WHEN CLERGY ARE OUT OF STEP WITH THEIR CHURCHES POLITICALLY
In the scramble to understand the new politics unfolding in the UK, symbolised in the vote to leave the EU in June 2016, former editor of Prospect magazine, David Goodhart, has helped us greatly. The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (Hurst and Co, 2017) suggests a new dividing line opening in British society.
While growing emphasis is being placed on generational divisions, highlighted in the June 2017 UK General Election, Goodhart lays his attention elsewhere. The chances are, you are either an Anywhere or a Somewhere. Anywheres are liberal, progressive, have no particular attachment to place or nation and are overwhelmingly university educated. Social independence and geographical mobility mark their lives. Somewheres, by contrast, live close to where they were born, work in the private sector, often with an insecure post, may not have been to university but do feel part of a place or nation. They tend to be more communitarian and religious than Anywheres. And they also feel left out of national debate, patronised by the media and stigmatised by the liberal satirical comedians and audiences of TV and radio.
The powerful counter-argument that several well-read, mainstream newspapers like the Sun, Mail and Express cater for Somewheres and are influential over sitting governments may have been challenged by the 2017 election. A full-frontal assault on Jeremy Corbyn by these outlets did not have the desired impact, suggesting younger people especially are gleaning their political news and opinions from newer, online sources.
Many people, naturally, straddle the two camps of Anywhere or Somewhere, blending opinions from both (Goodhart provides figures for different subsets) but increasing polarisation remains a risk. In the social media bubble where we can befriend or de-friend contacts with ease, most people create forums which suit their opinions, affording scope for the unregulated stigmatisation of those we disagree with politically. The tone and language of many comments would rupture face to face relationships. Where once we might have guessed at the views of others, now they are on our real-time feed as an hourly reminder. Is it surprising we rid our smart phones of views we don’t like? Yet in doing so we build walls.
Goodhart’s hope is to develop a national consciousness which makes room for both kinds of opinion. He fears that Anywheres are biding their time in the hope that Somewheres will cease to exist as new generations emerge, when they will not. There are strong instincts in both camps that a flourishing community needs and bridges need to be built in place of the shouting and gesturing across the divide.
So, where does the Church fit into this scheme? There is a danger of generalisation to fit a thesis, but anecdotal evidence indicates a number of communities which voted to leave the EU being serviced by local clergy who strongly wished to remain. Not, one sensed, because the EU is such a great institution – few make that case – but because it symbolised for them an open, cosmopolitan view of the world. A question of culture, not politics.
There are some places – how many, it is impossible to judge, but they exist – where Anywhere clergy lead Somewhere congregations. Flash points are often found in preaching which engages with politics where, despite appearances, the tensions surround not the presenting issue of clergy doing politics but clergy doing the wrong politics. They are also found in attitudes to changes in the local church’s life, with instinctive preferences for and against going in search of arguments to justify these positions rather than letting the Holy Spirit lead us in the sifting of evidence.
The Church is one body whose health depends on the ability to listen to different parts. Anywheres prefer a universal stance, which helps Somewheres see the Church as a global body comprised of different ethnic groups, equally loved by God; Somewheres like their nation, which asks Anywheres to seek the welfare of the place where they are put and not to despise patriotism as in some way mean and unwelcoming to others.
In the end, the call to love our neighbour as ourselves is a key to reconciling the two camps. This neighbour is local and global; they are like us and they are not like us. So much more thinking and debating around the great commandment is called for today than we are giving it. But to make this possible, churches need to hear both Anywheres and Somewheres and to learn from one another in a spirit of humility and understanding that our wider politics is abandoning.
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