The 1st of July, 1681. Oliver Plunkett, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, is executed at the Tyburn on the false accusation of a ‘Popish Plot,’ having spent thirteen years, many undercover to escape Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan scourges, ministering faithfully to his people. Amid all that political turmoil, when a Christian bishop feared for his life in these very islands simply for teaching the Catholic and Apostolic faith, I find a letter he wrote to his superiors quite illuminating: “God knows that I think of nothing else, day and night, than the service of souls … Political or temporal matters have no part in my life: neither in my mind nor on my lips nor with my pen are they given any place.” He wrote this after he was sentenced to death. His duty as a priest, he maintained right to the end, was not to make bold political statements, even when his life was forfeit, but to tend to the spiritual needs of his countrymen.
What a contrast with some of the senior clergy of the Church of England today, who seem compelled, indeed who think they have the right, to use their public office, their pulpits and their social media feeds to express their political opinions – not because their lives are even remotely at threat, but because they are unhappy with the popular will expressed in the recent EU Referendum. According to the blogger Cranmer, the Dean of Manchester has publicly accused the Rev’d Dr Giles Fraser of racism on Facebook; the Dean of Exeter has denounced on Twitter everyone who voted “Leave” – that is, the majority of the people in our nation under our Church’s spiritual care – as “stupid.” The retired Dean of Durham, meanwhile, has claimed that Leave voters are in league with the French Front National. Far from concerning themselves with the spiritual welfare of those committed to their charge, these priests have taken it on themselves to denigrate the very people they have been appointed to serve.
And what a contrast then with the ministry to which Jesus appointed those seventy-two disciples, sending them out in pairs ahead of him to prepare his way. The harvest is rich, says the Lord, but the labourers few: and yet these labourers seem more intent on burning the crop, condemning it, than on nurturing and harvesting it. They are effectively excommunicating the majority of their compatriots who do not acquiesce to their enlightened views. You ware like lambs among wolves, says the Lord: do not expect your ministry to be easy, so not expect everyone to agree with you straight away; but be patient with people, let your first words to them be “Peace be to this house!” and bring them the Good News that the Kingdom of God is near. What peace is the Church offering this nation in its time of turmoil by sneering at the majority of its people? What Kingdom is it that the comments of these condescending clerics proclaim?
A priest has the right only to preach the teaching of the Church, and to use the pulpit to score political points is an abuse of our station. I have no intention here of setting out my views on the rights or wrongs of Britain leaving the EU. But what I can and, I think, probably should do is take the reality of our present political situation and see where we might further or, for that matter, hinder the advancement of the Kingdom of Heaven where we are now.
The idea of the Kingdom is a powerful one: God the Father enthroned in splendour, the Lamb sitting at his right hand, thronged with angels singing and offering incense, the white-robed faithful united in praise all round. An image of harmony, of order, of unity: not a unity of crushing absorption into the godhead, but the Trinitarian unity of a God who is at once one and three; a unity allowing for distinction, individuality, even as the disparate members find a common identity in Christ.
No political structure, for that matter, no political leader, has ever achieved the harmony promised in the vision of the heavenly Kingdom, despite the efforts of various Empires, Republics, Soviets and Reichs. Inevitably we veer either too much towards a unity of absorption, crushing individuals into a straitjacket of a system, or we lurch off into the chaos of everyone looking out for himself, every person, every nation an island with only their own interests at heart. No one political system or ideology can make an exclusive claim to divine favour and none deserves the exclusive blessing of the Church, whether capitalism, socialism or whatever: the Church must not be the Tory party at prayer, but nor must it be the spiritual wing of the Labour movement. The Kingdom of heaven is beyond party politics, and no one movement has the right to the allegiance of every Christian.
The Kingdom is also beyond political models and regimes. I think we can safely say that the Kingdom does not look much like an isolated island nation setting its face stubbornly against the world. But then, the Kingdom does not look much like a bloated bureaucracy governing a members-only club of first world nations, yet deaf to individual countries’ entreaties. Caricatures, I know: but neither completely empty of truth. And anyway, we are living in a country that has descended into caricature as its entire frame of debate: the caricature of the metropolitan liberal elite versus the unthinking, racist masses. Again, there is truth in both of these stereotypes. There have indeed been racist incidents fuelled by the promise of Britain leaving the EU. There has also been appalling snobbery and superiority among those who lost last week’s vote.
It is perhaps verging into speculation to say that had our British political leaders listened to their people these last decades, and had our European political leaders listened to the requests of our Prime Minister, had they gone to their citizens and subjects with respect and heralding peace, rather than than with arrogance, ridicule and condescension, the result might have been rather different. But what I can say without speculation at all, with utter certainty, regardless of where you stand on the Britain’s place in the EU, is that the Kingdom of Heaven looks nothing at all like this country as it stands now, bitterly divided, a state of two nations.
It is up to us as Christians now what to do about it. Do we join in, like the deans, with the demonization of those who hold different views from ourselves, pat ourselves on the backs at how enlightened we and our friends are? Do we shut ourselves off, like the proverbial “Little Englanders,” and take this as an opportunity to put our heads in the sand, run away from the world? Or, like the martyr Bishop Plunkett, do we do what Jesus commands: go out into the great harvest, expect to be attacked by wolves, yet wish our brothers and sisters peace, listen and show love, reason with opposing opinions rather than merely scorn them, and so show something of that Kingdom which is higher and more beautiful and more stable than any worldly Union or any sovereign land.
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.