It’s a long time since vicars like me presided over a Church of England that could be described as the Conservative party at prayer. I don’t know if that’s such a bad thing for the church, which surely ought to be apolitical. But it might be deemed to have been a bad thing for Conservatives, who by most accounts appear to have idolatrously wandered so far from gospel truth that they’re about to elect a golden calf as their next leader and, by default, their prime minister.
The charge sheet against Boris Johnson is well rehearsed. He is a serial liar, philanderer and shirker. He was fired from the Times for making up quotes as a reporter, and as an opposition spokesman for lying to his leader about an affair; a spendthrift mayor of London, who relied on his deputies while he played to the gallery with vanity projects; incompetent beyond belief as foreign secretary; said to have deliberately misled the people on the post-Brexit economy; and a provocateur of racism and hate crime through his casual insults of our ethnic minorities. That’s before we get to the vacuous promises of what he’d do next with the British economy.
The political party that has always claimed to stand for ‘decency' is about to sweep this exciting popinjay to power
And yet the political party that has always claimed to stand for British “values” and “decency” is about to sweep this exciting popinjay to power. Over the past couple of weeks I have spoken to former colleagues of his from politics and journalism, some of whom are even Johnson’s friends, and all of whom are Conservatives – and they are, without exception, astonished that this is about to happen. One of them encouraged me at the weekend to write this article because he feels that the Church of England, as the established church with the monarch at its head, has been all too silent on the awful prospect of a Johnson premiership.
The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has said nothing (full disclosure: I worked for his predecessor, Rowan Williams, at Lambeth Palace for a year), confining himself solely to comments about how we shouldn’t be divisive, along with an encomium to Theresa May. The estimable bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes (full disclosure two: I was at university with him and count him as a friend), has publicly called President Trump’s politics “toxic and dangerous”. But on Johnson, not a word.
So why has the Church of England nothing to say about the impending triumph of the Trump-lite Johnson? Possibly because we resile instinctively from lecturing even our oldest chums in the Tory party about morality. One huge reason for that will be the moral turpitude of the church in recent decades, with the grotesque revelations about the sexual abuse of minors, overseen by uninterested or acquiescent bishops, which has finally ended any presumption in respectable society that we should be the go-to source for moral direction.
More positively, we have the admirable quality of accepting human fallibility. It’s a central tenet of our Christian faith to welcome people exactly as they are, as sinners. That goes for priests and congregation. I know that I, for one, have the capacity to be a complete git. But then I’m not running to be prime minister.
So it remains an aberration that, at this moment in British politics, at least some of us in the Church of England aren’t standing up to be counted among those who might think Johnson isn’t an ideal candidate to be foisted on the nation by the tiny minority of the population that is the Conservative party membership.
What we look in vain for is a Christian case to be made against Johnson’s candidacy for Tory leadership and prime minister. It is as morally indolent and cowardly as Johnson himself not to make it. So, given the silence of the church, allow me to oblige in an individual capacity.
Central to our Christian creed is forgiveness. I have not a shadow of a doubt that Johnson is a forgiven human being, as all of us are forgiven. But forgiveness does invite repentance. The Christian faith is not transactional – we’re not forgiven because we say we’re sorry. But in saying we’re sorry, we make ourselves sufficiently vulnerable to recognise what forgiveness is.
One example: to say sorry for keeping Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British citizen with a five-year-old daughter, locked up in an Iranian jail, because he couldn’t be bothered to read his brief as foreign secretary, would be one thing. Merely to tell the BBC’s Mark Mardell on Friday that his heart goes out to her and her family is breathtakingly quite another. There is bad faith here that our church would do well to call out.
Another Christian quality to scrutinise here would be humility. Clearly the white-hot heat of modern politics requires a certain arrogance. May – a churchgoer, as it happens – showed some considerable arrogance in calling a needless general election, and an intransigent will to push through a hopeless Brexit deal. But even her critics wouldn’t deny that she had a sense of public duty. Is that in any sense apparent in Johnson’s agenda?
Above all, the Christian faith is about servant ministry, taking as its example and inspiration the figure of the Christ who not only humbles himself before worldly authorities but who gives himself entirely and sacrificially to those who follow him. As one sign of that, he washes his disciples’ feet on the night before he dies.
This could be described as public ministry at its most extreme and divine. It’s difficult to imagine Johnson washing anyone’s feet, literally or metaphorically. But it’s a model that has inspired public service for 2,000 years. By contrast, Johnson’s career and personal life have shown that he serves nothing and no one other than himself and his own interests – and it’s a Christian duty to point that out.
The Church of England, half a millennium old, used to supply the moral authority of the Conservative party. Evidently it doesn’t, or can’t, any more. But faced with Johnson leading our country, some source of moral judgment and discrimination is urgently required. It’s time to distinguish between the hollow political promises of Johnson and the reality of what he is.
• The Rev George Pitcher is a vicar in the Church of England and a visiting fellow at the LSE; he was secretary for public affairs to the archbishop of Canterbury, 2010-11