit of politics - as opposed to our broader public culture - will be debateable but to dismiss this particular political contribution to that debate for being very (or even vaguely) lefty is plain wrong. And, more to the point, it makes the letter's case – concerning a harmfully antagonistic and tribal political (or, at least, public) culture – for it.
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos