In the last few days a letter composed by the Bishops in the Church of England has created a huge level of excitement in the lives of people such as Nadine Dorries and Tory front bench colleagues such as David Cameron as well as with Conor Burns and a small number of his backbench colleagues. A great deal of this has been stirred up by journalists and Political Commentators, all of whom have the time and capacity to analyse the densest of documents to within an inch of their existence, determining how far to the right or the left of some form of imaginary centre meridian line the policies or documents might be.
There appears to be a certain amount of subterfuge and other tactics at play in all of this episode. I first became aware of the document which was described as a pastoral letter (ie a letter from pastors to their congregations) on Tuesday when Radio 4 announced its imminent publication. The programme introduced two people to discuss it, one was Nadine Dorries and the other one of the Bishops who is a signatory to the letter. What was strange was that Ms Dorries was alluding to the letter, yet claiming she had not yet read it. However her approach made it clear that someone had read the letter and carried out a degree of analysis of it. At that stage I and most listeners of Today were oblivious to its content. I naively assumed it would be like most pastoral letters, at longest a couple of sides of A4, something that perhaps could be read out from the pulpit and be distributed in written form to parishioners. After all as many people believe if you can’t boil your arguments down into a couple of sentences let alone a side of A4 then you are not a very good communicator or the message is not going to be understood by most of us! The letter does actually begin with the statement “A Letter from the House of Bishops to the People and Parishes of the Church of England for the General Election 2015”. However it is not 2 pages or even 4 or 5, it is 52 pages long. Many of the books in the Bible come in under that length, and many commentators believe we are not good at reading our Bibles. In fairness it is well written and despite its length it is relatively accessible, but only a fool would imagine that many of the 1 Million or so communicants in the Church of England will ever see the entire document, let alone read it from cover to cover. This letter is either dreadfully misjudged in terms of what people will read or perhaps, more likely, it was only ever intended for Politicians and Political commentators to pore over, just as has happened.
It is sad that these Church Leaders did not offer something that could actually be disseminated through parish newsletters, that really would inspire parishioners and people without any formal links to the Church of England to vote, and perhaps just as importantly to demand changes to the political system that their letter argues is inevitable. Another tragedy is the failure of these Bishops to work with other Church leaders and leaders of other faiths on a document that no doubt could be owned much more widely than within one part of the diverse faith sector. Staying away from polling stations at election time has become a nationwide trend that should be the thing that is really upsetting Nadine Dorries, Conor Burns and David Cameron, not a letter from a few clergymen. Of course they may feel that low turnouts favour the dominant candidate and that many of their colleagues on all sides of the house have a great deal to lose if the turnout in elections were to approach the sort of figures we all marvelled at in September 2014 in Scotland. What I found most revealing about the interview with Nadine Dorries on Tuesday was her view that Parishioners would vote as their Bishops might wish them to (assuming that was their message). I have come across similarly neurotic ideas from local Tories during my own brief political career. If Bishops really did hold that much influence, the Church of England would be a very different organisation to the one I know; it would be well resourced and the churches would all be full of people!