POLITICS
17/02/2015 17:32 GMT | Updated 17/02/2015 17:59 GMT

Church Of England Says Its General Election Guidance Isn't Left-Wing: 'Jesus Is Our Only Manifesto'

The Church of England has defended itself against accusations of left-wing bias after releasing an unprecedented general election manifesto that claims it's the "duty" of every Christian to vote.

A leading group of bishops issued the 52-page letter, warning that people "feel detached" from politics and calling for a "fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be".

Conservative backbencher Nadine Dorries earlier said there was a "very definite left-wing leaning'' to the intervention from the bishops, which refers to topics including the Trident nuclear deterrent, Britain's relationship with the European Union and the welfare.

the bishop of norwich

The Bishop of Norwich says he wants all Christians to engage in politics

The MP for Mid-Bedfordshire told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The church is always silent when people are seeking its voice and yet seems to be very keen to dive in on political issues when actually no-one is asking it to.''

But the Bishop of Norwich, Rt Rev Graham James, defended the letter, telling BBC Radio 4's The World at One: "It's not a shopping list of policies, you've drawn out statements from it.

"What it is is an encouragement to our own people to be engaged with our political culture."

Asked about accusations that the letter resembled a list of SNP or Green Party policies, he replied: "I don't believe that, I think it's much more even-handed than that.

"The only manifesto the Church is signed up to is the teaching of Jesus."

letter

The letter calls for many changes to politics

Rev James stressed that the letter "does not indicate preference for any single political party or programme".

The letter hits out at politicians who appear to be happy for the church to speak out only when it suits them, saying:

The claim that religion and political life must be kept separate is... frequently disingenuous – most politicians and pundits are happy enough for the churches to speak on political issues so long as the church agrees with their particular line.

Speaking at a briefing today, Rev James said it was intended to "counter" arguments from those, including celebrity Russell Brand, that people should not bother to engage with politics and vote.

"I think we hope that this will animate Christians to engage in politics. What we want them to do is to engage in the political processes," he said.

"We're conscious that there are a number of voices around, probably the most famous of which is Russell Brand, telling people that they shouldn't bother with voting and shouldn't bother to exercise their hard-won democratic freedoms.

"I'm conscious just going around some of our youth groups and speaking to youth leaders that that has had a more profound effect than I had anticipated.

"And while one may think that the bishops of the Church of England don't quite have the sex appeal of Russell Brand, we think that we should counter it," the bishop added

nadine dorries

Dorries said there was a "left-wing leaning" in the letter

The Church of England bishops said the letter was "not a shopping list of policies we would like to see" but a "call for the new direction that we believe our political life ought to take".

In the Pastoral Letter, the first of its kind delivered ahead of a general election, the House of Bishops urged people to visit the polling booths on May 7.

It said that "worrying and unfamiliar trends" were appearing in our national life, adding that there was a "growing appetite to exploit grievances, find scapegoats and create barriers between people and nations".

church uk

The church defended itself against allegations of being left-wing

The bishops focus on the treatment of those on welfare, urging them to be viewed within the narrative of the "person in community".

The letter states: "There is a deep contradiction in the attitudes of a society which celebrates equality in principle yet treats some people, especially the poor and vulnerable, as unwanted, unvalued and unnoticed.

"It is particularly counter-productive to denigrate those who are in need because this undermines the wider social instinct to support one another in the community.

"For instance, when those who rely on social security payments are all described in terms that imply they are undeserving, dependent and ought to be self-sufficient, it deters others from offering the informal, neighbourly support which could ease some of the burden of the welfare state."

The letter argues that the claim that religion and political life must be kept separate is "frequently disingenuous" adding that religion "cannot be ignored as a political force".

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It said the low esteem in which politicians were held had "many roots" but "with few exceptions, politicians are not driven merely by cynicism or self-interest".

The bishops state that the idea that politics is about satisfying the wants of distinct groups to win votes had prevented it from rising above a "kind of Dutch auction".

The letter calls for a "more serious way of talking about taxation" and the need for an "honest account of how we must live in the future if generations yet to come are not to inherit a denuded and exhausted planet".

Calling from a stronger political vision, it states: "The different parties have failed to offer attractive visions of the kind of society and culture they wish to see, or distinctive goals they might pursue.

"Instead, we are subjected to sterile arguments about who might manage the existing system best."

The bishops state that the time has come to move beyond mere "retail politics", adding: "Instead of treating politics as an extension of consumerism, we should focus on the common good, the participation of more people in developing a political vision and constructive ways to talk about communities and how they relate to one another."

The letter describes current politics as "adversarial", adding that "when it descends into tribalism, politics ceases to be about wisdom, balance or humility".

church of england

The church admitted it "doesn't quite have the sex appeal of Russell Brand"

It goes on: "Placing excessive faith in state intervention on the one hand or the free market on the other, politicians have focused so much on the things they can control directly through economic and social policy that they have neglected to nurture, by word, example or policy, those aspects of life which governments can influence but not control."

The bishops also observe a tendency to become more and more a "society of strangers", urging a strengthening of the idea that the nation is a "community of communities".

The letter examines the rebuilding of Europe following the Second World War, stating that "history is not an argument for the structures and institutions of the European Union as they now exist.

"But it is an enduring argument for continuing to build structures of trust and co-operation between the nations of Europe."

It adds: "Ignoring or denying the extent to which European people share culture and heritage suggests that questions of identity and belonging have no currency except as political bargaining chips."

The letter also urges a "real debate" around military capacity and nuclear weapons such as Trident.

The bishops say: "Shifts in the global strategic realities mean that the traditional arguments for nuclear deterrence need re-examining.

"The presence of such destructive capacity pulls against any international sense of shared community.

"But such is the talismanic power of nuclear weaponry that few politicians seem willing to trust the electorate with a real debate about the military capacity we need in the world today."

The bishops reiterate their support for the concept of the Big Society, stating that its ideals "should not be consigned to the political dustbin - they could still be the foundation for the new approach to politics, economics and community which we seek".

The letter draws attention to the language used in debates over immigration, but stresses that "we also challenge the assumption that to question immigration at all must always be racist".

It says: "The way we talk about migration, with ethnically identifiable communities being treated as 'the problem' has, deliberately or inadvertently, created an ugly undercurrent of racism in every debate about immigration."

It adds: "We need a dialogue about migration which ceases to use people as political cyphers and looks instead at who is being asked to bear the cost of rapid social change and what resources of community and neighbourliness they need to emerge stronger from change."

The letter supports the idea of a "humane economy", noting the "burgeoning" of in-work poverty.

It says: "This is why the Church of England has backed the concept of the Living Wage - an agreement with employers to ensure that all their staff earn a modest hourly rate that is sufficient for a full time worker to live decently."

The bishops commend the existing commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid, adding that for any party to abandon or reduce this commitment would be "globally irresponsible".

David Cameron, in Hove as he announced new Tory welfare proposals, told reporters: "On bishops and politics, I'm always keen for anyone to intervene in politics.

"I think it's good - we want to have a political debate in our country. But let's look at what we're doing to help people who are in work in our country."

The Prime Minister outlined the Government's efforts to create jobs, cut taxes and develop the economy.

He added: "I would say to the bishops, I hope they would welcome that because work does bring dignity, does bring self-reliance, it does enable people to provide for their families, it creates a stronger society as well as a stronger economy.

"And a welfare system that pays people to stay idle when they could work - that is not the sign of a strong economy or a strong or good society."

Giving an introductory statement before the letter's publication the Rt Rev Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, said the letter "recognises the strength and depth of the alienation and disillusion with politics and the absence of attractive visions of the kind of society and culture towards which the parties might be working".

The Bishop of Norwich in his statement stressed the letter "does not indicate preference for any single political party or programme".

He added: "The danger of demonising racial or religious groups is considerable, especially at a time when international terrorism is a destabilising factor among the community of nations. We have to resist this."

Conservative backbencher Nadine Dorries earlier insisted the church should stick to getting involved in issues where people are "really seeking the church's voice'', including on gender abortion.

Ms Dorries said: "Britain endured the longest, deepest recession globally and we suffered the biggest structural deficit. Where were the bishops' voices when the last Labour government was in a spending frenzy? Where were the warnings then?"