Presidential address – Governing Body April 2015

In 22 days time there will be a General Election. A third of the population however will not bother to vote. The figure is higher for those aged between 18 and 24 – almost half will not do so. There is both a sadness and an irony about that. Irony, because many people in many countries would give their eye teeth to live in a democracy and be able to vote, whilst those who can do so in our country, choose not to. Sadness, because the right of everyone to be able to vote is comparatively recent.

It was only in 1928 that it became possible for all men and women over the age of 21 to vote – before that time, a long struggle took place. The first Reform Act of 1832 only gave the vote to adult males who rented property and had land up to a certain value. In other words, only 14% of the population, and you had to be male and own property, could vote. Universal suffrage was won at great cost – last year in Wales we marked the 175th anniversary of the Chartist Uprising when more than 3,000 people marched through the valleys to Newport, demanding a “people’s charter”, which included the right to vote. It ended in tragedy with 20 people killed in a bloody clash with troops. Today, those towns and villages in the valleys they came from, have one of the lowest percentages of election turn-outs in the UK – just 27% of the population of Blaenau Gwent, for example, voted in last year’s European Elections.

Why don’t people vote? I suspect there is no one reason. It could be a feeling that one vote makes no difference to anything and a general cynicism perhaps about politics and politicians in general. There has also been a loss of a sense of community and since there are fewer people who belong to political parties, it is inevitable that fewer people will exercise their right to vote. The only time in recent years when casting a vote excited people was during the Scottish Referendum, when nearly 85% of the population went to the ballot box.

But paradoxically at a time when there is some apathy about choosing a government, we have had wide ranging discussions about the exercise of freedom and human rights in the light of the Charlie Hebdo murders in France in January. In the aftermath of that terrible atrocity, much has been written about the right to freedom of expression – to say, write and draw what you think and feel about any subject, especially religion. And in that context, it is worth remembering that Charlie Hebdo had some pretty trenchant things to say about the Christian faith as well as about Islam. One and a half million people marched in Paris to protest, joined by many world leaders and there were also protests in other countries and on social media about the right to freedom of expression.

Now, no right thinking person can defend what happened to the staff of Charlie Hebdo, but it poses the question whether anyone has absolute freedom to write whatever they want, and to insult whomever they want. As one journalist put it the other day, “if you have scrolled through things online, people interact on their computers and mobile phones with a bluntness, a boldness and rudeness that, if used in ordinary life, would make any bus stop a war zone”.

Is freedom to write whatever one chooses, whatever the consequences, an unalienable right? Or put another way, if I exercise my right to say or write anything I like about you, what are the consequences for our relationship?

I believe that for Christians exercising restraint in pursuing one’s own individual rights is part of what it means to love one’s neighbour. It is an acknowledgement in other words that we have obligations as well as rights. Of course we can exercise our freedom to insult and offend but we have the obligation not to do so at times out of respect for other people. Insistence on my own rights is simply to be concerned about my own needs and desires and a refusal to acknowledge that I am in a relationship with other people. Being willing to forego my rights for the sake of the other is to exercise my rights in a responsible way.

As Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice, put it “Freedom of thought, conscience and religion, must be exercised in a way that respects the sensitivities and needs of other individuals, groups or society as a whole. In other words, they should be exercised reasonably and in a manner that does not impinge disproportionately on the rights of others.” Or as St Paul puts it in Galatians “You were called to freedom; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self indulgence but through love become slaves to one another”.

And Paul is able to say that because God through Jesus Christ becomes a slave for the sake of humanity. He did not stand on His rights but for our sakes surrendered His power and became one of us. God did that out of His sovereign freedom and when we refuse to assert one own’s rights for the good of our fellow human beings, then we too are reflecting God’s image in us. As St Anthony of Egypt put it “Our lives and deaths are with our brothers and sisters.”

And there is a fundamental truth about that maxim for Christians when it comes to exercising our vote. In doing so, we have the freedom to act purely in our own interests and vote for policies that will benefit us personally the most, but we also have the freedom to vote for policies that will be of most benefit to the common good, even though they might not be of benefit to us personally.

Now I realise as I say these words that I am entering into dangerous waters – for the minute bishops and archbishops say anything at all about any issue other than what people regard as the strictly spiritual, we are accused of meddling in politics. As you know, Church of England Bishops have produced a document on issues facing our country in the run-up to a General Election and have been criticised heavily in certain quarters for so doing. Here are some of the comments:

“Bishops are for soothing and for saving troubled souls and should not interfere in politics”.
“Bishops should lead us to God and not to Marx”.
“Bishops should give spiritual leadership and leave everything else to politicians”.

There is a confusion here of course between politics and party politics. Politics with a small “p” is the way we organise ourselves in society, and if bishops and Christians have nothing to say at all about how we organise ourselves in society and the issues which confront us every day, then we have emptied the Christian faith of a great deal of its content, which urges us to love God and our neighbours as ourselves. Running through the whole of the Bible is the belief that God is on the side of the poor, the disadvantaged, the fatherless, widows, orphans, and strangers. And the prophets of Israel railed against injustice and unfairness towards the poor and chastised their nation for allowing such things.

And Jesus, when He came to Nazareth at the beginning of His ministry, according to St Luke said that He had come to preach good news to the poor, freedom for captives, sight to the blind, release for the oppressed and that He had come to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. The acceptable year of the Lord is a reference to the year of Jewish Jubilee, when every 50th year all debts were cancelled and all slaves set free. In other words, every 50 years everyone went back to square one and started again. We do not know whether this liberation from oppression, poverty and debt ever happened every 50 years but Jesus preached about releasing people from the grip of everything that ground them down and dehumanised them. If the church of God does not speak out against structures that enslave and oppress people, then it is merely paying lip service to the teaching of Jesus about good news for the poor.

If God is the creator of this world, the plight of the poor, refugees, lack of employment, hunger, violence towards others are of vital concern to Him, not just whether one says one’s prayers, reads the Bible, and goes to church. The fact that many of our churches help to run food banks, parent and toddler groups, organise lunch clubs or drop-in centres for the elderly and for asylum seekers, are involved in credit unions and give advice on debt, welfare benefits and unemployment show that we believe that God is interested in every aspect of life. The church may not have the answers to any of these issues but it has the right to ask questions about systems and structures that affect people’s lives.

As Archbishop Hélda Câmara once said “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

One of the tasks of the church during the run up to the General Election could be to tackle voter apathy by engaging in the democratic process. We could encourage people to vote and help inform them by, for example, holding hustings where politicians of all parties can be invited to respond on their attitudes to a whole range of subjects. And people are more altruistic than we give them credit.

In a project entitled “The Wales we Want” which tries to discover the kind of country Welsh people want to leave to their grandchildren, (views which will be fed into the Well-being of Future Generations Wales Bill, currently going through the Assembly), the survey shows that of the 7,000 people spoken to from all walks of life, climate change was thought to be the most single important issue facing our world. Who would have thought that that would have been at the top of the list?

Six other things were highlighted as necessary for the wellbeing of future generations. They are a good starting point for each of us as we consider how we could use our vote to make a difference.

  1. Children need to be given the best start in life from early years.
  2. Future generations need thriving communities built on a strong sense of place.
  3. Investing in growing our local economies is essential for the wellbeing for future generations.
  4. The wellbeing of all depends on reducing inequality and placing a greater value on diversity.
  5. There needs to be a greater engagement in the democratic process; a stronger citizen voice; and an active participation in decision-making.
  6. There needs to be a celebration of success, valuing our heritage, culture and language.

Those are some of the issues that we face not only in Wales but in the UK as a whole. What the survey showed as well was that negative political campaigning was of little worth. What was needed was a positive long-term vision for our society as a whole to ensure the wellbeing of all its members. Harold Macmillan, one time Prime Minister, said “If people want a sense of purpose, they should get it from their archbishops. They should not hope to receive it from their politicians.” Well, you can also get it from listening to people.

In the 1984 Prayer Book, after the gifts of bread, wine and the monetary offerings are brought to the altar, the priest says some remarkable words from the First Book of Chronicles. “All things come of thee O Lord and of thine own do we give thee.” In other words, we are acknowledging that God is the owner of all things, and all we are given is just a temporary loan – it is a provisional stewardship that is entrusted to us. If that is so, we are ultimately accountable to the one who is the possessor and giver of all things and we therefore have a duty to ensure that we use them for the good of society and indeed humanity as a whole.