Thought for the Day - Rev Dr Giles Fraser - 11/03/2013


“I have never been one to say that the Church should fight shy of making political interventions,” said David Cameron back in 2011. What prompted this comment was Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, attacking various Government reforms in the pages of the New Statesman. But some of the Prime Minister’s back benchers were less relaxed about the former Archbishop’s position, particularly as he’d labelled the reforms as “radical policies for which no one voted” - to which the obvious answer was that no one had voted for him either.

The cry “who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” has long been attributed to Henry II as the prompt for Archbishop Thomas Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Over the centuries, it’s a sentiment that many politicians may have had some bat’s squeak of
sympathy for – even if they wouldn’t go as far as encouraging assassination! For it seems that irritating the political powers-that-be has always been a part of the job-description of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

This weekend, the latest Archbishop, Justin Welby, criticized the government’s decision to cap increases in welfare benefit to 1% a year – something which will surely mean, in effect, a significant reduction in support to some of the most vulnerable people in our society. As
Justin Welby put it: “These changes will mean it is children and families who will pay the price for high inflation, rather than the government.”

So where does the authority for making such a moral claim come from? After all, some politicians point out these reforms are about encouraging people back to work and that they do seem to poll rather well with the public at large. Yet unlike the government, whose moral authority is derived from the vote, the church is not particularly interested in public opinion. Indeed, the church claims an authority
higher than that supplied by the ballot box – which, of course, is problematic for those who don’t recognize that any such authority actually exists. This is precisely why many now call for the disestablishment of the Church of England – a call for which I have a certain sympathy.

But it also seems to me that Archbishop Welby is perfectly entitled to have his say, not least on the basis of free speech - and if other people recognize the source of this authority, then so be it. For many of us, democracy is not the only justification for something being right or wrong. Indeed, a healthy democracy is more than just about
people having the vote: it is also about the flourishing of free and open conversation. And if the churches have a contribution to this conversation, it ought to make no difference whatsoever that some brand this as political. The truth is that politics is always more than elected politicians. And so it should be. We will always need
people prepared to stand up against the popular when they believe what is proposed to be morally questionable.

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