Marcus Walker prays for episcopal consistency
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. But Wittgenstein wasn’t a Church of England bishop.
Being bishops in the Established Church gives them a powerful platform from the House of Lords, but do they speak wisely on subjects such as Brexit and Extinction Rebellion? Or do admirably irenic calls mix too freely with persistently progressive anathemas?
Brexit is not an easy subject for the Church. With a strongly Leave-backing flock (66 per cent according to sociologist Linda Woodhead) and a clergy which, well, isn’t, the difficulties are obvious. Treading very carefully they put out a recent statement calling for everyone to mind their language, yet even saying that the referendum result should be respected provoked outrage from their clergy.
Priests from across the country flocked to London and took up residence on Lambeth Bridge, singing hymns, conducting illegal weddings and blocking one of the main crossings to access St Thomas’ hospital
In their letter, the bishops restated their primary concern “about the potential cost of a No Deal Brexit to those least resilient to economic shocks”. This has been a constant feature of episcopal interventions since the Leave vote and is entirely appropriate for those with pastoral responsibilities — but this stands in stark contrast to the church’s reaction to Extinction Rebellion.
Although not coming out for the “rebellion” itself (the C of E has wisely retained an extremely competent media team), the bishop with responsibility for the environment, Bishop Nick Holtam, has tested neutrality to breaking point:
“We are facing an unprecedented global climate crisis. Christians have the duty to care for God’s creation. This runs through everything we believe. Climate change is upon us, and most affects the world’s poorest. Peaceful, passionate protest is a democratic response at a time when business as usual will not do.”
Where Bishop Holtam hesitates at the line, Archbishop Rowan Williams charged straight across it, fully backing ER. Priests from across the country flocked to London and took up residence on Lambeth Bridge, singing hymns, conducting illegal weddings and blocking one of the main crossings to access St Thomas’ hospital.
The enthusiasm with which bishops and clergy have embraced the ranks of ER can partially be attributed to the church’s clear — and broadly uncontested — teaching on the care for creation. However, a closer look at what ER demands should alarm everyone.
This isn’t a peaceful Christian movement hoping to change hearts and minds on an important issue. This is a hard-left movement that has pledged to destroy capitalism, pursue “degrowth” as a strategy and nationalise all corporations. Their leaders talk actively about the return of human beings to a “hunter-gatherer economy”. This is a call for economic and social collapse.
While commendable for its honesty, how can we support this? It’s impossible to see how anyone could simultaneously sign up to the bishops’ concerns about the impact of No Deal on the poorest and cheer on a movement that — in order to realise its new vision for society — is willing to make them poorer still, and by millennia.
Surely parliament will never vote for these projects? ER has a plan for that. Because “representative democracy has failed” they propose “liquid democracy”, where selected members of “citizens’ assemblies” will be chosen based on their demographic characteristics. ER’s Roger Hallam says: “We are going to force the governments to act. And if they don’t, we will bring them down and create a democracy fit for purpose — and yes, some may die in the process.”
How can clerics flirt with such an enterprise? Charitably, I presume that they haven’t looked too closely at the policies of the people in whose name they barricade bridges. Their writings, manifestos and speeches are published for all to see. What does it say of those who support but don’t look?
Using admirable concerns for the natural world round us to advance a Malthusian-Maoist agenda should be deeply concerning, and it’s grossly irresponsible for the church to casually lend this credence without proper vetting.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the last 30 years have seen the lives of the poorest transformed. Only 10 per cent of people now live in extreme poverty, 86 per cent of people are now vaccinated against the worst diseases, 96 per cent of children now survive past the age of five. Each of these figures is a triumph of humanity, and of capitalism. Promising to destroy the capitalist system is a promise to destroy the engine that lifts 250,000 people out of poverty every day.
The church should always be on the side of the poor and is right to call on our leaders to remember them as Brexit approaches. But following this logic they should also be cheering on the impact of the free market on the world’s poorest souls and protesting vigorously against Extinction Rebellion’s extremist fantasies. Perhaps if some of our bishops can’t do that, then a spot of Wittgensteinian silence might be the best counsel.
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