To unite Blair and Widdecombe

Politics, Prayer and Parliament
December 8, 2000

The relationship of politics and religion in the United Kingdom is at once more fascinating and paradoxical than it has been for decades. First, we have a cabinet in which the most influential members, including the prime minister, have long been members of the Christian Socialist movement. And, quite recently, the prime minister addressed major conferences of Black Pentecostal Churches and an International Religious Conference hosted by the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung. Second, William Hague invited an American religious leader, one who has been influential on George W. Bush's brand of "compassionate conservatism", over to advise him. Hague has also been addressing conferences of evangelical Christians. This is part of an attempt by a recently discredited party to reconnect with a number of constituencies, including the Christian one, an attempt that is being spearheaded by the Conservative Christian Fellowship.

A major paradox is the fact that this is happening in a society that is allegedly becoming increasingly secular, where religion, so it is said, is becoming increasingly marginalised. Indeed, although the prime minister is transparently sincere in his beliefs, he has made no attempt to play the religious card. Nevertheless, he is parodied for his beliefs, for example in Private Eye's "Letter from St Albion's", the Revd Blair's newsletter in his parish magazine.

David Rogers's book does not encompass this situation, but he does point out, quite rightly, how deeply embedded religion is in our constitution and culture - perhaps surprisingly so. Two major interests hold this book together. First, Rogers is regularly asked to lead the intercessions in his parish church. He wonders what he should be praying for in the political scene and how he should pray. Second, he is a parliamentary adviser and therefore has an interest in how legislators are influenced.

The book is really a "Noddy" guide to the way Parliament and the church work. Rogers has an easy style and includes a good number of anecdotes and jokes from the Commons bars. But there are a number of inaccuracies. For example, there is a range of psalms that can be used for prayers before each session, not just Psalm 67. Bishops have been part of the advisory council of the monarch since Saxon times and until the Reformation formed a majority of the House of Lords; they did not come in when the House of Clergy was disbanded. The church commissioners in their disastrous property speculations lost Pounds 800 million not Pounds 80 million. And it is not true that the only democratic control that church people have over senior appointments is one of general influence. Every diocese has to have a vacancy-in-see committee, appointed by election, these members being part of the Crown Appointments Commission when a vacancy occurs.

There is a genuine puzzle, which Rogers is aware of, about how Christian faith can be expressed in a political programme in such a way that the one follows from the other with clear consistency and integrity. He mentions Songs of Praise , in which three self-defining Christians appeared, Tony Blair, Anne Widdecombe and Simon Hughes, all taking rather different political stances on the contentious issues of the day, united in their faith and in personal courtesy to one another, yet prepared to engage in the usual rumbustious adversarial politics in the Commons. Yet it is probably preferable that we should have this situation rather than that which exists in some countries where there is a specifically Christian party. Forced to face the fact that Christians do, and probably should, differ in many of the ways in which they express their Christian faith politically, we should be kept from a hubristic assumption that there is only one way and we have it, with all its concomitant self-righteousness.

From the church's standpoint, many utterances of bishops and clergy can appear vacuous. As David Jenkins used to say, "Generally speaking, bishops are generally speaking". But there are some crucial moments, such as the speeches in the House of Lords by Bishop Bell opposing the obliteration bombing of Hamburg and Berlin in 1944 and Robert Runcie's sermon in St Paul's Cathedral in 1982 after the Falklands war, in which he spoke about a shared sense of mourning that could and should be extended to the Argentine enemy. Rogers helpfully gives us this sermon, as well as Bell's speech, Martin Luther King's peroration "I have a dream" in 1963 and Pope John Paul II's speech in Poland in June 1983, in full, or nearly full.

The strength of this book is that Rogers wants the prayers of the church to be real and serious, and as one sign of this, he wants the church, as well as other people of goodwill, to be serious in making those prayers a reality. This will include trying to shape policy and legislation and will mean getting to know people and trying to influence them. Here he offers some practical advice from his own experience as a parliamentary adviser about the importance of seeing the relevant people to achieve one's goals. He also considers the question of establishment and suggests that any attempt to change the present relationship of church and state will meet with formidable opposition, and that those who want to bring about change will have to take this opposition into account and find effective ways of counteracting it. On balance, he himself is in favour of the present relationship.

The Rt Revd Richard Harries is bishop of Oxford.

Politics, Prayer and Parliament

Author - David Rogers
ISBN - 0 82645156 X
Publisher - Continuum
Price - £12.99
Pages - 166

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