Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Blistering Barnickles It's Blundering Bishops?!

Childhood character Captain Haddock, long suffering bearded companion of intrepid reporter Tintin, had a fine line in alliterative expletives. I was reminded of him (and his fine way with words) when a group of bearded wonders were implied to be 'blundering bishops' for wading into an entirely secular  debate about voting systems in this country.

The harsh words were raised when Ekklesia reported that ten Bishops had signed onto the YestoAV campaign.  While Libertarian blogger Guido Fawkes and ex founder of Conservative Christian Movement Tim Montgomerie both  tried to smear the campaign endorsement, (see Guido Fawkes blog and Tim Montgomerie twitter) my thoughts were more open.

Rather than form my own mind from snatched twitter comments and one news story, I thought I'd go to one of the signatories and challenge him.  Bishop Alan, blogger and twitter extraordinare, is no stranger to this blog or indeed to many of my readers. His continued presence, and want to speak out, have really helped open up a level of church hireachy by demonstrating you don't loose interest, passion or humility just because you wear a mitre.

Bishop Alan - Blogger, Twitter and Interesting
I started by asking why voting is an issue that Bishops should be concerned about.  His response was considered and worth repeating in full:

"Bishops are citizens too. Having an antiquated and unjust voting system that tend s towards an infantalised edcision maing process dominated by party managers in their own interest doesn't do any good.  It's a free country in which bishops are as entitled to speak as anyone else and, moreoever, its unfairness makes our present system seem morally shabby"

This lead nicely into a fuller answer given to a more fundamental question about the Bishop's actions - does the group of bishop's endorsing this campaign mean Bishops spiritual should speak out more often in the Lords?*

"It's not easy to work out what the Lords should be about when the Commons suffers from a democratic deficit"

This was certainly an interesting statement and one that, had we had a face to face discussion I would have probed, however it was an email response so I'd best move onto the next part.....

Reflecting on the whole issue overall we get to the nub of the issue. The reason why he felt the need to sign on the dotted line and back the change in the system.  He has yet to hear a convincing argument against changing the system, therefore there is a need to change.  Indeed he laid out a challenge

"It is an issue on which Christians may take different views, of course. What would be nice would be for some defenders of our present system, Christian or not, to explain to us all what's so wonderful about it apart from providing safe seats for senior party hacks, and a string of things it manifestly does not do, like prevent coalitions (like now), provide clear changes of majority government (as it's only done once since 1885), or prevent long-term economic success (in face of the fact that Germany with a fair voting system devised largely by the British has been spectacularly more successful economically since 1945. Most of the arguments used to defend it are simply false. Could we have some true ones to consider?"

Since asking these questions of Alan, another bearded theologian has stepped up to the issue.  Pete Philips, part of CODEC and chair Methodist Faith and Order Committee (but, as ever, speaking in a personal capacity), fires a general broadside that challenges both Ekklesia and the Bishops about what their focus should be about.  His conclusion, after reading newspaper articles, asking folks on twitter and reflecting himself was that  "he (Jesus) would be telling Parliament to focus a little more on poverty and social exclusion within our society than on gerrymandering the electoral system". I'll be honest I was surprised by this conclusion so I thought it worth putting a few questions to him..... 

First I suggested that we can only focus on the issue of tackling poverty if we also tackle the issue of how those in power get there. Afterall, Should we not take action to ensure the public's voting wishes are properly reflected before taking part in campaigning concerning policies created by the same people?  Pete's answer was substantial and illuminating

 Our voting intentions cannot be properly reflected without us moving to full blown PR.  That’s not on the cards.  Instead, we are being offered AV – a system easily manipulated (see Australian commentators) and which will lead almost always to a coalition under our present 3 party system.  If coalitions are formed as it was last May, that will often mean throwing away key policies which voters have expressed an opinion on and replacing them with a mixture of policies which voters have not voted on.  It would be better to offer a coalition agenda prior to the vote otherwise we undermine voters intentions and the whole democratic process.  We cannot wait to deal with poverty, with cuts, with social deprivation – otherwise we are fiddling while Rome burns! 
..... We need to tackle poverty now while we wrestle with one another over voting patterns.  But for the Christian, poverty is higher up the agenda than voting patterns.  We follow Jesus example and Wesley’s exhortation to go not to those who needs us but to those who need us most.  If we have the energy to do both, great.  But we should not side-lined into the argument that AV is a kingdom issue to the detriment of our fight for justice.

The second question posed focussed upon a concern, floated by both Ould and Philips, that the Bishop's had been dragged into a simple argument over a complex issue. AFterall, even if we would wish it to be a complex debate, sometimes these things come down to simple a simple yes or no and there is no avoiding that. This time the answer indicated some theological reflection, and some enjoyably human concern...

The bishops seem to be saying that this is a question of morality and that saying YES is more moral than saying NO.  The Jubilee Centre and others (inc Peter Ould) have shown that it is not possible to map morality onto either side of this debate.  It is a moot point which has moral supremacy – probably neither do.  They are matters of debate – adiaphora  -what Wesley would call in his Sermon on the Catholic Spirit – matters of contention.  My point is that we will find Christians on the YES side (Jon Bartley, the 10 Bishops…) and Christians on the NO side (me, Peter Ould…) and it is not correct to say that either side is immoral or to make arguments about this being the time for the church to atone for her past omissions.
Yes, get involved.  Yes, argue strongly for the side you want but don’t dechurch the opposition as though it is a matter of faith and morality.  Hold together as fellow Christians and seek to make your arguments in love.
And don’t forget that in the end we are called to serve the poor
Overall it appears this issue should run and run - I'm certainly looking forward to hearing Jonathan Bartley, and others, speaking at a panel debate in Birmingham on Friday- however I am slightly concerned.  

The concern stems not from any arguments concerning either voting system, but that much of the heat stems from Christians inability to debate sensibly.  I think you could consider voting systems a very moral question and I don't find anything wrong with Bishop's declaring their hand. Indeed I wish they would more so - afterall some sit in the upper chamber and could have a key role in votes on the NHS, Libraries, Forrests etc. No, my problem is that some are upset because they disagree. For me this comes, in part, down to the immediacy of the issue.  

Listening to podcasts from JPITs conference (earlier this month) I am continually drawn to a  podcast of the talk by co-moderator of the URC.  She challenged those attending to realise the power of church community through preparing to make moral judgements on home affairs, with the clarity usually only affixed to world affairs.  After all, as she said, it is much easier to find fault in the small print when you are affected or think you know more due to your experience.  This voting system debate is one of the most crucial for decades and I, for one, am glad we are discussing the wider moral questions of power and how it is gained and hope many more step-up to the mark and say their piece.

*Note I appreciate that only certain Bishopriks include a seat in the House of Lord's

**Note 2) These discussions occured via a brief email interview and have only been edited for clarity.

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