Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Respecting the Pulpit

One of the things that concerns me about the possibility of my being called to be an ordained minister is that if that happens then I shall reluctantly cancel my membership of the Labour Party and try my best to take a public neutral stance. Why? Because being a minister is a vocation and one which deals sensitively with people of a wide variety of backgrounds. To stand in a pulpit or behind a lectern and show almost naked or naked bias towards a political party reflects badly on the Christian faith and indeed is an abuse of power. It gives the impression that Christ backs a political party or narrow creed.
Sometimes some fail on this, or skirt close to the line. For example I hold a high regard for Jim Wallis and his wife Joy Carroll, but before leaving for the US in 1997, Joy Carroll, an ordained priest, stated that she was pleased to leave the UK under a Labour government. This was said whilst conducting a service, now as I said I have a high regard for Joy Carroll, but on this she was wrong.
So it is that Rowan Williams waded close to the edge when he made his comments last weekend. I believe he was right to mention those concerns, they are pastoral concerns and he did point out that they were not in the Party manifesto, and he did not endorse the Labour Party, but he did sail close to the wind and received criticism from Tory activists to the point where whilst I think they are unfounded, they do have my sympathy.One stated that to me that he should stick to Church matters, but had no answer when I asked what if it been a Tory Archbishop of Canterbury and a Labour/Lib Dem coalition.
The thing is, political abuse of the pulpit whilst rare, does happen. Last weekend Rachel and I went to a church service in London where a Vicar, rather smugly I thought, made a catty aside to Gordon Brown's spending as Chancellor to the build up of reserves David made for Solomon to build the Temple. Rachel said afterwards that had she brought one or two of her atheist Labour friends along they would have walked out in disgust. It was sad because the said Vicar made some very good points elsewhere. So much for winning people over!
One friend gave another example which I will republish below:


In January 2010 I attended a joint service at a church in a very disadvantaged area of a “key marginal” constituency. The Equality Act was making its way through parliament and the vicar took the opportunity to preach what only could be described as a “party political broadcast against the Labour Party”. The vicar in question was someone I respected and he had done brilliant work to build up a struggling congregation, so I was very taken aback. I spoke to him afterwards and it seemed he knew exactly what he was doing. Since he knew me as a Labour activist, the conversation was awkward: he had no respect whatsoever for what I was seeking to achieve within the local Labour Party. What was worse was that a labourer whose job would definitely be on the line under a Tory government had swallowed the sermon whole and now considered it his Christian duty to vote Tory, be a Turkey and vote for Christmas.
There were many ironies in this scenario. Despite the influence of the local vicar and the national picture, we found more Labour promises in this ward than in any other ward in the constituency. On many canvassing sessions we received a genuinely enthusiastic response.
In contrast to this local vicar, I’d only had positive dealings with the local Labour MP and had seen first-hand the positive contribution he had made to his constituency. What’s more, I had found him remarkably open about matters of faith. It was a mystery to me why the vicar claimed things were otherwise.
Or maybe there was no mystery at all…

To those who are ordained and think I am making a fuss about nothing, I ask you. Does this win people over? Are you creating unfair barriers between people and the Church/The Christian Faith? In being a priest/minister/pastor, one deals with people who are in vulnerable positions. I am training for the lay ministry, which is somewhat different, and yet I am so careful, or try to be, in making sure I do not cause undue offence. In ministering to others we must take care of people's souls first and foremost. For an ordained minister or priest that means being as neutral as the Speaker of the House of Commons

2 comments:

Skuds said...

Interesting. As a dyed-in-the-wool atheist I'm not bothered if ministers or members of any religion are involved in politics or parties. I'm more worried about the reverse - politicians holding strong religious beliefs that impact on policy. Or having bishops sit in parliament purely on the basis of them being bishops.

Here's a thought though. Just leaving a party would not magically remove somebody's political beliefs. If your local vicar or imam is a member of a party at least you know where they stand. It is all on the record.

Paul Burgin said...

"- politicians holding strong religious beliefs that impact on policy. Or having bishops sit in parliament purely on the basis of them being bishops.

Here's a thought though. Just leaving a party would not magically remove somebody's political beliefs. If your local vicar or imam is a member of a party at least you know where they stand. It is all on the record."

You make some fair points, I agree with your point about Bishops sitting in the Lords, something I have never agreed with. As for religious figures, so to speak, being a member of a political party is part of the problem. The main problem is what is said in the pulpit. Priests etc.. need to learn to speak the voice of non-party neutrality and not show hint of bias in party political terms