Politics and the CofE

The commencement of a new Parliament presents a range of new problems for faith groups and other organizations to address, but for professional lobbyists it provides a degree of justification for their raison d’être. The Revd Stephen Heard’s guest post for Archbishop Cranmer The way the Church does politics is largely ineffective is therefore timely, particularly in view of the recent appointment of the Rt Revd David Urquhart, bishop of Birmingham, as Convenor of the Lords Spiritual.

As a former civil servant with a background in political and media relations, and Parliamentary Chaplain to the Bishop of London 2007-2013, Stephen Heard is well-placed to review the Church’s initiatives in this area – possibly better than a former lobbyist for the cement and car industries, (dp), [although Frank has experience both as Clerk of Bills and through CLAS]. Nevertheless, we are in agreement with much of what Stephen says in relation to the lobbying process per se, although as “outsiders” as far as CofE lobbying goes, have some different perspectives to add to the debate.

Comment

The “dark art” of lobbying civil servants, parliamentarians and ministers is an area that few individuals or commercial organizations are willing to discuss openly, (except perhaps at a job interview or, as a consultant, when bidding for work). By its nature, lobbying is not an altruistic activity and announcing one’s “successes” may prove counter-productive. Although as the Established Church, the Church of England is in a somewhat different position, this dichotomy between broadcasting and confidentiality on its advocacy appears to be no different.  A 2008 Mission and Public Affairs, [MPA], paper commented [1]:

‘[i]t is therefore often necessary to judge when our interventions should be made in public, and when our objectives are better served by building on our relationships with key people and offices. It is thus not possible to assess the volume of the Church’s contribution by reports in the media of what has been placed on the public record, ‘[emphasis added]

Not surprisingly, therefore, as outsiders we can glean little first-hand information regarding the Church’s interaction with government departments, MPs and ministers, and the parliamentary process[2]   What is known, however, is that the activity in these areas has the professional support of the MPA Division, which is well-regarded by other religious bodies[3]. With regard to the Church of England’s overall approach to public policy, Archbishop Rowan Williams said[4]:

“We do not as churches seek political power or control, or the dominance of Christian faith in the public sphere; but the opportunity to testify, to argue, sometimes to protest, sometimes to affirm – to play our part in the public debates of our societies. And we shall, of course, be effective not when we have mustered enough political leverage to get our way but when we have persuaded our neighbours that the life of faith is a life well lived and joyfully lived”,

a position that reflected that of the Roman Catholic Church in Deus Caritas Est[5]. Whilst this general approach may be unchanged, the level of engagement and involvement with government under Archbishop Welby appears to be significantly greater.

The range of examples quoted in Stephen Heard’s post – from the tweets of individual bishops and the Bishop of Sheffield’s “personal sermon blogged to the Prime Minister” to the pastoral letter “Who is my neighbour?”– illustrates the problems faced by Church of England in terms of communicating its position to government; none of these represented the “official”/corporate view of the Church of England directed specifically at government. Whilst fully agreeing with Stephen on the value of developing relationships and establishing trust through face-to-face contact in relation to “official” communications, whether formal or informal, in an organization such as the CofE, it would be difficult to enforce “fewer speeches, open letters and hostile blogs” even down to diocesan level, given the degree of autonomy afforded to bishops. With regard to the Lords Spiritual, this is emphasized in the Church’s written submission on the reform of the House of Lords, GS MISC 1004, which stated [paragraphs 39 and 40]:

‘ . . . . .whilst bishops take advice, no whip is either imposed or observed that binds their activities to the expressed view of their diocese, the General Synod or Archbishops‟ Council.

On legislative matters Lords Spiritual are as much to be found taking divergent views as uniform ones – and the parliamentary record shows that they will speak and vote accordingly. As the Lords Spiritual do not conceive of themselves as a ‘bloc’, or behave as one, there has been only a handful of occasions when, in very close votes, their votes have been decisive.’

A more strategic approach to the operation of the Lords Spiritual was addressed in the context of the House of Lords Reform Bill, given the possibility of a significant reduction in their number. The written submission of the Archbishops to the Joint Committee on the draft Bill, (GS MISC 1004) and the oral evidence of the Archbishop of Canterbury on 15 November 2011 provide valuable insights to the activities of the bishops in the House of Lords and the possible changes that were considered at the time, and reviewed in our post Parliamentary Reform and the Bishops. However, the demise of the Bill required no such changes to be made.

With regard to his reference to Gillan Scott’s call for “a level of external conscience watching over the new Conservative Government”, it might be argued (depending on one’s point of view)  that the bishops’ pastoral letter in February was an example of the CofE acting in such a role. However, what is perhaps significant about Gillan’s post is that it refers to the actions of a number of churches or individuals within them rather than the Church of England alone. As in other areas of lobbying, a particular message is given more weight by government if delivered by several different organizations, although this can be weakened where it is necessary to adopt a “lowest common denominator” approach in order to secure the agreement of all.

David Pocklington

In view of his work in this area, Frank was not involved in the preparation of this post which draws upon David’s LLM thesis and his other publications.


[1] P Giddings, ‘Voice of the Church in Public Life, A background paper from the Mission and Public Affairs Council’, GS Misc 898A (revised), 2008.

[2] Although in theory, this could be obtained using the provisions within the Freedom of Information and Freedom of Environmental regulations, it would be difficult to frame a sufficiently specific question.

[3] F Davies, ‘Players in the public square: The Catholic Church and civil society’, The Tablet, 18th June 2011.

[4] Roman Catholic Church,  Archbishop of Canterbury’s Speech to Pope Benedict, Lambeth Palace, 17th September 2010.

[5] ‘This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place: it has no intention of giving the Church power over the State.  Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now,, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just,’ Encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est (2005) para. 28.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Politics and the CofE" in Law & Religion UK, 28 May 2015, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2015/05/28/politics-and-the-cofe/

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