The last week has have seen two documents issued about voting choices in the forthcoming May 2015 General Election in the UK. The Bishops of the Church of England launched their document, “Who is my Neighbour” last Tuesday; today it’s been the turn of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, who have called theirs simply “The General Election 2015“.
They are both worth reading; they take different approaches, but they cover much common ground. There are issues covered in one but not the other, yes; but that is not so much a sign of disagreement as of difference. The difference of approach is, however, most marked in exactly whom they are addressing, and how they speak.
The Catholic Bishops address “All Catholics in England and Wales” – and they are addressed very much as voters. Of course, that is the status of most of us; so that does make some sense. The Church of England, on the other hand, whilst still apparently addressing an internal audience (“the People and Parishes of the Church of England”), is in fact addressing the political establishment as much as any voter. It calls, not just for engagement with the electoral process and voting, but for changes to the way we do politics.
I’ll look at another time at more specifics of these documents: but my initial thoughts were in the direction not just of the issues the documents raise, but of the picture they project of the Churches in England and their respective people, and it’s worth spending a few minutes thinking about this.
First: the Church of England remains clearly of the opinion that, as the Established church, it has the right to address the political establishment. That is true, and if it ever cease to be true, the nature of the country will have changed, and almost certainly not for the better.
The Catholic Bishops make no such implicit claim. Their document is addressed to voters; it does not apparently dare to address the politicians directly. And that is a shame; for in so many ways – numbers of Sunday worshippers, global reach, history – the Catholic Church also has a right to seek a voice in the political square.
Second: the tone of the two documents differs substantially. The Church of England talks of concepts, priorities, needs and directions; it asks for a reform of the very basis of UK politics; it states issues upon which the Church takes a stand and why. The Catholic Church provides a far shorter, much more simplistic, much more issues-and-tickbox approach; and sadly an approach which implies little confidence in its people to understand and apply concepts and principles in reaching their voting decision.
Unfortunately, Catholicism in the UK is hampered by a deep-seated sense of inferiority, of being the stranger in the gates; the immigrant rather than the citizen; the uneducated rather than the capable. The reasons for that are historic, but it is surely time to overcome them, and to lay claim to the wealth of Catholic thought, social teaching and reasoned clarity on so many issues. This is not a case of turning one’s back on the immigrant, the uneducated and the stranger, but of recognising that we have a responsibility to use the influence we have to help them in the most effective possible way.
The term ‘Catholic social teaching’ appears in only one of the documents. Ironically, and perhaps symptomatically of this difference in approach and confidence, it’s not the Catholic one.