On being a politically conservative Christian

So, I go away for a few days, and on my return discover that my former boss John Selwyn Gummer, aka Lord Deben, has been casting aspersions on my spiritual and theological integrity (he probably didn’t like this post; my thanks to Cranmer for his kind words). I thought that it would be worth saying a little bit more about my political perspective, not least considering the statement publicised today by many Bishops.

I see it as axiomatic for a Christian to be concerned with social justice. As I wrote in my book, it is not possible to be a Christian and not have such a concern. Where there are political parties that are based around a repudiation of social justice, that explicitly embrace ‘devil take the hindmost’ then I would see an irresolvable tension between support of such a party and continued Christian faith.

However, that does not mean that there is no longer any room for political argument. Most especially it does not mean – as so often seems to be assumed amongst the less reflective of the progressive establishment – that it is impossible to be a conservative and a Christian. As I see it, the heart of the disagreement lies in how we are to understand the role of the state. Roughly speaking, the progressive side of the political divide sees the state as a generally benign institution, and one to which resort may be made whenever a problem presents itself. Whereas the conservative side of the political divide is sceptical about the state, sees it as tending towards being a malign institution, and would far rather find non-state solutions to problems that arise.

Lying behind this difference is a divergent understanding of human sinfulness. The progressive agenda proceeds on the basis that human nature is perfectible, that, if the structural conditions were only to be correctly arranged, then human flourishing would be enabled. The conservative agenda, in contrast to this, sees human sinfulness as endemic and therefore seeks to avoid concentrations of power – for where there is a concentration of power it is inevitable that such a concentration of power will be wielded by a sinful human being, causing much havoc in consequence. Moreover it sees the wider distribution of power as best being embedded in the peculiar and local institutions that have grown organically around distinct communities. It sees the warp and weft of historical culture as a safeguard against the unwitting tyranny of bureaucrats with a Procrustean “vision of the anointed”. So everything from a monarchy to a parish council can be part of a human ecology which best maximises human flourishing. It will never be perfect – but it is the acceptance of imperfection that is both the blessing that a conservative perspective brings to the political conversation and also its vice, when it curdles into blind reaction.

Consider today’s statement signed by bishops. It is indeed a terrible blight upon our society that people face the choice between ‘heat or eat’, and also that there exists such malnutrition – although I suspect that latter might have as much to do with ignorance as with poverty directly. Yet the political conversation that Christians can have in such a context begins with ‘what shall we do about this?’ If the truth is that the state and only the state can provide an answer, all well and good. Yet if a more diverse response, with distributed power, is able to provide an answer then that, from a conservative perspective, is devoutly to be preferred. As Tim Worstall points out with regard to Jack Monroe, her story is actually about the horrors of being left with nothing to turn to except a remote and incompetent bureaucracy.

It often feels strange to enter into political argument with ‘progressive’ Christians, for it seems to me that the nature of the progressive stance does entail a great many consequences which the progressive would instinctively wish to fight against. For example, my opposition to Tesco was rooted in the conservative vision that I described above, a concentration of power leading to impoverishment of the local and the particular, in this case farmers and local communities. This is, on the surface, a cause that progressives seem to be sympathetic to. It is a form of resisting the imposition of a monoculture, and monoculture is the inevitable result of the concentration of power. The sick ideology that justifies what happens when Monsanto is given charge of seed provision is the same sick ideology that justifies what happens when monopoly supermarkets eviscerate our High Streets, but this is also the same sick ideology that justifies what happens when the centralised state is given a monopoly on social welfare.

We know what this sick ideology looks like. It is the enemy at the heart of so much popular culture. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated. The matrix has you.

What I find most striking is that so much progressive language uses Christian tropes in the service of such a dark, dehumanising and nihilistic project. Then again, the enemy is called Lucifer because he has stolen the language of light.

To my mind, the greatest grief that comes from this conversation – and indeed the bishop’s statement – is the ignorance of the wider crisis that we face as a society, of which the increase in poverty is simply a leading symptom. Not only are our bishops distracted by second order issues, on which they cannot even get their facts right, but they have lost sight of the spiritual heart on which we are to stand as we engage with the deluge of problems descending upon us. For more on this, see my book.

In our present context, the conflicts and contradictions at the heart of the progressive worldview are now bearing their inevitably bitter fruit, and the centralised, legibility-seeking, monolithic, overbearing and incipiently dictatorial gigantism exemplified in the EU is going to crash. I see the single most important political step that needs to be taken as withdrawal from that Leviathan. This is why, as I explained in my earlier post, I support UKIP. I am both a Christian and a conservative, in that order of priority, and the only political party that comes close to reflecting my understanding of the world is, with all of its flaws and embarrassments, UKIP.

The Lego movie and the House of Bishops Statement on gay marriage

A polished version of this morning’s sermon

In our reading from 1 Corinthians this morning St Paul writes of the importance of building upon good foundations, and then goes on to talk about what it is to be an ‘expert’ or ‘master builder’. This gives me the excuse I needed to talk about the Lego movie, which I took my boys to see last weekend, and which they are now pressing me to take them to again. The movie tells the story of Emmet, who is just your average Lego person, and who refers to the Lego instructions every moment of the day – to learn what to do when he gets up, when he goes to work, when he has coffee and so on. The arc of the movie is all about him becoming a ‘master builder’, someone who doesn’t just follow instructions but is able to be creative and new. Someone who can take the instructions for what they are but not be restricted by them.

I see the Lego movie as a good example of where our Christian heritage appears anonymously in popular culture. St Paul wrote (2 Corinthians 3): “Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

This is a commonplace within Christian culture. Our gospel reading this morning is a perfect example of the way in which Jesus pushes beyond a simple legal framework. Jesus repeatedly says “you have heard it said…I say unto you”. You have heard ‘do not murder’, I say when you are angry in your heart, it is as bad. You have heard ‘do not commit adultery’, I say when you lust in your heart, it is as bad. Jesus is pushing for a change of heart, a metanoia, one where consideration of the Law is simply the starting point for our journey into God, not the end.

There are wider issues at stake as well. When St Paul talks about ‘the works of the Law’ he is not referring to a legalistic righteousness; rather, he is talking about the cultural boundary markers which specify who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. Where the Hebrew community of the time rested in a sense of identity that was bounded by things like circumcision, food laws and sabbath observance, for Paul these were overtaken by our identity in Christ. Hence in Galatians Paul famously writes that in Christ we are neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. What this does – and Jesus lives out this teaching before Paul codifies it, when he spends his time with the sinners and tells them that they will enter heaven before the religious teachers – what this does is establish a new form of social organisation.

Rather than a group being defined by the exclusion of the ‘other’ – in other words, all the lego parts that don’t fit, that aren’t given a role in the instructions – now there is an identity formed by the sinless victim, Jesus himself. We each come to Jesus and find identity with him on the basis of our redeemed sinfulness. There is no righteous group passing judgement on another ‘less’ righteous. This is the working out of the fundamental law that the measure that we give shall be the measure that we receive. We are all sinners. We either live by a spirit of judgement and condemnation, or we live by a spirit of compassion and forgiveness. One is a spirit of domination and slavery, the other, as St Paul writes, is freedom: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

As Christians, therefore, we are called to be on guard not to allow legalism, an emphasis upon certain particular actions, to define our identity but rather to recognise the humanity and ‘God-lovedness’ of the Other. To not to be legalistic, but to pursue the right Spirit and allow that humility and compassion to guide our choices; and to rejoice in the freedom from legalism that being guided by the Spirit can bring. After all, Jesus told us that we have the keys of the kingdom, what is bound on earth is bound in heaven and what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven. In other words, it is not an antinomian distaste for a little book of Lego instructions that drives us. Instead, it is the liberty that comes from being a master builder. Everything is permitted, but not everything is edifying. The church community as a whole, commissioned in our baptism, has the authority and responsibility to pursue the free life of the Spirit, a Spirit that is known by the fruits of love, peace, joy and grace and so on.

This is what I believe the gospel to be, and I do not believe that I am alone in such an understanding.

So, having said all that, it may be possible to explain why I feel the need to have something of a rant. The House of Bishops of the Church of England has just issued a statement about gay marriage, and so far as I can tell the presiding spirit of the statement is in direct contradiction to the faith.

For those whose lives mercifully spare them from having to read such things, I will give a very rapid summary. The letter is addressed ‘to the clergy and people of the Church of England’, which is why it is right to discuss it with you this morning. Three key points:
it’s OK for a Christian gay couple to get married, so long as it is not in church – that couple can still be baptised and receive communion, and are full members of the body of Christ;
it’s not OK for a gay clergy person to get married, because clergy have to show higher moral standards;
clergy are forbidden from conducting gay weddings, also forbidden from conducting services of blessing for gay civil partnerships, but are encouraged to offer other things. In other words – I can invite a gay couple who have been married to have some prayers of thanksgiving said in church, I can bless them as individuals, I can pray for their future together, but I cannot invite them to be blessed as a couple. Despite the fact that the statement recognises that they can be admitted to communion. Obviously the House of Bishops consider a prayer of blessing to be more theologically significant than reception of communion.

In this debate, there are some consistent positions possible, and there are some creative positions possible. Sadly this House of Bishops statement is neither creative nor consistent.

EITHER – the church still thinks an active homosexual relationship is sinful, in which case we stick by established teachings, and the consequence of that is, logically, to disbar married gay couples from baptism and communion, due to their unrepentant sinfulness. The trouble with that is that almost nobody in this country is seriously suggesting it, and it runs very much counter to the warm words which the Bishops speak about homosexual relationships; OR they could say, we now accept that God is working through the culture, we have been in error and now see the light – and so fully buy into the changes that the government legislation enacts; OR they could say, we are working through these issues. There are still many conversations to be had around nature of marriage, but we no longer see homosexuality as necessarily sinful. Therefore, as a sign of our good faith, we are accepting blessings for civil partnerships and setting up some new liturgy for clergy to use.

The Bishops don’t choose any of the consistent or creative possibilities, they simply continue to fudge the situation. Why? And what is being held constant? It’s certainly not a strict reading of the Bible, for that would entail a much stricter approach to divorce than these Bishops have accepted, as Jesus discusses this morning. No, this is simply a political document. Sadly, the interests of this Church in England continue to be sacrificed to the altar of the ‘worldwide Anglican Communion’. This statement is quite clearly driven by placing interests of parts of the established churches in Africa ahead of the gay people in this country and abroad.

The real heart of the problem is the ‘us and them’ mentality, in other words, a form of destructive legalism which is used to ground a sense of identity. There is an official viewpoint which asks whether ‘Others’ meet certain standards or not, which says that some things are OK for some members of the Body of Christ but not for others. I am increasingly of the view that we will only be able to make progress on this issue when those speaking from positions of authority recognise that as the Body of Christ we are both queer and straight in the same way that we are male and female, slave and free, Jew and Greek – in other words, we will only be able to make progress when our gay bishops feel safe enough to ‘come out’, when the Spirit that sets free from legalistic demands is able to act and guide our House of Bishops.

Let us remember that Jesus had this to say about homosexuality…

Whereas he had this to say about those in positions of religious authority: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. “Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces. “Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.” One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.” Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them. “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

It is a sadness to reach the conclusion that this statement from our House of Bishops is utterly bankrupt theologically. It is mealy-mouthed and meretricious nonsense, a document driven by political considerations, designed to try and keep the different parts of the communion together, when most of the communion has already moved on, and moved on in different directions. It is a locking of the stable door after the horse has bolted. Elvis has left the building…

When did we become the Pharisees? When did we get so appallingly useless at what we do that the Lego movie is a better guide to Christian truth than official statements from our own House of Bishops?

We as the people of the new covenant are called into a relationship of freedom, led by the Spirit in which we can enjoy a relationship of non-condemnation and forgiveness, founding our identity on Christ alone. Perhaps the only fitting conclusion comes from this morning’s gospel:

Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

The argument from authority and CAGW

Here is a classic quotation from John Gummer, for whom I used to work (as a civil servant): “No reasonable person would ignore expert opinion and wager his children’s future on the contrarian views of people who are not peer reviewed.”

This is an appeal to authority – to ‘expert opinion’ which has been ‘peer reviewed’. Now, in straightforward philosophical terms, this argument is an error, it is the epitome of a text-book mistake. Appealing to authority is only as effective as the authority itself which is being cited and conveys no additional weight. In the absence of other consideration it can have some use, certainly it makes for a much more efficient life if the vast majority of our understandings can be developed by those who do things professionally. However, where those authorities themselves are in dispute, where their findings are contentious, then a proper response is not to retreat to ‘authority’ but to engage in the substantial issues.

So, with respect to Global Warming, the emphasis upon ‘consensus’, ‘expert opinion’, ‘peer review’ and all the rest of it makes sense in so far as those things themselves stand up to scrutiny. Where they do not – where, for example, the IPCC is shown to be systematically unscientific and corrupt, where the process of peer review is so problematic, where the predictions made are so at variance with observation – then the argument from authority is not simply mistaken, it is pernicious.

This is not the only field where appeal to authority causes problems, it is simply a very salient issue at the moment given our weather. Having authorities does not absolve us from the responsibility to think for ourselves. Most of all, having authorities does not absolve the church of the responsibility to think for itself on the major issues of the day. I am more and more persuaded that most of the problems with the Church relate to it having given up on the intellect – as if it feels it has lost the battle for intellectual credibility and now tries to justify itself to the world through its acceptance of social progressivism and works of peace and justice. See, we’re nice people, now you don’t need to be so horrible to us by pointing out our intellectual nakedness!

We need to be much more robust. We need to once more believe that theology is the queen of the sciences, and therefore all other knowledge is subordinate to the knowledge of the living God. Doubtless many will instantly cringe at such a cry – that is the depth to which we have fallen. If we concede this, we concede all.

The worldly widowhood of the Church of England

Sorry, bit of a rant coming…
As I am on lots of ‘green’ mailing lists, it hasn’t escaped my notice that the General Synod is about to debate climate change. This is, on a generous reading, about twenty years too late. If we had done this in the mid-1990s it would have been a timely move. Doing it now, however, is catching a bus just after the engine has failed. People are now getting off this particular bus.

Which of course is no problem at all if it is the right thing to do. We are – as the Gospel reading set for tomorrow tells us – to be salt and light in the world. We are to be distinctive, not following worldly values.

Yet this General Synod actually seems to me to be doing precisely the opposite of what we are called to. The aphorism is that ‘a church that marries the spirit of the age will be a widow in the next’. This time around it seems that the church is actually deciding to marry a dead body straight off, without getting the benefits of a living period first.

The worst thing is that the Church is missing the more important issues. If we look at environmental questions and social justice questions then we need to pay attention to the issue of the Limits to Growth more generally, recognise that we are crashing into them at great speed, and start taking steps to prepare people for coping with what is taking place. Most of all – and here I have an interest of course – we need to ground it in a much broader spiritual vision. To narrow down our attention to the one element of the green perspective that is increasingly (and rightly) being seen as profoundly mistaken seems doubly unfortunate. Yet again the Church hands over its thinking function to worldly authority, forgetting that ‘love God with your mind’ is in the first commandment, not the second. It’s not quite fiddling whilst Rome burns, more like knitting blankets when the house is on fire.

Ah well. The floods that are coming may well wash the CofE away. That too may be God’s will. Rant over.