May 2017 – For there is no authority except from God … through the people?

Rather earlier than many had anticipated, we are being called to the polls again in a new General Election. We are being afforded the privilege of contributing to the process by which we elect those who will govern us and represent us in the world. It is not a system which is without its challenges in a world in which we are all sinners. “The voting booth is not some kind of political wardrobe that permits us into a social Narnia. The people on the other side of the election process are as fallible – sometimes conspicuously more so – as those who put them there.” (Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West, SPCK, 2016, p.63)

Winston Churchill is often quoted as having said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others; in fact, speaking in the Commons on 11 November 1947, he claims he was quoting an unattributed source, declaring, “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”

There is no doubt that Churchill was a democrat and that he fully appreciated the value of the system. Speaking in 1944, he said, “At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.” This is the playing out in the political system of the theological truth that all people are made in the image of God, “So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” All human beings are of equal value and in a mature political system all have the right to make a contribution. This is not to say that the Church has always been a shining light of democracy itself! Arguably, the theological authority for democracy emerged through the tortuous events of the Reformation while the secular authority for the system is the product of the Enlightenment. By way of very simple summary, the Reformation revealed the important truth that each of us individually has free access to the love and mercy of God; the Enlightenment revealed the equally important truth that our individual reason gives us sufficient authority to be members of the body politic. In both “movements” the supremacy of the individual emerged into sharper focus. Each of us is afforded the privilege of a vote, even if it has to be acknowledged that unless you happen to live in a marginal constituency (which some would argue Harrow West, our own, is) its relative value may be reduced. Nonetheless, by virtue of that right to vote we can claim a voice and remind those whom we elect that their authority to act remains in the hands or pencil of the voter.

The Church of England as an established church recognises the place of secular authority in administering a divinely ordered and well-governed society. In the Book of Common Prayer, honouring the position of the monarch as head of state (there is no space to consider the arguments for or against monarchy in this short letter!), we pray, “And grant unto her (i.e. the Queen’s) whole Council, and to all that are put in authority under her, that they may truly and indifferently minister justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion, and virtue.” This sentiment reflects the Pauline teaching of Romans chapter 13 which readily recognises secular authority as an instrument of divine will, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Perhaps in a rather unwelcome way, Paul continues, “For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God”!

As we negotiate these next few weeks which will be filled with political slogans, argument and counter-argument, we are called to give time to prayer and proper consideration of what is laid before us in whatever ways we can. It is part of our Christian witness to engage with the sometimes grubby and compromised world of politics – it’s what God does in the Incarnation: Jesus proclaiming God’s presence and authority to religious and secular authority alike.

I offer two prayers for the weeks ahead, one published by the Church of England for election time and the other the work of Bishop Charles Gore, educated at Harrow, who received communion at St Mary’s, founder of the Community of the Resurrection, and who went on to be Bishop of Worcester, Birmingham and Oxford.

Lord, we give thanks for the privileges and responsibilities of living in a democratic society. Give us wisdom to play our part at election time that through the exercise of each vote, your Kingdom may come closer. Protect us from the sins of despair and cynicism, guard us against the idols of false utopias and strengthen us to make politics a noble calling that serves the common good of all.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.

Lord, we beseech thee to govern the minds of all who are called at this time to choose faithful men and women into the great council of the nation; that they may exercise their choice as in thy sight, for the welfare of all our people; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

With every blessing

Fr James