In 1917, Maude Royden described the Church of England as ‘the Tory party at prayer.’ The phrase has been used ever since, because it perfectly encapsulates the sense that the church is simply one part of the British establishment; an institution populated by elites, and geared towards preserving their elite status. Talks of declining church numbers might make some old men red in the face, but in the exact same way talk of high divorce, or taxation, or immigration rates would make them red in the face. Indeed, there may be some truth to this picture: in 2014, Theos published a report which confirmed that Anglicans tend towards voting conservative.
This picture of the church has, of course, been challenged. Priests who have tweeted nasty things about conservatives have gotten a lot of attention, but this shouldn’t obscure the eloquent criticism that Church leaders have made of free-market conservatism over the years. As early as 1985, Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie accused Margaret Thatcher of failing to help the nation’s poor. More recently, Rowan Williams (when he was Archbishop of Canterbury) made a number of criticisms of Cameron’s welfare cuts, calling them ‘radical, long-term policies for which no one voted’. He also said that Brexit was ‘a solution in search of a problem’. The current Arch-bishop, Justin Welby, has said that cuts to government spending after coronavirus would be ‘catastrophic’, and that the burden of rebuilding post-pandemic Britain must not “fall upon the shoulders of those who are already turning up at food banks”.
In short, there is a theme: the Church of England and the conservative party are at odds when the Conservatives want to spend less on helping the downtrodden. Margaret Thatcher’s government was potentially a turning-point in the relationship, because she not only cut welfare, but she did so unapologetically. Compare David Cameron’s hand-wringing with Thatcher’s justification of welfare cuts: “people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.” When Margaret Thatcher’s premiership ended, a student actually rang the bells in celebration at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, where priests study Theology as part of their training. I know this because the trainee priest was my father.
If my analysis is correct, I think the Conservative party might see a Christian revival, for two reasons. The first is that the Conservative Party genuinely isn’t low spending anymore. The 2019 manifesto promised spending across the board: 50,000 new nurses, 20,000 new police officers, and literally ‘millions invested in schools, science and infrastructure.’ In an interview with Mark Littlewood at the Conservative Party conference, Rishi Sunak accepted that government spending will reach a ‘historically high level’, and justified making it even higher. ‘We had a manifesto that promised we were going to do X, Y, Z things, and those are the things we’re delivering.’ Additionally, Conservative branding seems to have changed: ‘Levelling up’, which connotes raising the disadvantaged up to the same levels as the wealthy, is a quite explicit appeal to equality. Thatcher’s notion that ‘people must look after themselves first,’ has been banished from Tory policy and branding.
Secondly, I think Labour’s popularity with Christians is destined to decline, as ‘woke’ politics strengthens its grip on the party. It is hard not to see woke politics as a contradiction of Christian belief. Some priests, for example, do not believe they could preside over a same-sex marriage. It simply doesn’t cohere with what they believe about Christian teaching. Some years ago, this would be viewed as unfortunate, but in today’s political environment it is unacceptable and potentially dangerous. Similarly, it is hard to deny that woke notions of sex and gender seem to contradict the Christian notion that God creates people as essentially men or essentially women, and that this confers differing social roles on them. I’m no scriptuaral expert, but I think it goes without saying that Adam and Eve weren’t non-binary. Perhaps a deeper issue is that Christianity is an enlightenment religion. Enlightenment values about the free expression of ideas and about freedom of conscience have largely been absorbed by Christianity. The existence of theology and the philosophy of religion as living academic topics proves this. When woke politics challenges freedom of speech and conscience, there is a kind of indirect clash of values with Christians, whose beliefs are culturally linked to the enlightenment.
An even more interesting question is what the result will be in our politics as Christians move to the Conservative party. Will Christians, as a voting bloc, make it electorally impossible for the Conservatives to be small-government? In this way, could they cause a shift to the left in British politics? Or could it cause the Conservatives to fully commit to the culture war, perhaps as a pro-life party in the style of the American right wing?