The Archbishop of Canterbury (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

The closing of the Episcopal mind

The Church of England’s leaders don’t reflect its political diversity

Artillery Row

The Royal Commission on the Operation of the Poor Laws, set up in 1832, was chaired by Charles Blomfield, Bishop of London. It numbered several other prominent churchmen among its members. The deliberations of this body led to the Poor Law Reform Act of 1834. This charming statute was based on the idea that the provision of poor relief must be made so torturous and degrading that only those suffering from extreme starvation and indigence would accept it. The sole form of assistance was to be within the context of workhouses, which were to be made as miserable and hellish as any prison. Any family unfortunate enough to have no choice but to fall back on the workhouse would be split up, as mixed-sex institutions would “undermine the good administration” of the workhouses, as the authorities euphemistically put it. 

One of the law’s architects, Edwin Chadwick — a man who made Mr Gradgrind look like one of the Cheeryble brothers — infamously commented that it was vital that the inmates of workhouses should be given the coarsest food possible. William Cobbett, a leading opponent of the bill, gleefully seized on this, nicknaming the Whigs, who pushed the legislation hardest, the “Coarser Food Party”. The idea of all this — rooted in the principles of utilitarianism, political economy and Malthusianism — was, as future Archbishop of Canterbury John Bird Sumner put it, to encourage the labouring poor to do everything they could to avoid the “intemperance and want of prudent foresight” that creates poverty, the “punishment which the moral government of God inflicts in this world upon thoughtlessness and guilty extravagance”. 

In the 1830s, these ideas were at the very vanguard of progressive thinking. They were promoted by the metropolitan liberal elite of the age, men such as James Mill, Jeremy Bentham and David Ricardo, the forward-thinking “Philosophic Radicals” who spewed out reforming and “improving” ideas through their famous organ The Westminster Review. Other contributors included happy-go-lucky eugenicist pioneer and social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, as well as Harriet Martineau, the sort of woman who would cheerfully have put her “enlightened benevolence” into practice by personally taste-testing workhouse food to ensure it was sufficiently coarse.

If God is a Remain-supporting Labour voter, then why shouldn’t His clerics also be?

These ideas were gleefully leapt upon by a large swathe of the Church leadership, who endorsed the grim dogmas of political economy with an alacrity that would only surprise anyone unfamiliar with the long history of our episcopacy’s lamb-like submission to secular liberal orthodoxies. As E.R. Norman pointed out many decades ago, the Church of England’s leaders have, again and again since at least the eighteenth century, “readily adopted the progressive idealism common to liberal opinion within the intelligentsia, of which they were a part”. They have “always managed to reinterpret their sources in ways which have somehow made their version of Christianity correspond to the values of their class and generation”, a process intimately connected to the fact that bishops are nearly always tied (by personal links, economic interests and a desire to conform) to their secular peers who set the broader cultural and political agenda.

It should be no surprise that Justin Welby — a boomer left-liberal with eleven years of working in the oil industry on his conscience — contorts Christianity into a set of slogans that correspond oddly closely to the most modish political stances of post-material identitarian leftism. One has to give him credit for sheer industry and determination: he has sought out and endorsed just about every single progressive cause he can think of in recent years, which is no mean feat given the proliferation of such campaigns. Translate such ideas — be they Critical Race Theory, open-borders ideology, sexual and gender radicalism or whatever — into Welbyism, that unique blend of the language of the management consultant and the banal uplifting jargon of contemporary liberal Evangelicalism, and hey presto, there’s material for weeks of Archiepiscopal tweeting, Lambeth Palace press releases and outraged headlines in the Daily Mail.

This would feel oddly familiar to many previous generations of confused, moderately conservative Anglican laymen and women. Senior Bishops have been preaching whatever the current progressive orthodoxy is, with a thin veneer of theological legitimation, for a long time. The different and dangerous factor nowadays is the unanimity of the Church leadership. There used to be dissenting voices, certainly among the lower clergy and laypeople, and almost always among the bishops as well. Doughty Tory paternalist Henry Phillpotts, Bishop of Exeter, was the chief ecclesiastical spokesperson against the hatchet-faced prophets of political economy in the 1830s. He was backed by a number of other bishops, the bulk of the lower clergy, and battling Anglican laymen like William Cobbett and Richard Oastler.

Even churchmen who embraced the spirit of their age in some respects often, due to the consistency of their faith, defied it in others: 60 years after Phillpotts opposed Poor Law Reform, Charles Gore, Bishop of Oxford, allied himself with the incipient Labour movement on economic issues while also firmly opposing any change to Church teaching on issues such as divorce, re-marriage and contraception. His contemporary Hensley Henson provided the sharpest possible contrast to Gore, being extremely liberal theologically but famously conservative in his politics. In the early-to-mid twentieth century, Christian socialism and even Marxism in the form of Hewlett Johnson or Conrad Noel, co-existed with stolid conservativism, liberalism and just about every other shade of political opinion within the ranks of senior Churchmen.

The only significant political or ideological diversity in the current Church of England is found within the laity. Among the bishops there is none, among priests very little. Every single bishop was a Remainer. I’d be prepared to bet the proceeds of my church’s next book sale that not a single Anglican bishop voted for a right-of-centre political party at the last General Election. On race, gender, the environment, social policy, economic policy and just about any other subject one cares to mention, the episcopal bench and about 90 per cent of the priesthood sing from the same hymn-sheet, their politics covering the whole gamut, from soft left to hard left.

But why is that important, one could ask? Clearly, most of the Church leadership itself thinks that this is as it should be. They seem to assume without doubt or hesitation that Christianity does imply these political views. If God is a Remain-supporting Labour voter, then why shouldn’t His clerics also be?

Total political consensus among church leadership makes me very uneasy

One would have imagined that the example of the bishops who enthusiastically backed workhouses and “coarser food” — convinced that scripture and theology supported their view — might make us think twice. Drawing out the political implications of the moral teachings of the Gospel and applying them to the difficult, complex, collective issues and policy problems that define our politics is immensely difficult, sometimes paradoxical and perhaps not always possible, or at least deeply unclear. There is a clear danger of well-meaning churchmen, desperate to conform to the intellectual and social milieu they find themselves in, getting things very wrong. The Benthamite bishops of the 1830s thought they were doing God’s work; there is no reason to imagine that our current episcopal masters are much politically wiser. Indeed, the danger is far greater if there is no debate, no Bishop Philpotts to put the other side of view, but instead simply sterile consensus and unreasoning groupthink.

This is why it is probably healthy that Christians historically took many different political paths. In the late nineteenth-to-early-twentieth century, very sincere Christians could be found among the ranks of Gladstonian Liberalism, the incipient Labour movement and the Conservative Party. Today, Christians adhere to views ranging from National Conservatism, Burkean conservatism and liberal conservatism through classical liberalism to Christian socialism, social democracy and democratic socialism. Contemporary postliberalism of left and right is often expressly Christian. Probably only extreme, explicitly atheistic ideologies such as Marxism and Fascism are unambiguously ruled out as political bedfellows with Christianity. Even Marxism is sometimes combined with the gospel (not very convincingly in my view, but I’m happy to have that debate).

Perhaps the adherents of passive obedience in the seventeenth century were correct, and quietism is the real implication of Christianity. Maybe Hensley Henson was right when he said, “There is nothing distinctively Christian about forms of policy, economic systems and social programmes. These must commend themselves to the acceptance of intelligent and considering citizens by practical considerations, the force of which will be variously estimated.” Personally I think that Christianity inevitably implies a mixture of economic leftism and social traditionalism likely to sit very uneasily with all modern secular ideologies and annoy both left and right, but what do I know? In any case, it’s certainly always worth bearing in mind that, ultimately, His kingdom is not of this world, and we can only ever know God’s will very imperfectly, in the realm of politics most of all.

Given this deep uncertainty and debate as to the political implications of Christianity, total political consensus among its leadership makes me very uneasy. It alienates large swathes of lay Anglicans who, in perfectly good faith, come to conclusions that differ from the liberal-left consensus, and makes our mission as a broad national church harder. It belies a real lack of intellectual vibrancy and curiosity, and implies, by some curious happenstance, that the political spirit of a restless and secular age has magically aligned itself with the truths of the Christian religion. What a fortunate and convenient coincidence, one might wonder, that this consensus corresponds so perfectly with the orthodoxies of the bishops’ intellectual, generational and cultural peers, the Benthams and Mills and Martineaus of the 2020s. What providential perfection! And what an unlikely state of affairs all round.

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