I am all for fixed-term parliaments and knowing when the next general election will take place, but we had better learn from other countries that have had them for years how to handle them.

Discussion at the Church of England's House of Bishops meeting in York during the last couple of days made it abundantly clear that, if we didn't know it already, we have already embarked on a very long election campaign. Yes, this week sees some local elections and elections to the European Parliament, but these seem a little like shadow boxing for the real thing in 2015.

We know how paralysing election campaigns are for the business of running the country intelligently, so this prospect isn't a happy one. We face a year of posturing and snarling. But, what are the fundamental questions we – especially, but not exclusively, the churches – should be putting to our election candidates?

Well, call me posh, but anyone can ask questions about unemployment, housing, welfare, banking reform, foreign aid, foodbanks, poverty, health and other important matters. Who is going to ask the questions that dig beneath the assumptions behind the likely answers the politicians will give us? These are not merely academic.

For example, quiz a politician about welfare, immigration or housing, and s/he will declare the appropriate party's policy. But what anthropology underpins it? In other words, what does he or she assume about why human beings essentially matter? What is his or her understandings of human value – as it is this that should give rise to the policy, and not vice versa. Yes, the policy might betray the value/assumption, but it is the latter that gives birth to the former.

So, why not ask every candidate what they think a human person is and why that person matters? This simple question, if pursued quietly and politely, will indicate whether the candidate is able to articulate the (what I would call) theological anthropology that shapes their world view. The answer to the question will indicate how they might, if consistent, think about social order, the common good and the value of the political process or discourse.

Of course, if anyone suggests that people matter because they do (which is frighteningly common), this should be seriously and humorously questioned. You can't get an 'ought' from and 'is', and mere existence cannot confer inherent value without some un-argued for assumptions being smuggled in.

This could be fun. And revealing. Bring on the campaign.

 

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Yesterday was an odd one. It was Yorkshire Day here in … er … Yorkshire – the annual celebration of the White Rose counties just south of 'Desolation'. It was also Swiss National Day – which caused me to say, at the start of an address in Skipton, that we should tip our hats to Toblerone and recognise that William Tell would never get a clean CRB for shooting a crossbow at an apple on the head of some kid.

But, if moving elegantly – if bizarrely – from lessons learned in my last two years in Yorkshire (including when it is unwise to go anywhere without a 'priest' and a 'condom') to the human vocation to be generous to outsiders (it all has to do with Deuteronomy 26, never forgetting your origins as homeless people, and making space for the strangers) seems odd, then have a look at today's news.

The US Secretary of State has called the military coup in Egypt “restoring democracy“. So, whatever we might think of its behaviour and policies in office, a democratically elected government is ousted by the armed forces and this is “restoring democracy”? Forgive the rest of us simpletons for having trouble with this notion – which sounds like it came out of 1984. This has nothing to do with Morsi's credentials or the Muslim Brotherhood's real intentions, but a lot to do with principles. How many other 'democracies' might be overturned by the military because they don't like who got freely elected – only to find this approved by the USA?

On the other hand, the US administration is furious at Russia's decision to grant Edward Snowden one year's asylum in their country – not one renowned for upholding human rights or freedom of information. But, if a Russian exposed what the Russian secret services were doing to bug the world's communications systems, would the US simply return him to Russia at Putin's request? 'Our' spies are always traitors; others' spies are always courageous heroes. And isn't there something profoundly undemocratic about a surveillance state harvesting electronic communications indiscriminately and without the sanction or knowledge of those who elected them?

However serious we need to be about having an intelligent and informed debate in the UK about immigration, the current output of the UK Government on Twitter (@ukhomeoffice) on the matter is disturbing. The feed regularly updates the number of people being arrested and where they are. You don't have to be a defender of illegal immigration to find this sort of reporting by a government department as worrying. If, for example, the Zimbabwean Government did a similar thing, would we find it acceptable – or deliberately intimidating? Campaigns of fear are questionable at best.

Which brings us back to the irony of Deuteronomy and the injunction to have rituals whereby we compel ourselves to remember where we have come from and that we are all transient in one way or another. I spoke at the service today in Yorkshire, a county that owes much of its industrial growth in previous generations to immigrants (in Bradford's case, from Ireland and Germany) and much of its entrepreneurial development now to newer generations of immigrants (from South Asia and beyond).

The terms in which we currently 'debate' immigration in the UK cast a dark moral shadow. It is a strange world we live in.

(And a 'priest' is the wooden thing you hit a fish with when you have caught it; a 'flying condom' is a spinner, apparently – although I erroneously called it a 'fly'. Just proves I am at heart a city boy.)

 

I only did a brief and rather disconnected speech in the debate on women bishops at the Church of England's General Synod last Tuesday. In it I reminded Synod that when we think of the ecumenical impact of our decision we needed to consider not only the Roman Catholic Church, but also the other churches (particularly) in Europe. I didn't have time to expand, but would like to have done.

However, I did ask the Synod to get real when making silly statements about the Church of England “not having the authority” to do what we were doing. (a) If the Synod and Church has no authority, what are they doing sitting on the Synod in the first place? (b) if I really believed this, I couldn't be an Anglican in the first place. Despite all the fantasy special pleading, our orders are not recognised by Rome and our 'church' is a mere 'ecclesial community'. That's the inescapable bottom line. (c) If those who say they truly believe in 'headship' actually do so, then why didn't they do what the male heads of the Church were leading them to do?

OK, not exactly knock-down arguments for the consecration of women as bishops, but they open up arguments that were not properly aired during the debate itself. Sometimes we are just too polite.

This morning, having spent yesterday doing what the Church of England does every day – in parishes, in local communities, in meetings that don't lose focus on what we are here for – I returned to a quick scan of the media.

Naturally, politicians are shouting loudly about how to sort the Church of England out. Apparently, we shouldn't be listened to any longer on moral issues because of this. And we should be disestablished.

Well, there are good arguments to be had about both those matters, but the sheer illogicality of some of the stuff would, in any other context, be screamingly funny. For a start, we have politicians elected (in some cases) by a fraction of the electorate indignantly telling the Church off for only managing to muster 90%+ of the bishops, nearly 80% of the clergy, 64% of the laity, and 42 out of 44 dioceses behind the cause of women bishops.

How about, before we listen to another politician, we couple – in any political discussion – potential disestablishment of the Church of England with a demand that every MP can only sit in Parliament if positively elected by 50% (I am feeling generous) of the electorate in his other constituency. Electoral legitimacy in a democracy also needs attention paid to it.

The point is basically this: the Church of England has not rejected women bishops – the House of Laity of the General Synod has. The Church of England has massively and overwhelmingly approved not only the principle, but the process. The only question now is how to find the right wording to make law that makes this a reality.

We failed this time, but I hope those who are bitterly disappointed and disillusioned will (a) aim at the right target, (b) turn disappointment (and, in some cases, exhaustion) into determination, and (c) be clear and boringly repetitive, especially with other politicians and journalists/commentators, that the Church has not rejected women bishops.

After all, it isn't just the Church that needs to get real.

(On the good news front, the General Synod looks positively coherent in comparison with Chelsea FC who yesterday hired a Liverpool reject as their latest messiah. Ahem…)

Following the decision of several Ministers to ann0unce prior to tomorrow’s elections their departure from the Government, The Guardian calls for Gordon Brown’s head. Enough is enough, the Government is drifting and unable to steer the ship through the very choppy political and economic waters we are now sailing.

bottleofpoisonThere is a serious worry that people will simply avoid voting tomorrow because they don’t think it matters, or they can’t be bothered to choose or they think our politics are so discredited that voting has no purpose. Or, worse still, they think it will ‘send a signal’ to our political masters that things must change and respect/authority have been lost. (That’s a phrase you hear a lot in General Synod debates: ‘we must send a signal to…’ – but what on earth does it mean and what response does the speaker anticipate?) This is dangerous and a denial of responsibility.

The people who definitely will get out to vote are those who are on the extremes of political life. They are strongly motivated to exploit the current disarray and plug the gaps with their own ‘filler’. It is the extremes who will profit from the denial or neglect of the ordinary voter.

Alan Wilson has posted the wonderful ‘Back to the Future’ cartoon on his blog – a ‘must see’ for anyone who cares that the future must not be left to the strongly-motivated extremists in our society.

The British Nationalist Party (who, funnily enough, never define what ‘British’ means) has put out a bizarre advert to make us feel sorry for them as a beleagured and unjustly persecuted group. The advert includes a dodgy picture of a rather effete – but very white – Jesus and quotes John 15:20: ‘If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.’ ‘What would Jesus do?, the poster asks and very helpfully supplies the answer: ‘Vote BNP’ in the European Elections on Thursday 4 June. The poster even dares to state that the BNP is ‘persecuted for saying what you think’.

First things first: the Church of England has just stated in unequivocal terms that membership of the BNP is incompatible with Christian faith. This poster is a shameless two-fingers to anyone with either a brain or a conscience.

Secondly, people need to get out and vote positively for what they do want in these elections. To stay at home and not vote leaves the door open to activist parties like the BNP to get in by default.

Thirdly, the Church of England should be proud to have wound the BNP up so effectively.

Fourthly, and remembering the confession of Martin Niemoeller after the disaster of the Nazis in Germany, we might also benefit from reading his friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 1933 poem, the hand-written version of which I saw in Berlin in 2006:

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Translated it reads:

The service begins. The opening hymn has died away. The pastor stands in front of the altar and begins: “Non-Aryans are requested to leave the church!” Nobody moves. “Non-Aryans are requested to leave the church!” Again everything remained still. “Non-Aryans are requested to leave the church!” So Christ gets down from the cross on the altar and leaves the church.