On 17th February 2015 the House of Bishops published ‘Who Is My Neighbour? – A Letter from the House of Bishops to the People and Parishes of the Church
of England for the General Election 2015′.
The Church House press notice is here.
The following brief summary of the Letter has been produced by the Church of England’s Parliamentary Unit:
The Letter calls for a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be and encourages Christians to engage in politics and to use their vote. It calls on all parties to recognize the importance of intermediate institutions, including churches, in building a society that recognizes the virtues of interdependence and community. Recognising that we have become too much a ‘society of strangers’, the letter asks how we can instead become a more stable ‘community of communities’.
The bishops recognise that individuals entering politics usually do so with the best of intentions, but that our political culture and political parties are failing to deliver a convincing moral vision of the kind of society we may want to see. A new approach to political life is required that will “change the political weather” as did the administrations of 1945 and 1979, but no such thing appears to be on offer at this election. Voter disengagement has spread because successive administrations have done little to address the trends which are most influential in shaping ordinary people’s lives, whilst parties have neglected political vision in favour of the ‘retail politics’ over who might manage the existing system best.
Nonetheless Christians should use their vote. They have a right and a duty to ask questions about how the common good can be achieved. For politicians, an understanding of religion is crucial for understanding the dynamics of national and global politics.
Christians should engage in political life but be wary of accumulations of power, whether in the hands of the state or the corporate sector. Neither state nor market-based approaches to social policy have in the long-term succeeded in creating stronger communities. Instead they have:
“taken power and decision-making away from the levels of human interaction where people feel most able to become human together.” (paragraph 56)
The alliances and networks formed by intermediate institutions and the voluntary sector are instead vital for a flourishing society. In this sense, the bishops say:
“the ideals that The Big Society stood for should not be consigned to the political dustbin – they could still be the foundation for the new approach to politics, economics and community which we seek.” (paragraph 95)
A political approach that emphasises the importance of these informal networks and intermediate institutions should be favoured – one that encourages a ‘community of communities’, not a ‘society of strangers’. Such an approach would recognise people’s attachment to their local areas, respect the natural environment and reject a politics that:
“exploit grievances, find scapegoats and create barriers between people and nations” (paragraph 1)
whether they be:
“ethnic minorities, immigrants, welfare claimants, bankers or oligarchs” (paragraph 76).
One consequence of the trend towards a ‘society of strangers’, the bishops say, is the growing extent and effects of loneliness, and the increasing need for supportive informal networks of help for those who are physically dependent and vulnerable, and whom society does not always seem to value:
“We are most human when we know ourselves to be dependent on others. That is something we first learn in families, if we are fortunate enough to experience the blessings of family life. And families are not only for children.” (paragraph 59)
Christian traditions of neighbourliness and hospitality are needed in national debates around immigration. Care needs to be taken to meet concerns about immigration in the context of rapid social change, but in a way that avoids simplistic arguments that can stoke resentment of others.
Whilst the market economy has delivered growth and employment, there is a need to restore moral values that prioritise the long-term. Increasing debt disempowers nations and individuals, as does worklessness, and whilst the state’s role in underpinning the welfare of every citizen needs acknowledging,
“this provision must neither supplant local voluntary action and neighbourliness where those things exist, nor ignore the way in which dependence on state provision can undermine individual initiative and responsibility.” (paragraph 38)
The bishops’ Letter expresses concern that nationally the burden of austerity has not been borne by those most able to cope and calls for the adoption of the Living Wage as a way to address in-work poverty. It suggests that educational institutions have an important role in fostering a sense of identity and community, and an ideal of human value that extends beyond the purely economic.
The UK’s global role, including within Europe, should be considered in the context of our increasing cultural and political interdependence with other nations. Within that, the bishops say, there is a need to also look critically at the future of our nuclear deterrent and to examine seriously the relationship between national government and global economic power.
Our national commitment to deliver on the target of spending 0.7% of national income on overseas aid is welcomed.
Though the Letter is clear that it does not encourage Christians to vote for any one particular party or ideology, the bishops suggest (in paragraph 120) that voters support candidates and policies which demonstrate the following key values:
Halting and reversing the accumulation of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands, whether those of the state, corporations or individuals.
Involving people at a deeper level in the decisions that affect them most.
Recognising the distinctive communities, whether defined by geography, religion or culture, which make up the nation and enabling all to thrive and participate together.
Treating the electorate as people with roots, commitments and traditions and addressing us all in terms of the common good and not just as self-interested consumers.
Demonstrating that the weak, the dependent, the sick, the aged and the vulnerable are persons of equal value to everybody else.
Offering the electorate a grown up debate about Britain’s place in the world order and the possibilities and obligations that entails.
The Letter starts and finishes with Philippians 4:8 –
“Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”