The awkward squad at prayer

Religious leaders - Catholic, Anglican and Muslim - have suddenly become potent players on the political scene. Paul Vallely explains why bishops and imams are making waves
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The Independent Online
So what has happened to change things? It couldn't have happened under Margaret Thatcher, but now, somehow, the churches have become a potent force on the political scene. As the election approaches, their voices seem likely to grow louder. And it is not just the Christian churches. At the weekend the Muslims entered the fray, too.

Recent times have seen an unprecedented How-to-Vote statement from the formerly quiescent Catholic bishops, which was widely interpreted as being pro-Labour. Five of the Church of England's most senior bishops then condemned the selfishness and social disintegration that has been nurtured under 17 years of Conservative rule. The two British Catholic cardinals have weighed in on the issue of abortion, with Basil Hume in England saying that no Catholic would vote for a pro-abortion candidate and Thomas Winning in Scotland accusing the Labour leader, Tony Blair, of personal hypocrisy and sham on the subject.

Last week, the Anglican bishops met in private in Liverpool to discuss the election. At the end, they issued a new Labour-tinged statement saying that, in their votes, "Christians should be advocates for those excluded from access to wellbeing or influence in society." The bishops singled out the homeless, the unemployed, the old, the mentally ill and the Third World poor.

On Friday, Dr Zaki Badawi, chairman of the Council of Imams and Mosques of Great Britain, revealed that Muslim leaders are engaged in producing an Islamic equivalent of the Catholic bishops' document which will also call for curbs on the market. And the forthcoming Council of Churches of Britain and Ireland report on unemployment and the future of work, due out before the election, is said to contain some uncomfortable words for the Government.

It is all very different from the Eighties, when an undeclared state of war existed between the Government and the body that had formerly been declared to be "the Tory party at prayer". The stand-off then between Prime Minister and Archbishop of Canterbury was but another stage in Mrs Thatcher's battle against the post-war establishment consensus. But after the Kinnockite Labour Party crumbled in the face of her fervent ideology, it fell to the Church of England, under the unlikely leadership of the milk-mannered Robert Runcie, to stand up for the old decency in the path of the neo-liberal economic juggernaut of Thatcherism. The Iron Lady was contemptuous and dismissive. The Church became cowed.

The reasons for the change are complex. At the forefront is Mr Blair's vaunted Christianity and John Major's scramble in the autumn to join him on the moral high ground. Uneasy statements about how the Tory party was "founded on principles flowing from the Christian faith" and how Mr Major prayed "in all circumstances" were happily subsumed in the apple-pie generalities in which all parties indulged after Frances Lawrence, the widow of the murdered headmaster, poignantly announced her well-meaning campaign to remoralise Britain.

But something had changed before that. Churchmen and workers in church agencies for social action reported a sea-change in the early days of the Major administration. "His ministers seemed more prepared to listen from the outset," said one church worker recently. It was partly a question of temperament: the evangelistic certainty of the acolytes of Mrs Thatcher had given way to those in the party who were less opposed in principle to the notion of consensus. It was partly the arithmetic of a diminished parliamentary majority. "At any rate they listened, and as the election approaches they are listening with emphatic concern," said another leading lobbyist from a church social agency.

Yet there is something more fundamental. Thatcherism has borne its fruit: her Eighties deregulation of the global financial markets is wreaking unemployment and insecurity - among the very groups who voted for Mrs Thatcher. With globalisation, the welfare capitalism of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies has given way to what Pope John Paul II has condemned as "savage capitalism". The change has galloped since the collapse of Communism.

Nobody in the West thought Communism was an alluring alternative, said Professor David Marquand at a symposium of economists, political theorists and theologians at the Von Hugel Institute in Cambridge last Friday, which was held to respond to the Catholic bishops' pre-election document, The Common Good. But, he said, the threat that a Communist alternative might appeal to capitalism's marginalised and growing "under-class" was potent enough to spur policy-makers to inhibit the worst excesses of capitalism. Now, said Marquand, that brake is off.

The result is massive movements of capital, currency and jobs from one side of the globe to the other (to wherever the greatest profit can be made). And economic changes whose impact was once cushioned by welfare and regional regeneration are now felt nakedly, as the people of Halewood would unhappily point out. It is a world, said Marquand, which Marx would have recognised more easily than that of two decades ago.

More significantly, it has impacted not just on the "under class", whose inactivity the former chancellor Norman Lamont once so memorably said was a "price worth paying" for low inflation. The ill-effects have spread to the middle class who, in the words of another Von Hugel speaker - the United Reformed Church elder Gabrielle Cox, of the Low Pay Unit - feel the water lapping at their feet as the contract culture, redundancy, degradation of public services, rising crime and general insecurity hit there, too.

Other changes that have created the space in which the voice of the religious is once again heard include a shift in the intellectual climate. In the UK, the influential former New Right intellectual John Gray, alienated by the excesses of what he once advocated, has switched to a more communitarian position. In the United States, Francis Fukuyama, one-time high priest of neo-liberalism, who proclaimed that the new post-Wall world constituted the triumph of capitalism and therefore The End of History, has turned his attention to worrying about the ethics on which a successful market rests.

Last week, even George Soros, who has made a pounds 6bn fortune from the international financial markets and whose currency speculation forced Britain out of the European exchange rate mechanism, warned that "the untrammelled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of life is undermining social values of morality".

For the rest of society, it is less abstract. National wealth has not brought national well-being. Unemployed friends, sick relatives receiving poor NHS treatment and beggars on the street - once a badge of pride among right-wing ideologues - are now the focuses of concern for a nation not at ease with itself and displaying a new readiness to listen to talk of morality.

It was on to this field that the Catholic bishops entered. Their motives too were complex. There were some who felt irritated by new Tory converts to Catholicism who have painted the church as a pietistic, conservative bastion of separateness from the world. These senior Catholic figures wished to remind the converts of a century of radical Catholic social teaching.

But in the main the stimulus for the document was that the Catholic flock has more working-class antecedents than the established church, has a strong traditional of work in education and welfare, and its bishops were closer to the on-the-ground impact of the fruits of Thatcherism. They knew that trickle-down had not worked, that the culture of greed had got worse, that poverty and social disintegration were proceeding apace.

It did not surprise anyone who had read any of the key dozen papal encyclicals on Catholic social teaching when the English bishops' pre-election document constituted a withering condemnation of the legacy of Thatcherism. Tory spin doctors decided to play this down, insisting that electoral damage would be minimised by saying that the party agreed with 95 per cent of the document. But the fulminations of right-wing Catholic journalists such as Paul Johnson in the Daily Mail or William Rees-Mogg in The Times made clear the extent to which the bishops had rounded on two decades of Toryism. It was, blustered Rees-Mogg, "a serious error of episcopal judgement", adding bizarrely, "there is a striking contrast with the work and moral advocacy of Frances Lawrence."

Outraged talk about keeping apart God and Caesar is the usual fodder at such times. The bishops of Oxford, Durham, Coventry, Birmingham and Liverpool met with similar doses of backbench scriptural exegesis when their New Year statements lamented that 17 years of Tory rule had subjugated public morality to idols of economic efficiency, individualism and fatalism. And the Bishop of Norwich was told last week by a senior Tory peer to "steer clear of political issues for the next month, my boy. It's going to be rough time", when all the prelate was concerned with was homelessness and poor housing and its impact upon "people's spiritual and moral well- being". Church leaders, it seems, are "politicians in purple" who "meddle in politics" when they tackle issues which make Tories uncomfortable, but are "spiritual leaders reminding their flocks" when it comes to moralities of which the right approves.

For the new political involvement of clerics is not something that goes entirely in the Opposition's direction. Earlier this month, the Archbishop of York was seen as giving backing to the Government when he said that "there is evidence from across the world that welfare destroys as much as it protects", and counselled Christians against regarding politicians with cynicism. And Mr Blair must clearly be discomfited not simply by the personal vehemence of Cardinal Winning's attack on him over abortion, but also by the apparent willingness of the more measured Cardinal Hume to give succour to a move by anti-abortion activists to turn abortion into a single-issue campaign in key marginal constituencies. (The Catholics appear split on this one; the cardinals' behaviour flies in the face of the bishops' statement in The Common Good that Catholics should not vote because of a candidate's stance on a single issue but rather on whether his or her policies were generally in line with Catholic social teaching.)

Either way, one thing is clear. The attempt by the Catholic bishops to reclaim public space for morality has not fallen upon stony ground. In Britain today there is, as the Church of England's bench of bishops said on Friday in their statement after their week in conclave, "a real hunger for a more holy and just world". In it, they gave notice that they "intend to discuss and question the theological and ethical principles at stake in the election and speak on specific issues where we have experience and knowledge". A cross on the ballot paper might come to have more than one meaning when that election eventually comes.