Philip Hensher: Mitre or no mitre, the Archbishop's views have no privileged position

Poor old St Paul is roped into a vision of a million council-tax funded youth workers

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Older readers may remember a terrific furore the last time the Church of England crossed a Conservative government. Some church committee or other decided to mount an investigation into religious faith in urban areas.

The result, published in 1985 as Faith in the City, went well beyond its initial remit. The report, which may now be read online, quickly travels into a denunciation of Mrs Thatcher's policies, and starts suggesting remedies straight out of the famously mad 1983 Labour manifesto.

Basically, it boils down to asking for more public money, and creating non-jobs for everybody in town halls. These days, it makes hilarious reading. Summary doesn't give the full flavour of the report's supercilious approach, nor of the colossal naivety beneath the worldly tones. Surely, it suggests, all this is just so simple. If only the country could be run by Anglican bishops, who have effortlessly managed to discern the cures for society's ills! Here's a characteristic paragraph from this gloriously bizarre report:

"We also recommend an increase in current expenditure – particularly on public services... More current spending on education and other local government services would have by far the largest impact on jobs... Growth in the service sector has been welcomed by government – so long as it is a growth in privately marketed services. Much public sector service provision has, by contrast, suffered from cuts in expenditure. We find the logic of this very strange."

When a churchman "speaks out" on public issues, as they so often do, you know what they have in their minds. They are not thinking of Faith in the City's antique prescriptions. They are not comparing themselves with Michael Nazir-Ali, the old Bishop of Rochester, wildly claiming that immigrants in cities had turned "already separate communities into 'no-go' areas" and were "impos[ing] an 'Islamic' character on certain areas".

You know what they think they sound like to the general populace. They don't think that the public looks at them and thinks: "Oh dear; how very embarrassing." They believe that everyone thinks: "Thank heavens. Someone at last has had the courage to speak out." They believe that slagging off the government makes them look like Ridley and Latimer; they think people will say: "There goes the Thomas à Becket of the day." I'm sure some of the very maddest compare themselves to a Christian offering himself up to Diocletian.

Anyway, the latest one to have the courage to speak out is the dear old Archbishop of Canterbury. In a leader for the New Statesman, he talks about "the bafflement and indignation that the present government is facing over its proposals for reform in health and education. With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted".

Is he sure about that? The detail in the manifestos might not match what the Government thinks it can get through Parliament. But plenty of people, I believe, voted for the parties now in government with the hope that radical reform of education and the health service would follow. When the Archbishop of Canterbury says this, or "Government badly needs to hear just how much plain fear there is around such questions at present", what we hear is just a projection of his own general impression. It's not really worth any more than my opinion, or yours, or the now aged authors of Faith in the City, just because the temporary leader writer of the New Statesman happens to have a mitre on.

It doesn't really matter in this country. The 26 bishops who sit in the House of Lords can use the Upper House in the same way as any peer. In this context, it's perfectly all right for the Archbishop to make a particular slide of thought; the New Testament's concern for the poor and the dispossessed chimes with that of the socialist movement; the socialist movement proposes a redistribution of wealth. Therefore, it behoves the top Christian in this country to support equality of income and to stick up for the particular way in which the last Labour government happened to conduct itself in the fields of health and education. Poor old St Paul is roped into a vision where society consists of "mutual creation of capacity, building the ability of the other person or group to become, in turn, a giver of life and responsibility". In other words, the same old Faith in the City proposal of a million council-tax-funded youth outreach workers.

The Church of England's interventions into political debate tend to be on the handwringing side. But history shows that religious interventions, just as often, stifle liberal development. From 1946 to 1994, Italian politics was held in the stranglehold of the Christian Democratic Party – Christian only in name, but still under the pernicious influence of the Roman Catholic church. One result was that divorce was illegal in Italy until 1971. Under the influence of the church, the Christian Democrats campaigned for the law's repeal as late as 1974.

In Ireland, thanks to the Roman Catholic church, contraception was illegal until 1980, and for years afterwards was available only with a doctor's prescription. As I write, the Roman Catholic church in the Philippines is vehemently seeking to prevent the passage of a bill giving easier access to contraceptives, including condoms – in a country with a terrifying increase in the birth rate and HIV infection.

More demented political interventions by religious figures? How about the Texas evangelist who encouraged George W Bush to think: "I feel like God wants me to run for president. I can't explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me"?. With that kind of imprimatur, how could anything ever go wrong? Or the case of Archbishop Williams's colleagues in Uganda, such as Bishop Joseph Obura, who wrote that the "Ugandan parliament, the watchdog of our laws, [should] please go ahead and put the anti-gay laws in place". These anti-gay laws, fomented by religious leaders, included the creation of the crime of "aggravated homosexuality", punishable by death. Brilliant intervention, that one.

I've noticed that whenever clergymen speak out, whether against condoms, gay people, governments attempting to save money on welfare, divorce or whatever, they believe they are right by the act of speaking, in ways which thoughtful politicians, despite appearances, hardly ever do. In part, I guess, it's because they feel guided by a non-political entity, not susceptible to argument or disproof. Partly because, even now, most lay people feel that bishops deserve special respect in conversation, and often keep their dissent quiet or silent. Even a Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali can rarely have been told: "Oh, do stop talking such rubbish".

Partly it's because they fancy themselves as Martin Niemoller, speaking out against evil. Niemoller, who said "First they came for the communists: but I did not speak out because I was not a communist", was, as it happens, on the right side of the argument. But when it comes to education or health policy, the Archbishop of Canterbury would do well to remember that there is an argument, and that in it, he does not occupy any kind of privileged position. Mitre or no mitre, it is the cheapest and least ineffective of positions to say, "I know I am right, and millions of my silent followers would certainly agree."

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