On Tuesday I attended ‘A Service For the New Parliament’ in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey. It included parliamentarians across the political parties, and a number of them read the Scripture readings and led prayers. The Address was given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and leaders of other denominations, including the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster , Vincent Nichols, participated.
The principal reading was the classic ‘God and Caesar’ passage in Matthew 22.16b-21. ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ The statement is frequently used by commentators to justify a separation of ‘religion’ and ‘politics’, but that divide is an enlightenment construct, not a New Testament one. Sitting in the service, I again reflected on what the New Testament’s view on government is. It’s not possible to set out a comprehensive theology of government here, but it is possible to put three building blocks in place.
It’s crucial, firstly, to reject the idea that the New Testament and politics are un-connected or even incompatible. Jürgen Moltmann comments ‘Its subject alone makes Christian theology a theologia publica, a public theology. It gets involved in the public affairs of society. It thinks about what is of general concern in the light of the hope of Christ for the kingdom of God .’ In Matthew 22 Jesus is clear that Caesar has some legitimate authority, but under God’s authority. In the words of Richard Bauckham, ‘Jesus’ point is not that God has no rights over Caesar, but that God’s rights do not exclude Caesar’s.’
Secondly, we should recognise that there is a legitimate role for political authority. Government is part and parcel of the created order. It’s a thoroughly good thing. Politics is about organising our economic, social and cultural life. It’s about restraining evil and promoting the common good, not just the interests of those in power. The positive view of government in the New Testament is evident in texts like Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 2.1-8.
Thirdly, we should keep politics in its proper place. The role of the political authorities is an important one, but it’s not all-important. The critical view of governing authorities is evident in passages like Revelation 13. Governments can claim too much. Karl Barth makes clear that the ‘civil community’ can ‘only have external, relative, and provisional tasks and aims’. The fifth article of the Barmen Declaration rejected, against Hitler, the idea that the state should usurp the functions of the church by becoming the ‘single and total order of human life.’
In these interesting political times, what are the implications of these theological reflections? Let me highlight just two.
In the Clegg-Cameron press conference in Downing Street on 12th May, the new Prime Minister said that ‘Our Liberal-Conservative government will take Britain in a historic new direction, a direction of hope and unity, conviction and common purpose.’ The emphasis on common purpose here, and the wider national interest elsewhere, is important, and it should remain central to the coalition, but it’s important to avoid deifying the national interest at the expense of wider global responsibilities, especially to the worlds poorest.
Secondly, in the debate about political reform, the question of church-state will no doubt be re-examined. It’s possible to take a position on either side of that debate with theological integrity, but it’s crucial to avoid slipping into the trap of believing in the possibility of secular neutrality. The idea that the secular state can be morally and religiously neutral or wholly impartial is a myth. In its actions, governments, of whatever colour(s), preference some notions of the good over others, and rightly so. ‘Salvation’, according to Stanley Hauerwas, ‘is a concrete alternative that the world cannot know apart from the existence of a concrete people called church.’ To think that the church can love God or neighbour without being concerned to shape notions of the good or the policies which result is to live in unreality.
On Tuesday Sir George Young MP, Leader of the House of Commons, led the congregation in the parliamentary prayer. ‘Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her Government, to Members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of your Spirit. May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind; so may your kingdom come and your name be hallowed. Amen.’
In our democracy all of us, elected politicians or not, have the opportunity not only to pray the parliamentary prayer but to contribute, through our engagement, to the vision contained within it.
Let it be so.
Paul Woolley, Director of Theos - the public theology think tank