19th May 2011 - Bishop of London's address given at the CBC Symposium in the House of Lords
House of Lords - The Bible and Government
The Church of England as re-organised as a united body in the late 7th century by Archbishop Theodore [an elderly Greek refugee from Tarsus] preceded and prefigured the united English state.
In the origins of our state the Bible played an explicit and vital role. The law code of King Alfred issued towards the end of his reign in the 890’s begins with the Ten Commandments and copious citations of the Mosaic law and from the New Testament before rehearsing some of the laws of his predecessors which were equally framed against a biblical background.
Beyond specific legal enactments the story of the chosen people, the Israel of God was a potent narrative around which the myth of the English nation crystallised.
I have much to say about Anglo-Saxon England and the contrast between the ways in which bible and government interacted in the early centuries in the Eastern Christian Empire and under the influence of the Pope as he faced the collapse of the Imperial structure in the West but you cannot bear it now.
I would recommend a book just published for its clarity and comprehensive sweep -Nick Spencer – Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible.
The Bible contains some crucial themes which have inflected our political history.
In the beginning “God created man in his own image” an idea that did more than any other to provide a foundation for human dignity and equality.
The Exodus has been used repeatedly in liberation struggles.
There is an ambiguous view of government for example in the Book of Samuel where the king is the champion of the people against the Philistines and his rule is necessary but also a tragedy. Kings are warned by the prophets that they face judgement from the King of Kings and father of the fatherless and there is a wealth of references to wicked kings and the fate that overwhelmed them.
In the New Testament Acts V:29 says that “we ought to obey God rather than men”.
There is a balancing tradition. Kings were anointed in the Old Testament and there was a sacral aura around royal power. David even when being hunted by a vengeful Saul refrained from killing him when he had the opportunity – Touch not the Lord’s Anointed.
Israel flourished under the rule of David’s line and in the New Testament, St Paul is forthright about the respect which should be accorded to rulers in Romans XIII – “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God and they that resist shall receive unto themselves damnation.”
A dynamic rather than a static political culture is generated by the interplay of contrasting themes in the Bible’s intrinsic indeterminacy.
It can be other wise. In the ancient world Caesar was quite simply God. The Emperor was divinised.
In parts of the Islamic world God is Caesar. At this point it is useful to note the distinction between the holy Quran and the Bible. The Quran contains a phrase about the peoples of the book, Jews, Christians and Muslims. In Christianity the Word of God is made flesh and the Bible is a witness to the life death and resurrection of the Word.
In the Christian world there is room for secular life and institutions and a constant negotiation as a result of the teaching of Jesus himself that we should render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God that things that are God’s.
John Wyclif – Mirror of Secular Lords. “Christ and his apostles converted a great multitude by unveiling sacred scripture to them and that in the language which was most familiar to the people … Why then should not modern disciples of Christ do likewise?”
The Geneva version – verse numbers and roman type to facilitate private study. A frontispiece of the Exodus, the Israelites delivered from Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea in contrast to the royal and hierarchical imagery of the frontispieces in the bibles issued by authority in previous reigns.
Geneva was also equipped with a commentary in the margins. These notes had an occasionally radical thrust with an obvious implication for contemporary events. On IKings XIV: 16 for example - “the people shall not be excused when they do evil at the commandment of their governors.”
The battle of the frontispieces. In 1568 the Bishops’ Bible once again exhibited a portrait of Elizabeth on her throne with a small vignette of a minister preaching to an attentive congregation. The Bible was once again portrayed as a bulwark of the social order.
[Bishop Aylmer’s “Harborowe for faithful and true subjects”]
Bishop Hall in the House of Lords 1641 – London and the suburbs hosted “no fewer than fourscore congregations of several sectaries instructed by guides fit for them, cobblers, tailors, felt makers and such like trash.”
After the glorious revolution the principal function of the bible was to demonstrate how right everything was. But there was the awkward figure of Christ himself victim of the magistrate.
The evangelical emphasis in the 19th century recovery of the centrality of the Bible. Simeon admitted that the Bible contained inexactness in reference to philosophical and scientific matters. Hardening of the arteries came later in the century.
The shock of WW1
Cultural amnesia and the drift to pluralism rather than secularism.
John Gray in the New Statesman “the return of religion as a pivotal factor in politics and war is one of the defining features of the age, and it is time that Pine, Marx and the other secular prophets were gently shelved in the stacks … the books that have most formed the past and are sure also to shape the future are the central texts of the world religions.”
Political discourse has shrunk into narrow channels in a stultifying recital of economic indicators spliced by xenophobia. Visit from a senior Communist official from China.
Is a secular grounding for human rights possible?
Professor Wolterstorff of Yale argues in a recent book  Justice Rights and Wrongs that it is not possible. Inalienable and equitable rights were not possible within the accepted moral framework of the ancient world. Even the modern Kantian approach grounded in our rational capacities raises difficult questions about the status of those whose rational faculties are undeveloped or impaired. Professor Wolterstorff argues that only the uniquely Christian idea that “God loves equally and permanently each and every creature who bears the imago dei” provides a sufficient grounding for human rights. Whether human rights language itself of course is as desirable as we sometimes assume is open to debate but that is for another afternoon.
Another fruitful field for reflection is the subject of tolerance. To many contemporary Westerners, religion is the antithesis of tolerance and there are many appalling historical examples to support such an attitude. It is worth re-examining the campaign for toleration in the work of John Locke. His defence was based on principles concerning the legitimacy and proper extent of adiaphora – things indifferent; the acceptable boundary between spiritual and temporal jurisdictions [Lady Butler Sloss] and the appropriate function of law in adjudicating between different scriptural interpretations. All these principles are supported by Locke by reference to the Bible.
I would argue that Christians must be tolerant because not because we believe so little about God but because we believe so much about the God who so loved the world that he came in the form of a servant to love the loveless into loving. But politically toleration is far from a self evident virtue when you are faced with lethal apocalyptic terrorism.
I am not arguing for a “Bible says it all politics” which has been out of fashion since our disastrous flirtation with it 350 years ago. It is simply to recognise that all politics rest on myths properly understood not as fairy stories but as archetypal stories about the human condition and that the economy and politics must have ground beneath them. In Britain that ground has been biblical since our earliest days.