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Archbishop's article on the General Election

Thursday 29th April 2010

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York wrote the following article for the Church Times newspaper.

In the middle of the cacophony of competing voices as we prepare to vote this coming Thursday, there is a need for some quiet, some distance from the stridency, so that we can listen again for a moment to the basic questions about what kind of society we want to choose.  Listening for the still small voice that speaks of these fundamental possibilities is something restorative and energising.  It is time we made space for it.

Many people have been asking, in the wake of the crises both in financial markets and in political life, how we can recover confidence in our society and its direction.  We have been drawn back repeatedly to the language of the 'common good', to questions about the real meaning of wealth and well-being, to the need for a robust vision of what is due to human beings and human society.  If the general election is to be more than a celebrity contest, we must vote with our values.  We must be clear about what we think is involved in being a citizen, and so what we can expect of and for citizens in this country now.

Our society needs a rebirth of civic values and virtues – which is why we believe it is important both to vote and to encourage people of gifts and integrity to consider public office.  We can all become real participants in the common life of a society that is working hard to clarify and realise its moral vision.

We should not forget that, in spite of everything, many in the United Kingdom are still better off financially than they have ever been.  The deepest challenge is how the wealth we possess collectively is to become a real 'common wealth', wealth that serves a whole population not just the powerful and privileged.

This is central to the Christian understanding of what a just and sustainable society looks like.  Such a society is one in which active care and compassion and the protection of those least able to protect themselves are essential features of our common life.  Like our sister churches in this country, the Church of England, in its debates in the General Synod and in the  public statements of its bishops, highlighted a range of specific questions that arise from this underlying vision of the common good. 

Among those questions are -  

(i) Equality
The belief that all men and women are created in God's image obliges Christians to believe that all human persons deserve to be valued equally, and to have the opportunities they need to give some creative shape to their lives.  While we have recently been involved in long and complex debates about equality legislation and its balance with religious liberty, there is a far more basic set of concerns to be dealt with.  High-profile research published in the last year has pointed to the fact that societies in which economic inequality is growing are also societies in which grave social and psychological problems abound, to everyone's cost.  How then can we address the increasingly dramatic gap between the richest and the poorest and lift more people out of deprivation of body and spirit?

(ii) Stability
Along with equality, we are anxious about the stability of home and family life.  Patterns of overworking – sometimes encouraged by employers – which undercut family life and upset the healthy development of children are a serious problem.  And meanwhile the prospect of higher unemployment threatens the possibility of a secure and nourishing background for personal lives and emotional development.  What can be done to strengthen family life and reversing policies that undermine it?  Surely there are better options than the alternatives of unemployment and poorly paid, short-term, inadequately protected jobs?

(iii) Global Responsibility
These challenges are bound up with a global economy in which the distribution of wealth and access to goods and security is dramatically uneven.  Recent events suggest pretty plainly that there are few economic problems that are exclusively local. Our interests in the global economy are all ultimately interlinked.  The Church stands in solidarity with every government that is working for the global common good – the global common good set out in the Millennium Development Goals.   If the security of the poorest on the planet is finally inseparable from our own security, what should be our priorities here, in this particular 'developed' nation, for helping to guarantee greater security and well-being for less developed nations?  And, granted the complexity of our relations with continental Europe, how can we through our involvement in Europe help to shape a compelling moral vision for Europe's place in the wider world, honouring and building on its foundations in Christianity and other faiths?

(iv) Law and Justice
Part of that legacy of faith is a deep concern about law and justice.  This covers a wide range of matters.  We need to find better solutions in our penal policy.  We need to be alert to the threat posed by a still active and energetic racism to the vision of a society in which there is justice for all races.  We need to disentangle anxieties about migration from the urgent questions of how we secure fair and compassionate treatment for refugees and asylum seekers, especially for children caught up in these tragedies.  On the broader front, we are learning to think about environmental issues as questions of justice to the natural world and to future generations.  How shall we guarantee that the future is not only one in which law is honoured and implemented but also one in which justice for all people and things becomes the impulse for our moral energy?

(v) Children's Welfare
Our faith teaches us that children are of special value in the eyes of God, and the churches' investment in education reflects this.  Yet our society, while extremely anxious over child protection, often seems to be lukewarm about the questions of the real well-being of children.  Our education system is widely perceived as weighed down with short-term initiatives and to be unhealthily dominated by testing.  We are committed to working with all in public life who want to create a more patient and humane approach to education and to the needs of children.

(vi) The Needs of Older People
Changes in demography and the heavy impact of the financial crisis on pension provision mean that we cannot avoid concern about the well-being and dignity of older people in our society.  This is going to be a major challenge for the foreseeable future. The churches, rooted as they are in every community throughout the country, are committed to playing their part in ensuring that older people have the care and support they need and the quality of life they deserve.  What can we do as a society that will guarantee that our older citizens are not allowed to feel superfluous or burdensome and that they still have access to a share in our life together?  

During the election campaign we have, of course, heard from all the parties at local and national level about matters such as these.  We believe that all of these issues and challenges are directly linked with the recovery of a principled politics and a motivated civic life.  If we are prepared to move away from the assumption that the profit motive is all-important and to recognise that we need to develop once more a keen sense of human dignity and specially the dignity of service and mutual care, then these issues will be among our highest priorities.

We have an opportunity to leave behind some of the sterile and narrow habits of thought that have so often prevailed in our politics.  At the heart of all this is one all-important question: what are the outcomes from this election that will give us confidence to move towards a more generous and less anxious society?

Whatever the results, the issues we have flagged here will go on being at the centre of our concerns as a Church; and we hope that when the excitement is over, we can all continue to explore how these concerns can be realistically met.  We are eager to pursue the questions with all who share the vision.  In the meantime, we urge you this coming Thursday to vote hopefully and compassionately – and above all, to vote for the values you believe will work for the common good of our nation and our planet.

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