While tensions between religious groups over political issues and affiliations are now perhaps more commonly associated with violence in the Middle East or the latest dogfight amongst US Presidential hopefuls, denominational affiliation was once an important part of British politics also. The Labour party, perhaps drawing on its strengths in Wales and Scotland, was seen to be associated with the non-conformists and free churches1, whereas the Church of England was stereotypically tied to the Conservative party2; the established church and the party of the establishment. However, recent decades have seen the stereotypes challenged by changes both in image and substance within both the Conservative party and the Church of England.
Although suffering from great economic hardship in the wake of the Second World War, the UK’s post-1945 reconstruction was apparently highly successful for its first few decades. The era saw the development of the welfare state, and while political power changed hands between the Conservative and Labour parties with reasonable frequency, the ‘post-war consensus’ on certain social and political issues ensured a reasonable degree of continuity and agreement between the two major parties. The period also saw a period of fairly stable levels of support for each party amongst the electorate3.
However, the 1970s saw a wave of economic and social problems hit the country. High inflation, the power of the trade unions and successive Labour governments seen by many as weak amounted to what was termed ‘the future that does not work’4. There had been stirrings against the consensus in the Conservative party since the 1960s, when Enoch Powell attempted to revive a more laissez-faire approach to economic policy, arguing that ‘the free market is… essential for a free society’5. The influence of economic and political thinkers such as Hayek and Friedman6, who advocated libertarianism and free market economics, and groups such as the Adam Smith Institute, which has strong ties to several Conservative MPs, and worked to promote privatisation7, were strongly felt throughout the 1970s.
This growing backlash against the consensus and tensions between the ‘neo-liberal’ and ‘collectivist’ wings of the party came to a head in 1974 after former Prime Minister Edward Heath lost two elections in the same year to Harold Wilson’s Labour. His leadership of the party was challenged, and then Shadow Environment Secretary Margaret Thatcher won the post in February 1975. Support for the Conservatives grew throughout the remainder of the 1970s, as the Labour government faced further obstacles, culminating in the 1978-9 ‘Winter of Discontent’, which saw widespread strikes across the UK. The Labour government lost power in the May election of that year, with Thatcher’s Conservatives gaining a majority of 438.
The Thatcher years saw the introduction of sweeping economic reforms and massive social change after the upheavals of the 1970s, spearheaded by Thatcher’s own neo-liberal ideology. She ‘saw herself providing the political resolution that had been lacking hitherto’9. This commitment to seeing through policy regardless of the odds saw increased privatisation of industries that had, post-war, been incorporated into the public sector, such as railways and steelworks10, and a stern line with the trade unions who dissented. Her government’s economic policies were heavily tailored towards individualism and private enterprise rather than the communitarian ideals and extent of state ownership of industry that had prevailed in the consensus years11 However, it was the social upheavals of the 1980s that her government created which saw a firm break established between the Conservative party and the Church of England.
Like the Conservative party, a change in the perceived ‘political’ position of the C of E was not an overnight transformation. Despite the church’s usual conservative image, many members identified with the socialist movement throughout the twentieth century, such as William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942-4412, who also expressed distaste at the state over government actions taken during the Second World War13. Although perhaps something of a maverick figure, Dick Sheppard, then a Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, became a prominent pacifist as early as the 1930s14.
However, in 1983 the growing state of deprivation in the UK, particularly in urban areas, received prominent attention from the Church when then Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie commissioned the ‘Faith in the City’ report, which sought to:
‘examine the strengths, insights, problems and needs of the Church’s life and mission in Urban Priority Areas and, as a result, to reflect on the challenge which God may be making to Church and Nation: and to make recommendations to appropriate bodies’15
This report examined growing issues related to urban policy, poverty and employment, housing, health and education, alongside more theological and ecclesial discussions of mission and church organisation. The conclusions reached by the Commission on these politically sensitive topics recommended a series of administrative reforms within the C of E to try and face the social crises in inner-city areas16, but was starkly critical of the state of response to the poor by ‘powerful institutions which represent the rest of us’17, and delivered twenty-three direct policy recommendations to the ‘Government and Nation’, which encouraged ‘additional job-creating public expenditure’ and ‘an expanded public housing programme’, amongst others, in direct conflict with the policies of the Thatcher government18.
The report was, to put it mildly, not well received in Thatcherite circles. Its concern for communal responsibility, critique of the growing individualism of British society, and outright support of the Keynesian economic policies which the Thatcher government had rejected was seen as a full frontal attack on government policy, and was called ‘Marxist theology by a member of the Cabinet. Though the report was criticised by various theologians both within and without the C of E, it was accepted by the 1985 General Synod, showing firmly its acceptance by the organisational structure of the church at large19.
The major underlying issue highlighted by the report was a growing sense of incompatibility between Christian ethics and the new culture of individualism and enterprise cultivated by the Thatcher government. The C of E had found itself more or less comfortable with the socially concerned outlook of the consensus years, with the expansion of the welfare state and state ownership of industry both aimed at providing a reasonable level of services to even the poorest people, but Thatcher’s break from this caused concern, and lead many to question if a culture of personal enterprise had any place within a Christian ethical system. The years following the Faith in the City report saw many other Anglicans, both clergy and laity, expressing their objections to various government social and economic policies, and the publication of numerous other attacks on these policies and their perceived consequences20.
Prominent amongst these were the then Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, and Archbishop Runcie himself, who both questioned openly how the new brand of free market capitalism was to relate to Christianity. Runcie criticised the way that the market could ‘erode moral attitudes’, and many Christians questioned the apparent lack of concern for the human consequences, particularly for the most marginalised and deprived, when market forces were applied to social services and education. While the complaints were labelled as naive by some opponents, there were few who called for an outright rejection of the free market system, but simply objected to its universal application; it was human questions which were seen to be truly important, and thus the market ought to be restrained where it began to impinge on community values and social cohesion21.
This outright political antagonism saw the C of E labelled ‘the loyal opposition’, perhaps more effective at voicing their disapproval than Neil Kinnock’s Labour party. However, the status of being ‘in opposition’ to the established state church was not a comfortable one for a government which saw itself as also promoting ‘traditional’ moral and ‘family’ values22.
Perhaps the centre of the dispute was in that while the church saw Christian morality as having an important role in public life and the formation of policy, the Thatcher government viewed religion as an essentially private thing, a sphere of one’s life to be cordoned off from one’s economic activity. Thatcher herself stated that ‘the government makes people wealthy, then the church makes them good’23. If there was a connection between one’s moral and spiritual life and one’s economic activity, it was in the encouragement of individual enterprise which Thatcher found in the Bible: evidenced in her speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in which she claimed that the Bible instills:
‘a view of the universe,
a proper attitude to work,
and principles to shape economic and social life’24
Though Thatcher herself was apparently not a regular church-goer at the time25 (perhaps it, like sleep, would have taken up too much of her valuable time), she clearly sought a way of justifying her economic policies within the broadly Christian framework within which much British moral thought was conducted. She did not dispute that wealth creation and economic enterprise could do moral harm, but claimed that the issue lay not with the economic policy itself, but with how an individual decided to behave with their wealth26.
How, then, coming out of the furore of the 1980s, has the Church of England maintained its separation in the minds of many from the Conservative party? Examining the attitudes espoused in the seminal Faith in the City report, and later by its supporters in the church, it appears that the key reason for the separation of the party from the Church is the changes enacted within the Conservative party by Margaret Thatcher and her supporters. The position taken by the Church of England appears largely to be simply an appeal to return to the communitarian policies of earlier years, rather than an abrupt break in ideology by the church itself. The outcry may perhaps be characterised as the church being ‘more conservative than the Conservatives’ in their resistance to the ideological revolution carried out by Thatcher.
However, the response to social problems and their highlighting in Faith and the City is more subtle than the view suggested above allows for. The report also heavily criticised the church itself for being complicit in the degradation and exclusion of the poor in the inner cities, and it is crucial to note that the scathing attacks on the government by figures within the church came in the wake of the report- were the church simply representing another strand of the Thatcher-opposed ‘wets’ then the criticisms would surely have been heard earlier on in her government. As events were, it seems legitimate to infer that Thatcher’s principle opponents within the C of E were at least in part stung into action, and a reappraisal of their moral position, by the findings of the Commission.
It must also be noticed that since the passing of the Thatcher government, the establishment of the Church of England, at least, has continued to follow a much more ‘progressive’ line than would have been common a few decades before. In 1992 the General Synod voted to finally allow the ordination of women as priests, and while as of yet women are still barred from the episcopate, there is a growing movement in favour of their inclusion from both the evangelical and catholic wings of the church27. The furore over homosexuality continues at all levels within the church hierarchy, but events such as the appointment of the openly gay Jeffrey John to the Deanery of St Albans28 (an arguably more prominent position than the bishopric of Reading, which he was forced to eschew) point to a more open attitude towards gay and lesbian Christians than has been displayed in the past.
The church has also been openly involved with socially progressive movements such as the Make Poverty History campaign29, and has actively attempted to engage with the issue of global warming with its ‘Shrink the Footprint’ campaign, aimed at reducing emissions from church-owned properties30. While the Conservative party has not been in strict opposition to the socially progressive outlook behind these changes, particularly in the environmental sphere under the leadership of David Cameron, the overall change of attitude within the church, sparked by the ideological conflicts of the 1980s and encapsulated in the Faith in the City report, has lead to a distancing between the Church of England and political parties of any stripe.