As the leader of the Conservative Party’s Christian Fellowship, and also a member of the Anglican Church, my ears pricked up when I heard that not only was my denominational leader, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, being quoted praising taxes and decrying cuts in an IPPR report, he was also addressing the TUC conference with a message railing against the ‘evils’ of capitalism and praising Christian Socialism.
The challenge for any public leader in any Church denomination is not simply saying the prophetic things they feel might quite rightly make a Christian Conservative like me pause for thought, it is saying them from a platform that is seen to be balanced, and it is preaching a message that is aware of how the messenger is likely to be perceived.
While of course we wish our leaders to speak plainly they must also take account of the lenses through which our message might be viewed. It’s only human nature to judge the message by whom is delivering it.
The perception when any leader, religious, cultural or political, seems to ‘preach’ to the ‘people’ is now met with fearful waves of scepticism and even cynicism.
I have lost track of the number of occasions that I have been told, often to my face, that Christianity and Conservatism cannot mix - that I am deluding myself.
I am keenly aware of the lenses that I will be perceived through by readers and listeners alike. The sometimes-unconscious bias which we all employ when we judge a new opinion is usual based on who is saying it and what position they are saying it from.
Leaders are told now to ‘check their privilege’ before speaking. Sometimes this can foster unhelpful self-censorship.
Becoming ever more self-aware of how your words are heard is deeply connected to three vital things:
The position you hold.
The position you say them from.
The position you proclaim:
The position you hold:
Justin Welby isn’t just another speaker. Many, myself included hold great personal admiration for Justin Welby, he isn’t just another speaker. He is the head of an established Church. He is an establishment figure.
As Christians, we are called to speak like Jesus. However, Jesus truth claims, position and authority of Jesus were unique. No leader has ever claimed similar authority.
Likewise, to be a ‘prophet’, to speak with courage into society, still requires us to ask who the speaker is, and what authority they possess. If the speaker is rightly or wrongly perceived to be part of the power structures themselves, they need to be aware that this will affect how they are heard.
This is something Justin Welby most certainly understands. However, I am not sure that some Politicians who praised him, or even Christians or thought leaders who welcome his words had fully appreciated the unique position the Archbishop holds.
The position you say them from:
While there are many Conservatives who are Trade Unionists, the platform of the TUC conference itself, is arguably far too politically associated with the left to be seen as an even handed political space for a Church leader to speak from. Yet this is the position that the Archbishop has chosen.
A Bishop has many pulpits. Many platforms are open. While some are debatable and some are closed.
The position you hold, especially if it is a very powerful or even unique one, can actually restrict the position you can speak from.
Not that it is ‘wrong’ to speak from these places. It means that the positon you speak might be listened to less than if you had uttered those words from another place or from several different places.
To concurrently preach from both the TUC pulpit and from an IPPR report might be an accident of timing, unless followed up with, for example, a centre right think tank it gives the appearance of lacking balance.
The position you speak:
Archbishop Justin’s comments also seemed to make some foundational assumptions that belong decidedly to one side of political thought and not to the other.
The political left holds a healthy scepticism of the market, they instead place their faith in the power of the state. There is a strong belief in the power of taxation to pay for public services and to redistribute wealth. While those on the political right might be equally in favour of public services, they start the debate from the premise of wealth creation and taxes that pay for those public services.
Consumer sovereignty, not state power, has contributed substantially to such atypical market led successes like Fair Trade goods. Something the Church has been at the forefront of fostering.
The Church has also been central to food-banks and night shelters and biblical teaching is clear on charitable giving. Charity can often deliver more agile provision where the State remind flat footed. Why then, is there this focus on State provision and control?
For many Christians in Eastern Europe who were persecuted by state socialism, freedom from the State has been an answer to their prayers.
For a British left that was founded more in Methodist than in Marx there does exist voice for Church leaders to defend Christian values within the political left and challenge values held dear by the right.
As someone who has worked in business, held Wonga to account, become an authority on the banking crisis, and who has recently opened the London Stock Exchange, I have no doubt that the Archbishop has the verses to articulate praise for the market and the good business can do.
I am sure he has sermons to inspire those of his flock whose wealth and job creation is rightly part of their worship and a fulfilment of the parable of the talents.
The volume needs to be turned up in order to restore a political balance in the sound heard, not letting either the fade control of the left or the right speaker become dominant.
It is not that the message needs to be popular, far from it, the challenge for the Archbishop of Canterbury isn’t to change his tune. It is to take the opportunity to broaden his message into a full album. It’s not to withdraw from public challenge or debate, but to take his song of justice to new audiences.
Perhaps now is the time to ensure the even-handedness of the message by also speaking from a conservative platform. The difficult second album might actually round out the music.
I for one will welcome what Archbishop Justin has to say in response. I will be delighted to help him ensure that he gains a wider platform, a broader message and is given the opportunity with fresh audiences to seek and to be given a listening ear.