The coincidence this year of Trinity Sunday (11th June) coinciding with a General Election (8th June) raised, for me, some important questions. The doctrine of the Trinity is not the easiest aspect of catholic Christian teaching to get oneâ€™s head around but at its heart, surely, is the notion of relationships: three persons so closely bound together they become a single entity. This is God. And the glue which cements this union is Love, expressed in many different ways from the primal creative impulse, through surrender and sacrifice, to companionship and nurturing: Love unconditionally bestowed. Thatâ€™s what millions of Christians were encouraged to contemplate on Sunday, 11th June just three days after a General Election where the shock result shook the nation and its European allies profoundly.
I am sure I am not alone in having found the campaigning for the General Election utterly dispiriting. Nowhere was the issue of Brexit addressed in any detail despite the fact that, as a nation, we had voted to divorce ourselves from our strongest allies. We had a prime minister who seemed terrified of any situation where her character or personality might be exposed to public scrutiny. Rhetoric and passion were replaced by the tedious (and ultimately ridiculous) repetition of the words â€˜strong and stableâ€™, suggesting that either she had nothing else in her head or that she believed the electorate had no room in its collective brain for anything more. We had the leader of the Opposition showing some ability to reach the people but marring this with pledges which amounted to little more than bribes, many designed to appeal to the naÃ¯ve self-interest of the young. North of the border, the SNP seemed more interested in twisting the General Election into a strategy to resurrect the issue of independence, implying a parochial rather than national perspective. The Liberal Democrats were led by a man who has since admitted (and it showed during the campaign) that he finds being a political animal with stature incompatible with his Christian faith.
It is that attitude which I find most worrying. If followers of Christ cannot wrestle with the most significant issues of the day and seek to effect change within the mechanisms of government, to improve the lives of the people who live in this country, what does that say about the robustness of Christianity?
My view is that Christians have a duty to be involved in politics. Living, as we do, in a representative democracy which weights everyoneâ€™s vote equally, it is particularly incumbent upon us to engage with the political systems which shape the lives of every citizen. I have come to believe that, in a secular society where for three or four generations in many families there has been no meaningful contact with anything spiritual or Christian, Christians have to find other routes to demonstrate the fundamental significance of relationships. I am not so naÃ¯ve as to believe we can deal in unconditional love but a deep-rooted regard for our fellow human-beings, whatever their background or circumstances or attractiveness, would be a start. Realising that in practical terms ought to be the work of politics.
I was interested to read a recent article in The Times by Emma Duncan (editor of 1843) in which she advocated a much more focussed investment by the state in pre-school education, arguing that evidence from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) makes it clear that educating the nationâ€™s young from two-years onwards, gives them far better life chances. Britain, she argues, has low productivity compared to many other European nations because it fails to invest in the young as significantly as they do. Of course, the primary focus here is on economic well-being: a better educated workforce should create a more prosperous nation. Of course national prosperity alone does not secure happiness for its citizens but it is a major factor. It leads to stimulating employment, opportunities for creativity, intellectual and personal growth, and a healthy environment. What drives such investment? A notion that everyone in society is valued, that weâ€™re all in this together.
One of the thoughts that flitted across my mind after I learned of the Grenfell Tower disaster was that this should never have happened in a developed country; shoddy housing leading to this sort of calamity only happens in the Third World. Unpacking that thought was a salutary exercise. It accepted a significant imbalance in basic welfare between different parts of the world and it assumed a Western superiority. We in â€˜the developed worldâ€™, I was thinking, are further forward than that. It is clear that we are not. Our systems are not so advanced as to shield the poor from carelessly conceived building regulations or their casual implementation. Any superiority is misplaced.
A sense of superiority, felt by one section of society in relation to another, sits uneasily with democracy. At the ballot box, we are all equal. And yet, this year, I have found myself railing against an electoral system which allows the dim-witted or the wrong-headed (I mean, of course, people who hold views contrary to mine) an equal say in how to run the country. Whereâ€™s the logic, I ranted, which gives the inhabitants of socially deprived areas â€“ the recipients of EU subsidies â€“ the opportunity to bite off the hand that feeds them? The answer, of course, is that logic does not come into it. We have universal adult suffrage but many adults do not vote with their minds; they vote with their hearts, even if this means disadvantaging themselves. I have found myself asking whether they should have the right to do so. Doesnâ€™t the result of the referendum as well as the election of Trump, I asked myself, signal the worrying fact that universal adult suffrage without universal adult intelligence is disastrous?
On Trinity Sunday, I thought again.
I realised I had fallen into the same way of thinking as those I was railing against. My response to those who voted for schism and separation and isolationism was to contemplate (however fancifully) cutting them off from the democratic process, barring them, in effect, from having a stake in their society because of the complexion of their opinions. I was not seeking a relationship (even one where disagreement and argument was the prevailing mode of interaction) with my fellow citizens; I was contemplating rejecting them. If I truly believed there were widely held attitudes out there which were reprehensible or misguided or muddled, my responsibility surely was to get stuck in and counter them. If I had any genuine human regard for others outside my own cosy coterie of friends, what I really needed to consider were ways of nudging them towards a more generous or productive perspective. And learn, at the same time, why they thought the way they did.
The hung parliament, to my mind, is an opportunity for building better relationships in Westminster. One thing it could do is effect a shift away from entrenched adversarial politics. The terms of Brexit matter to everyone. This is the gravest challenge we have had to face since the Second World War. It should be above Party sniping. We could benefit perhaps from a Coalition of all parties and a pooling of all talent (after all, itâ€™s not as if currently there is great deal of it in the Commons). Letâ€™s consider doing politics differently, seeking consensus and the best possible solution rather than being driven, at the first opportunity, to scores points off anyone from a different persuasion.
I was very impressed the other day by a meeting organised by Citizens UK of Croydon. They had invited both the Conservative and Labour candidates for Croydon Central to attend. They had done their homework and ascertained what the three most pressing concerns for the new, young voters of Croydon were and they wanted these prospective parliamentarians to listen and give their views on each one and commit to a response. The topics were the lack of affordable housing, the welfare of refugees and opportunities for paid work experience for the young. There was no space for Party politics. The whole proceedings were managed with courtesy and dignity â€“ and passion. This was not a reaction to a top-down manifesto. It was a practical demonstration of how a representative democracy should work: bottom up.
I am sure that our country can only benefit from educating the electorate, and particularly new voters, in how they can influence the democratic process not just by turning up at the ballot box every few years but by engaging in forums where views are exchanged and opinions challenged. These forums should be places where people across the socio-economic spectrum and from different Faith backgrounds and diverse ethnic heritages come together to experience what it really means to relate to each other about things which matter.
I was encouraged that Citizens UK of Croydon was being supported by a number of Christian churches from different denominations. Now mosques and synagogues and temples need to be equally represented. Letâ€™s see if forums like these cannot be convened across every constituency, across every borough, every community, with a particular emphasis on educating the emerging voters on the key principles of living in a democracy and actively realising the concept of equal citizenship.
Far be it for me to relegate the Trinity to a metaphor for social engagement and political involvement but the notion of an inextricable union of separate individuals, binding themselves to each other in Love, isnâ€™t half helpful.