Sermon preached on the fourth Sunday after Trinity (1 July 2012) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel

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Sermon preached on the fourth Sunday after Trinity (1 July 2012) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel

The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel looks at mixing religion and politics, and asks whether there is 'too much democracy'.

Jeremiah 11: 1-14 Romans 13: 1-10

The impulse of modern western democracy is that the governing authorities should be subject to the people. In a democratic context, those in authority do not ‘hold power’ as is often suggested – usually by those in authority – but ‘hold office’ and do so by the consent of the people. Even a constitutional monarch, like the Queen herself, only reigns by the consent of the people. And history is very clear about that.

What do we do, then, with the exhortation by St Paul at the opening of this evening’s second lesson: ‘Let every person by subject to the governing authorities’?

This is the opposite of the rather satisfying notion that power lies with the people. But, having said that, the current debate about the future of the House of Lords has raised the interesting possibility that there is such a thing as ‘too much democracy’.

And I reckon that that is indeed a very real possibility – although, if it is true, then it is true for diverse and complicated reasons and I think that the rather glib assertion that an elected second chamber would challenge the primacy of the House of Commons is a smokescreen to a very real and genuine desire on the part of many people for wisdom and experience to lie at the heart of the governing authority. However, people are often afraid to express that desire too vociferously because it doesn’t sound right in a democracy where, surely, the people who make laws should be elected by the people who are subject to those laws.

It all boils down, it seems to me, to what question is being asked. Should those who make laws be elected? Of course. Should those who make laws be wise and have experience? Of course.

But right now, the feeling is that these two considerations are mutually exclusive because there is insufficient confidence that people who stand for election are wise and have experience. The popular impression – often, although admittedly not always, backed up by evidence – is that the trick is how to win elections and not how to govern...

Perhaps, if MPs were as honest as peers on the subject, the House of Commons is as much in need of reform as the House of Lords. A plague, then, on both your houses as the Bard suggests elsewhere.

I know what I think about whether peers should be elected or not but I believe that there are more important issues at stake about the nature of politics and that debates about election miss the more fundamental point: which is why we feel such antipathy towards politicians and to what extent that antipathy is justified or to what extent it is actually a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’m not sure that our second lesson this evening is very helpful on these questions. The governing authorities must be subject to the consent of the people and not the other way round and the suggestion that governing authorities are instituted by God plays rather worryingly into politicians’ belief in their own infallibility.

That’s not to say, however, that religion and politics don’t mix. Quite the opposite. I believe that it is a failure to mix religion and politics – imaginatively, creatively and inspiringly – which lies at the heart of the malaise. But the key word there is ‘mix’: whereby people of faith take part in the democratic process as politicians and not as people of faith telling politicians what they should or shouldn’t be legislating about.

The slum priests of the late nineteenth century contributed directly to the formation of the Labour movement of the twentieth century through a form of Christian socialism which was intended solely to improve the lot of people who suffered inequality and injustice. They almost didn’t have to mix religion and politics. It simply never occurred to them that there was any dichotomy between the two systems. But now people of faith use politics to pursue personal agendas, making them no better – it seems to me – than bad politicians. Far from politics being an expression of the Gospel, politics is a means to an end – campaigning for get out clauses for people who have a very narrow view of what equality and justice mean.

Despite what I said about our antipathy towards politicians, I sometimes feel (sometimes, not always) that the State does the Gospel better than the Church – the Church inevitably playing catch up on many social issues about 30 years later and having to admit that it was wrong 30 years before and, in the intervening years, surviving on a series of exemptions which we wear as trophies of pride when they should be badges of shame.

The essence of our two readings this evening is about the importance of keeping God’s commandments – both in terms of our duty to God and our duty to our neighbour. But people of faith have extrapolated the two duties from each other and fail to see that they are two sides of the same coin, with an over-emphasis on duty to God and an insufficient emphasis on duty to neighbour. Politicians have done something similar – not, of course, because of an over-emphasis on duty to God (far from it) but because of an over-emphasis on duty to party – which is often in danger of becoming another sort of god.

As a result, our neighbour feels at best neglected and at worst injured both by the Church and by politics. And we are all each other’s neighbour. So that we are all at risk of neglect and injury – because of a failure to identify our guiding principles (be they God or our political party) closely with our neighbour, by failing to mix religion and politics for the good of our neighbour.

The first four Commandments are about duty to God. The second six Commandments are about duty to neighbour. But they are two sides of the same coin. We don’t neglect our duty to God by serving our neighbour. We neglect our duty to God by failing to serve our neighbour.

I believe that a dynamic mixing of religion and politics in a way that is utterly disregarding of self and completely focused on neighbour would make religion a natural catalyst to good politics and politics a natural expression of a social gospel.

In the mean time, no further elected politicians and no more religious exemptions.