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20 February 2015

Could it be the bishops wot won it?

Could it be the bishops wot won it?

For self-confessed, unapologetic, political geeks such as myself, one of the most exciting features in the run-up to any general election is waiting to see which party the newspapers will endorse. And yes, I do have a warped idea of what’s exciting. 

Some papers stick with the same party election after election, others have changed over time, and some try to be the bellwether of Fleet Street, going with the winner each time. In 1992 one particular tabloid claimed: “It’s The Sun Wot Won It”, after their front page splash put the dagger into Neil Kinnock and allowed John Major to scrape across the line. Even on that occasion the impact is dubious, papers like to think they have influence and voters like to think they make up their own minds.

Over the next two and a half months politicians will take every feasible opportunity to try and get us to vote for them, or show why we should ditch the other lot – probably a bit too much of the latter. It’s expected that they will pitch for votes, make promises, publish manifestos; it’s hoped they will set out a vision for where they want the country to go; and it’s desirable that they enable voters to make a well thought through choice before etching their cross on the ballot paper.

While the idea of newspapers trying to tell us how to vote is an excepted feature of elections, as Brits we’re pretty reluctant to let other people interfere in the privacy of the voting booth. It’s probably why the newspapers don’t have the influence they think they do. It’s also why the idea of a church leader getting up on a Sunday and telling me how to vote makes me shudder. 

This week saw the publication of the Evangelical Alliance’s Faith in politics? report, as well as the bishops of the Church of England’s pastoral letter on the election. Cutting through some of the media hysteria about the bishops’ intervention, it is a mostly sensible document written in a slightly flowery way, calling for a better vision for politics and suggesting some of the ways that might work its way out in current political debates. The current government does get a hard time, but so do previous administrations and as Gaby Hinsliff put it: “Its authors had bent over backwards to be politically neutral – occasionally to the point of meaninglessness.”

In Britain pastors telling us how to vote from the pulpit is a very rare occurrence. I’ve been part of a variety of different churches and have never encountered such encouragement – and from the evidence in Faith in politics? this appears to be the experience of most evangelicals. Only two per cent have been directly encouraged to support or oppose a particular party or candidate, and a further six per cent have felt a subtle or implicit leading. In every group of people, including church congregations, there will be a mix of political views and the responsibility of church leaders is to encourage the living out of the faith and working out what that means.

And this does mean politics.

Not partisan identification, but political engagement, careful examination of the issues present in society and the role of politics to make a difference. For nearly a quarter of respondents their church isn’t willing or interested in organising prayer for the coming election – frankly that’s a quarter who are ignoring 1 Timothy 2.

Voting is our chance to have a say at this election, but our role should be more than that. We have a responsibility to pray, we have a calling to speak truth to those in power, and we have the opportunity to exercise leadership ourselves. If we think politics is for other people then other people will get to decide what goes on.

The bishops’ call for a better vision is one we should all join in with. We should look for the kind of society we want, call for it to be at the centre of May’s election, and work together to see it come about.

Danny Webster is advocacy programme manager at the Evangelical Alliance.