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[/audioplayer]I am training for ordained ministry at a Church of England theological college. I am a trainee vicar, if you will. I am also a Conservative, which puts me in an extremely small minority and quite a tricky position. At my college, there are approximately 60 ordinands in full-time residential training. Of those 60, there are no more than three or four who would describe themselves as Conservative and the overwhelming majority would call themselves (proudly) socialist. There is also a sizable minority of Marxists.
In recent weeks, our national press has seemed surprised that senior clergy in the C of E, and the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, have expressed left-wing views — criticising welfare cuts and so forth. But what no one outside the church realises is that within, holding even gentle, centre-right views is strongly disapproved of.
Any overtly Tory priest-in-training would quickly learn the error of his ways. I have not, in two years here, heard anything other than left-wing bias in preaching, either from the staff or from visiting speakers. We are fed a constant diet of propaganda which assumes that all Tories are evil and that they exist solely for the benefit of the rich.
We have had lectures in which the speaker insists that all tax avoidance is evil, while overlooking the use of Gift Aid and other tax-avoidance measures in their own churches. Other lecturers have described fund managers as being useless and immoral — never a mention of the fact that the Church of England’s considerable assets are managed by just such people.
In terms of welfare reform, the established position is to the left of Archbishop Welby’s. It is generally considered that any change to the system would be immoral; that the only Christian solution is to keep increasing spending. I have never heard a priest discuss the fact that people might become dependent on welfare.
An example of the casual left-wing bias in the church can be found in a post doing the rounds on Twitter and Facebook which shows a picture of Jesus and the five thousand. Jesus is saying, ‘I can’t feed these people, it would destroy their incentive to better themselves’ under the caption of ‘The Tory version of the New Testament’. It is funny in a catty sort of way, but it also sums up the woolly thinking that is endemic within the church. It makes for a nice, easy dig at a political party that many clergy despise and suggests that the simplest solution is the best, when in fact the problem of poverty is extremely complex. There are underlying issues that we might usefully and prayerfully consider, rather than just saying: spend more money. The church of all places should be able to take a long and thoughtful view on these issues — after all, we have no elections to consider.
And Jesus wasn’t a lefty. Think again about the example of the feeding of the five thousand. It’s commonplace for Anglican clergy to use this parable to paint Our Lord as the great defender of unlimited handouts, but Jesus only fed these people once, and afterwards left them to their own devices. He could have ensured they were fed for all time if he’d chosen — anyone emailing round that cartoon might ask themselves: why not?
I am not saying that the way in which many of my fellow ordinands-in-training act is un-Christian. Far from it. We exist as a Christian community, living and praying together, and many of us here are very involved with projects to help the poor and the vulnerable. I am positive that all of my colleagues here will make excellent priests and will serve their parishes prayerfully and with great diligence. I have no problem with left-wing Christianity: what bothers me is that increasingly there seems to be no other option. Because socialism is the dominant political viewpoint in the church, the implicit message is that no one other than a socialist can be a real Christian. The appalling corollary of this is that if you do happen to find yourself politically in opposition to socialism, then the assumption is that you must be opposed to Christianity.
It is bad enough to be a Conservative — if you were to support Ukip or hold libertarian views, you would be putting yourself well beyond the pale; indeed, if word were to reach your bishop you might find yourself struggling to find a post after ordination. It is by such methods that the political orthodoxy of the church is maintained.
I don’t at all think we should become, once more, the Conservative party at prayer. We, the church, ought to be outside party politics, remaining as a ‘faithful irritant’ to the political classes and providing a voice for the poor and the weak. By becoming identified with just one political party — the Conservatives in the early 20th century or Labour more recently — the church has antagonised those who hold a contrary position. But we should not align ourselves with any party: we should be free to work with any party or none as the need arises.
When I mentioned this at college, the general opinion was that it is right and proper for clergy to be trying to ‘convert’ laity to a ‘proper’ understanding of politics, by which was meant socialism. I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea that there is a right, Christian way of doing politics and that this view is enshrined in the Labour movement. The church needs to make sure that the key messages of the Gospel do not become polluted by the populist politics of the age.
I am looking forward to being ordained later on this year (on 29 June if you feel you could pray for me…) and I will be serving a rural parish in a safe-ish Conservative seat. This doesn’t mean that I will slavishly follow the Conservative party line — I think that part of the duty of a priest is to be counter-cultural and challenging — but neither will I be a Labour stooge.
It’s not just the church that needs to change. If so many clergy still feel that Conservatives are by definition uncaring, then that is a challenge to the party too. I hope that during the next few years, the centre-right in the UK can re-cast their message in such a way that they change the perception held by many in the church that they stand ‘for the rich, not the poor’. We know that this is not the case, and that many if not all politicians, of all parties, feel that they are acting for the common good and trying to reduce poverty and oppression. Those on the left in the church have to accept that we are all working for God’s Kingdom, it’s just that some of us are looking at things in a different way.