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Mr. Heffer : I do not argue with that. I have done rather well in that regard. But I believe that Christians should have compassion and understanding for people who may move in different directions from ourselves. When Conservative Members have strayed, I have been asked by the press for my views. I have said that it is a matter for them, not for me to sit in judgment. I am not God and I do not pretend to have Godlike powers. I look to Him to help me to come to my views on issues, but I do not sit easily in judgment on other people. One great problem is with people who suddenly find morality. That does not relate to the basic concepts of Christianity.
The Church has gone through many evolutionary phases. At times, it has become the opposite of what was intended. It began as the society of the poor. Later, it was transformed into the religion of the state, and it became all-powerful. A powerful universal state within states was defined by those who wanted to get back to its original principles. During the middle ages, a feeling developed that Christianity should be the poor man's charter. That feeling became the chief contributory cause of the rise of all the movements, whether they were Catholic or supposedly heretical, Franciscan or Waldensian, which were in being from the 13th century onwards. In Britain they were embodied in the ideas of Wycliffe and, in a practical way, in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Troelsch, who studied these movements, was led to describe the period of the later Middle Ages as the "Laiechristentum"--the time of the common man's Christianity.
Political struggles and involvement have been endemic in Christianity from the very beginning, and whether some like it or not, that is still the case today. The rise of Protestantism was part of the struggle for political freedom, for democracy and for the right to speak freely, which is now accepted by most Christians, no matter to which branch of the faith they belong.
The Church has a number of currents within it, the basic concept being the creation of God's kingdom on earth and need to create a society where things are owned in common and where people act together for the commonweal. At the same time, individuals have rights and minds of their own, and they must be given every facility to use them. That is the important point about Christianity. We were given free will. We must use that free will for the benefit of the mass of the ordinary people in society--the poor and the oppressed. I believe that the individual's rights must be part of the collective whole. Those rights, together with the obligations, must be accepted by all.
I shall read extracts from two poems which I believe are essential in understanding why the church and christianity must be involved in politics. George Lovelace, the leader of the Tolpuddle martyrs, was a Methodist preacher. I have never been a methodist, although my mother-in-law is one. After seven years transportation, which was, as it were, given to him by the State at that time, he responded with a poem, "God is Our Guide" :
"God is our guide, from field, from wave,
From plough, from anvil, and from loom ;
We came, our country's rights to save,
And speak a tyrant factor's doom ;
We raise the watchword liberty ;
Column 31We will, we will, we will be free.
God is our guide ! No swords we draw.
We kindle not war's battle fires.
By reason, union, justice, law,
We claim the birthright of our sires ;
We raise the watchword, liberty,
We will, we will, we will be free ! ! ! "
George Lovelace was concerned about the morals of his children. He wrote to his wife Betsy :
"Be satisfied, my dear Betsy, on my account. Depend on it, it will work together for good and we shall yet rejoice together. I hope you will pay particular attention to the morals and spiritual interest of the children. Don't send me any money to distress yourself. I shall do well, for He who is the Lord of the winds and waves will be my support in life and death."
I shall now read from the hymn or poem, however one looks at it, "Jerusalem" by Blake. It is something which we all sing with fervour in our churches and in our meetings. We must think about what it means :
"And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold !
Bring me my arrows of desire !
Bring me my spear ! O clouds, unfold !
Bring me my chariot of fire !
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land."
That is what I believe. I believe that Christianity is about transforming society to make it better. The Church must be involved in politics. It must concern itself with what is happening around us. It must become up to date. If it has to decide on such issues as whether there should be women priests and whether those who are divorced should hold positions in the Church, it is because it must live in modern society. It does not mean that the basic concept is wrong, but that we must accept that the Church must be involved. If it is not involved, it cannot make the contribution that it should in building a new society--in building that Jerusalem--and creating a new world. That is what I believe, and that is why I became involved in this debate.
Sir John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge) : I know what a good Christian and Englishman the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) is, and I share his love of history. However, in all our history we are usually two sides--he would have been a Roundhead and I would have been a Cavalier, but still part of English history. I was much moved by what he said about "Jerusalem". Conservative Members sing that hymn, too.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Bromsgrove (Sir H. Miller) on thinking of this motion and on introducing it so well. We rarely debate these important matters, but I have occasionally done so
Column 32on Adjournment debates. This subject is vital to our health as a nation and it is good that we should spend this afternoon considering it in detail.
When we consider today the condition of England on the one hand, we see a nation that has never been so prosperous, but, on the other, a society bedevilled by crime--much of it violent--drug-taking, drunkenness, vandalism, thuggery and gross dirt and untidiness in our streets and many other public places. Apart from other grave moral failings which have not been mentioned, there is divorce, which is increasing alarmingly, the break -up of families and also, I am afraid, some dishonesty, whether in high places or in low. We appear to have lost in our national life a lot of that cohesion in our towns and villages, which I remember as a boy before the war. We are not as neighbourly as we used to be, perhaps because of modern means of transport and the fact that people move house so often.
It is not, of course, all bad. For example, more is given to charity than ever before in our history. If there has been a falling-off in standards of behaviour and in our manners, why is that so? I believe that it must be because of the failure of parents in the home to bring up their children in the Christian virtues and with the appropriate moral standards.
The Church clearly has a great responsibility. Unfortunately, not only has the number attending services been falling for years, but the number of baptisms and confirmations has too. Although poll after poll shows that most people still believe in God, the Church is irrelevant in their lives.
I have always loved the Church. It supported me in the various crises of my life. I believe that in the end religion is a personal matter, although it has its social side. Ordinary people want to know about fundamentals--why they were born, what they are doing on this earth and how they can cope with tragedies if they come along. They want to know, too, how to deal with sin and evil and to know the means of salvation. Those are the essential matters about which they want to hear from the clergy. But do we hear about those things from our bishops and the clergy? Do they, for instance, denounce the rising divorce rate, fornication or selfishness, or do they hesitate to condemn such matters because it is, perhaps, not fashionable to do so?
I often feel that the Church tries to compromise too much with the liberal and progressive thinking of the modern age, and hopes by that means that it can fill its churches. I am sure that that is not the right approach. The Pope certainly does not take that route. Perhaps we need among our bishops more John the Baptists.
I believe strongly in the establishment of the Church of England. To dismantle it would be enormously costly and complicated. It would do damage to those occasional churchgoers who in the last resort still depend upon the Church. The Church of England is a marvellous institution. It has a network of parishes covering the entire land and it is available to everyone who wishes to avail himself of it. I am glad that the bishops are still in the other place, as that reminds us of our Christian heritage as a nation. That does not mean that I agree with everything that they say. There is something wrong with our present system of appointing bishops. Many committees are involved and there is the baleful influence of the General Synod. The old system of the Prime Minister's ecclesiastical secretary
Column 33taking soundings from all quarters was much better and ensured that all sections of the Church had a fair share and not only the modern section, as now. It is hard, for example, for a Prayer Book man or a man opposed to the ordination of women to be made a bishop or a dean. I was surprised and delighted the other day when I saw that the chaplain of the fleet had been appointed Bishop of Sodor and Man. The chaplains in the services know about life and death ; they are familiar with real life. I am glad to see that one of them has been promoted.
We hear that not enough priests are coming forward for ordination and that the standard generally is not high enough. Pay has been much improved but it is still too low when compared with that which is received by many affluent factory workers.
We have heard much today about the Church and politics. Many of the clergy, including the higher clergy, seem obsessed with politics, to the detriment, I believe, of the spiritual. I accept that religion must cover all aspects of life, including politics, but politics alone is not enough and can be harmful. When an all too absorbing interest in politics is compounded by a lack of traditional Christian belief in a Church leader, we have a recipe for disaster. Some time ago there was a meeting between business men and the bishops and clergy. The churchmen asked, "What do you want of us?" The business men replied, quite simply, "Preach the gospel." That sums up my criticism of the present Church leaders.
What is called the Thatcher revolution of the past 10 years is liberating the energies of individuals who give of their best in their careers for themselves and their families on this earth. Why is the Church not making a similar appeal to individuals in spiritual terms? The Church still seems to cling to collectivist solutions, usually meaning more taxpayers' money being directed to every problem, although this has failed so often in the past and notably, and unfortunately, in Scotland. What ecclesiastical leader has there been in the past 10 years to have anything like the influence that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has had in the secular sphere, from the shop floor upwards? Would that we could have a leader in the Church as we have in politics.
Our schools bear a heavy responsibility for bringing up people in the Christian traditions. Church schools are vital, but all schools in England should teach Christianity and Christian morals. Unfortunately, that does not happen everywhere nowadays. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science is trying hard in that regard.
Unfortunately, the prestige of the clergy has declined since I was born in a country rectory over 70 years ago. Equally unfortunately, the prestige of the teaching profession has declined also. We need our best people in these two professions. We must do all that we can to raise their standing and the respect in which they are held by the public, and above all by the parents of our children.
What about we politicians? What example are we setting? Is it an inspiring example in faith and morals? I shall spare my colleagues any further remarks on that difficult and delicate subject. In recent years, relations between the Church and the House have deteriorated. The Church of England has appeared soft on certain moral issues such as homosexuality among the clergy. A dangerous conflict is arising about the ordination of divorcees while their former spouses are still alive. I have
Column 34often felt that the ordinary Back Bencher appears more rigorous in these matters than some members of the clergy. That is a sad state of affairs.
Hon. Members may not realise that in some senses they are more representative of the man in the pew than members of the General Synod. I remember how hard some of us fought to try to save the Book of Common Prayer. We prophesied that it would disappear. It has now done so in about four out of every five of our churches, to the irreparable loss of the whole of England.
If bishops did their job properly, there would be no need for the General Synod. The laity could make their views known at parish level. I joined the Synod some years ago on the basis of, "If you can't beat them, join them." I have been somewhat disappointed. The Synod meets too often, it seldom discusses basic issues and it is frightfully expensive for the parishes to maintain. Moreover, it is building up a bureaucracy which poses dangers to the well-being of the Church. The Synod takes up too much time of the bishops and the higher clergy. Preferment often seems tied to performance in the Synod instead of in the field. I once asked a chaplain on the Falkland Islands what he thought of the Synod--I hesitate to quote his reply.
I cannot end on an altogether sad note. In spite of the secular and materialistic age in which we live, there is still a longing for religion among many people. Somehow the Church has to appeal more to the hearts and minds of men and women. It must concentrate on essentials. A great evangelical crusade is required in many parts of our land where religion has almost vanished.
I believe that we are still at heart a Christian nation. Christianity has helped to shape our national character and there is still a haze of Christianity over this island. We must all of us in this place help the Churches all that we can to return to historic Christian roots ; otherwise, our future will be bleak indeed. 4.38 pm
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) : I am glad that the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sir H. Miller) has placed this matter before us for debate this afternoon. As the debate unfolds, we will hear a variety and diversity of Christian views ranging from Christian Socialist to High Tory. There is a great diversity of Christianity in the United Kingdom. There are the established Churches in England and Scotland--the one Episcopal, the other Presbyterian ; there is no established Church in Wales or Northern Ireland and in all four nations there is a great diversity of Christian views and denominations increasingly working together.
I speak as a nonconformist, a dissenter, a Free Churchman. I do not have the hang-up about bishops which Conservative Members seem to have. Conservative Members seem to attribute an authority to bishops which causes them to react with increasing violence to anything which a bishop might say with which they disagree. The most vivid example of that must be the comments that surrounded "Faith in the City". The hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) said in response to "Faith in the City" that The Church of England was now being "run by a load of Communist clerics."
A Cabinet Minister was quoted as saying that "Faith in the City" was "pure Marxist theology."
Mr. Beith : I am sorry to say that he was not identified. I hope eventually to discover who it was. However, I can identify the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley), who questioned whether bishops, although decorative, were any longer entitled to be taken seriously as political commentators with a built-in right to sit in the House of Lords. I often think that it will not be the radical dissenters who disestablish the Church of England, but the Tory party as it discovers increasing disagreement between itself and a body which it somehow expects to support it. It is strange that Tory Members seem to believe that the Church of England exists to support them and give succour to their views.
There is a necessary diversity of Christian views on political solutions. It is inevitable that Christians applying their belief to politics will come up with different solutions and views. There is also a diversity of religions in the nation, not all of which are Christian. I do not accept the view of those who claim that in an increasingly multicultural Britain Christian values have no relevance. That is a fallacy based on a mistaken notion about multiculturalism in Britain.
One of the products of multicultural Britain is a very large and strong West Indian-based Christianity which is vibrant and sees Christian values as highly relevant to modern society. There are also many Moslems who have much common ground with Christians in their belief about the importance of moral values. The Christian Churches should not go into retreat on moral issues simply because we now have a more diverse nation with Christians of other traditions and others with non-Christian religious views.
When the Prime Minister addressed the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, I saw evidence of this Tory desire to claim the support of the Church. I feel compelled to remind Tory Members that the Christian gospel is about challenge. It is about challenging individuals in personal responsibility, behaviour and spirituality. It is also about challenging those in authority to assess what they are doing in the light of very different claims to those which now seem to dominate them.
The hon. Member for Bromsgrove said that he did not question the right of clergy to hold political views--well, there is a concession for a start-- but they should not express them in their clerical capacity. I wonder what the hon. Gentleman would have said to the Old Testament prophets. What would he have said as they railed against the evils of the societies in which they found themselves? Perhaps he would have said, "You are not entitled to express these views in your capacity as a prophet. You may hold them privately, but you may not express them." What would the hon. Gentleman say to the priests in Poland who have supported Solidarity? I suppose he would say, "Of course they are entitled to hold those views, but they should not express them." Surely not. The Prime Minister has often welcomed the way in which the Church in Poland has supported Solidarity and she has welcomed the great alliance between Christianity and the desire for self-expression and democratic rights in Poland.
What would the hon. Member for Bromsgrove and his Friends say to Mother Teresa because she poses a challenge to our society on homelessness and abortion? She demands that we think again about those issues.
Column 36Would Tory Members say that she has no right to say those things in public because she is a member of a religious order and should therefore keep those things to herself? Surely not. Prophetic words uttered by a remarkable Christian like Mother Teresa or by people whose prophetic voices have an authentic ring are where we are most likely to find the authenticity of the gospel.
The hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) suggested earlier that most Churches were most full where Christianity was not considered to be relevant to politics or having a message about politics. I attended the remarkable and vast gatherings of the Spring Harvest evangelical organisation where many people feel very deeply about current moral and political issues.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the point was that the emptiest Churches were those where the doctrine of Christianity was not preached, in other words where secular doctrines were preached to the exclusion of Church doctrine?
Mr. Beith : That was not the point as I understand it. Perhaps the hon. Lady is thinking of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Sir J. Stokes). I was referring to a point made earlier by the hon. Member for Corby which seemed to carry the import which I have attributed to it.
Petitions are pouring in at the moment from active Christian Churches all over the country about people in South Africa who have dissented from military service in the South African defence forces because of their disagreement with the system in that country. They are coming from active congregations who believe that there is a relationship between the gospel and political issues.
The note of challenge is bound to be seen as a challenge to this Government. It would be a challenge to any Government, but there are particular challenges for this Government. The most powerful challenge is that the Government appear to have adopted the concept of "passing by on the other side" as an objective of public policy. They believe that that is desirable, but that concept threatens many areas of public policy.
The Government's attitude to apartheid in South Africa and the desirability of acting with other nations to bring pressure to bear on South Africa is that they should leave well alone and stand well back from it. The Government's attitude to many aspects of homelessness is one in which they say, "Well, we'll see what the private sector can do and leave it to them to solve the problem." That attitude is very obvious today in the battle over the funds for hostels which provide for people with special housing needs--for example, women with children who have had to leave home or who have been turned out
Column 37because of domestic violence and young people with nowhere else to go. Those hostels are unable to meet their commitments on the proposed level of Government funding.
There is a similar willingness to "pass by on the other side" in relation to poverty and the Health Service. I sometimes think that the Prime Minister would have said to the victim in the Good Samaritan story, "Why haven't you got private health insurance? You wouldn't have had to worry."
Mr. Beith : No. The Prime Minister has given her own interpretation of the Good Samaritan story. She said that the main point is that the Good Samaritan could only provide help because he had prospered, had the means to put the victim in a hotel and could provide for him to stay there for a few days.
There is another side to the story. The dominant aspect in the New Testament is that if we see someone suffering, we must do something about it.
The criticism we make of the Government is that, while we recognise the desirability of helpng people to look after themselves to the greatest possible extent, if there is deprivation, suffering, homelessness and ill- health, for the state to stand by and not take the action that it could is a form of passing by on the other side. The Gospel imperatives ask the question :
"Lord, when saw we thee hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee : Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me." The imperative is very clear, and the state cannot stand back and say, "We do not intend to do very much, because we believe that the private sector will solve the problems for us-- even though there is no proof of that."
Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South) : Between 1974 and 1979, we saw examples of the state attempting to take on certain responsibilities, and to solve problems that had been with us for some time. I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's remarks about those problems, but a successful way of managing them could not be found in the years between 1974 and 1979. The Prime Minister herself said that for the state to operate, individuals within it must carry out their responsibilities in conjunction with the state. What is wrong with that?
Mr. Beith : As a general proposition, I do not dissent from it, but between 1974 and 1979, the Health Service was, in some respects, in a better state than it is today. If the current Health Service proposals are implemented in full, its deterioration will be much worse.
The hon. Gentleman was seeking some common ground with me, and I wish to establish that common ground. I believe that individuals should be given the greatest possible opportunity to look after their own affairs. I believe that in respect of individual rights, for example, individuals should be protected from an overbearing state. I regret the fact that Conservative Members do not join us in safeguarding individual rights through a Bill of Rights.
I believe also that the tax system should be reformed, so that those having the lowest incomes are given an opportunity to look after themselves, and do not find that they are bearing the heaviest relative burdens that the tax
Column 38system imposes, so that they too may exercise more responsibility and self-reliance. Getting the balance right, and ensuring that people can behave responsibly--and are given the opportunity to do so--without the state passing by on the other side, is difficult. The criticism that many in the Churches are making of the Government is that they have got the balance wrong : they do appear to be passing by on the other side.
Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke) : The hon. Gentleman says that under the last Labour Government--which his party actively supported during that Government's last two years--the National Health Service was in better shape. That comes as a surprise, given that the Health Service was then funded by 40 per cent. less in real terms than it is today, with 60,000 fewer doctors and nurses, and with a 30 per cent. cut in its hospitals' capital growth--compared with a 30 per cent. increase in spending on the capital programme under the present Government. How does the hon. Gentleman explain that?
Mr. Beith : I suggest that the hon. Gentleman goes round the hospitals of this country and asks those who work in them whether they think that the Health Service is better now than it was a decade ago. He will find a degree of anxiety verging on despair.
Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North) : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You will be aware that a large number of right hon. and hon. Members wish to debate the second motion on the Order Paper. Without seeking in any way to tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker, how to do your job, I shall be grateful if you will ensure, in view of the important debate on town and country planning that many right hon. and hon. Members wish to reach, that discussion of the Health Service does not take up too much time.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd) : I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but the motion now before the House is all-embracing. If there are fewer interventions, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) could proceed more speedily.
The question of passing by on the other side is not the only one on which many Christians wish to take issue with the Government. There is also the matter of general moral values and the belief that the state, while not legislating on moral values, can to a large extent uphold them. There is much anxiety among Christians about a get-rich-quick morality that seems to supplant older values that one thought had a place, even in the philosophies of Conservative Members. A whole series of incidents emphasises that fear. Today's newspapers report yet another stage in the saga of the sale of cemeteries by Westminster city council. The idea that it is proper for a public body to sell off its cemeteries for 15p, see £1 million profit made out of them, and then try to silence the official who could reveal much of the truth of what went on and who has been critical of the councillors involved shows that a different kind of morality prevails than many Christians feel is appropriate. On Sunday trading, we see the Government's apparent determination to bring about a state of affairs where Sunday will be like all other days, with those working in