Church of England gets powers to tackle 'far right' clergy
Yesterday in Parliament an obscure little statutory committee - all undemocratically appointed by the Lord Speaker - examined and approved draft Measures presented to it by the Legislative Committee of the General Synod of the Church of England on how to deal with the BNP. Ben Bradshaw was quick to extrapolate this to 'far right or racist parties' in general, suggesting future scope for the extension of these disciplinary measures. His Grace has purposely included the first two responses to Mr Bradshaw's tweet, since, if a council can discriminate against adoptive parents for their 'right-wing' UKIP-leaning views, it is inevitable (with a very high degree of certainty) that 'far right' will come to embrace those who oppose gay marriage or women bishops. For if racism be an abhorrent manifestation in the Church of Christ, how much more should homophobia, misogyny or europhobia be subject to ecclesiastical opprobrium?
His Grace has said this before, but he'll say it again. All reasonable Christian people will have immense sympathy with an expression of Christian witness which seeks to denounce racism in all its forms, including in the temporal political realm. The Church should be completely intolerant of all those who would foment discord on the basis of ethnicity or skin colour. The Early Church abolished the Jew-Greek division and declared all to be one in Christ Jesus, so there can be no theological rationale 2000 years later for black-brown-white segregation. To be Christian is to be blind to race: all of humanity is equal in the great plan of salvation. We are all children of God, and all equal in our sin.
But here we now have the Established Church of England empowered by Parliament to prohibit those in Holy Orders from joining a political party which is not only legally constituted in the United Kingdom, but has won elections to the European Parliament and is deemed to conform to both UK and EU law.
Oh, of course, the party has not been named: the General Synod simply decreed that allegiance to a party whose policies are ‘incompatible with the teaching of the Church of England in relation to the equality of persons or groups of different races’ would be ‘unbecoming and inappropriate’. So, in theory, Ben Bradshaw is right that all racist or discriminatory political parties are to be proscribed.
But he only mentions the 'far right'. Are there no 'far left' parties with racist or otherwise discriminatory ideologies? Setting aside the fact that the BNP is manifestly a left-wing, statist organisation, are Church of England clerics free to be Communists, revolutionary socialists or members of Respect?
Clergy are being prohibited from joining the BNP because the Church is perceived by some to have a problem with racism (too few BME vicars and bishops). Which is fair enough. But the Church is also perceived by a sizeable constituency to have a problem with homosexuality and an even more sizeable constituency to have a problem with women (it is still to 'get with the programme', as the Prime Minister decreed).
The anti-far-right measures agreed by the Ecclesiastical Committee were born out of a proposal in 2009 by Vasantha Gnanadoss who warned then of the potential for the BNP to grow in influence. “Passing this motion is a push that is seriously necessary,” she told the Synod at that time.
The peculiar thing is that it is a completely hypothetical move, since no member of the Church of England clergy is presently known to be a member of the BNP. But if one were, why would they now disclose it? And, further, it is not at all clear how prohibiting membership of a racist or discriminatory political party could change a racist or discriminatory heart, with which the Lord is far more concerned.
That the BNP has a racist foundation is beyond dispute. That the Church of England is sexist at the Episcopal level is also beyond dispute. That the Church of England is ‘homophobic’ (to use the vernacular) is manifest to everyone who grasps the basic principles of discrimination - if only as they relate to marriage. Some would say these discriminations are ‘institutional’.
Yet the Church of England has only voted in favour of legislation to prohibit clergy from joining racist or discriminatory political parties like the BNP because that party’s policies are deemed to be inconsistent with Christian values, notwithstanding that there are many thousands who find the Church’s stance on women and gays equally inconsistent with Christian values.
It is now for the Bishops to determine which parties or organisations are deemed to be incompatible with Christian values. To them is given power to bind and loose, and they may do so as long as two thirds of them support the motion. Any ban can be lifted by a simple majority vote should the political party repent and change its ways.
One wonders how long it will be before a bunch of Guardian-reading, liberal-leaning bishops determine membership of the Conservative Party to be ‘unbecoming’ or ‘inappropriate’ conduct for clergy, for, surely, that which became known as Thatcherism was (and is) frequently denounced as being ‘incompatible’ with Church teaching on equality. What of the poor? Was not Jesus the first Socialist?
His Grace can hardly wait to see which political parties or organisations are deemed by the Bishops to be incompatible with Christian teaching and so proscribed. For then we will surely see high-profile court cases giving such groups £millions worth of free publicity. His Grace is loath to quote any BNP spokesman (and, like the bishops, they do all tend to be men). But one of their number has challenged the Church of England, insisting: “We are a modern, forward thinking and progressive nationalist party. We are non-discriminatory and we have a constitution to match. It is high time that was put out there. The Church of England has to keep up to date – they are stuck in the 1970s.”
And since the European Convention on Human Rights gives all people (including CofE vicars, who fall within the broad definition of ‘people’) the right to freedom of political belief, the Church cannot win in the courts: clergy cannot be disciplined for lawful political activity.
For His Grace, if the Church of England were to expend just one tenth of its efforts to the propagation of the Gospel that it devotes to issues of gender or sexual equality, it might just reverse its terminal decline. Racist views and discriminatory undertones are going to exist wherever there is diversity and the freedoms of belief, expression and association. This is not to excuse them: it is a simple statement of fact. But the proscribing of the outward manifestation will not transform the inner life of the believer, which is a work of the Holy Spirit.
According to the latest church statistics, only 2.8 per cent of its 114 bishops and 1.4 per cent of the 4,443 vicars come from ethnic minorities. No doubt we are now heading for quotas to address this scandalous under-representation.
What would Jesus say?
Well, if God can speak through an ass (Num 22:21-38), He can undoubtedly do so through the Labour Party, the Guardian, the EU, and even the Rev’d Giles Fraser. But Parliament has now united with the Church of England to dehumanise members of the BNP - they are sinners beyond redemption, through whom the Lord would never choose to speak or work. They have replaced the ‘homosexual offenders’ who were once destined for eternal darkness: the Kingdom of Heaven is not for such as those.
And talking of Giles Fraser (if you're reading, Giles..), if sexually active gay priests or bishops now have a moral responsibility to lie, do not those clergy who hold 'far right' political views have the same moral responsibility? Surely, 'lying to the church authorities, in these conditions, is a bit like disobeying an unjust order. It's a form of non-violent resistance'?