I wonder how many of our preachers preparing their sermon for this coming Sunday have reflected on last week’s judgment on the now-deposed mayor Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman?
Among the many reasons given for his removal, deputy high court judge Richard Mawrey declared that, in cahoots with local imams, the mayor exerted “undue spiritual influence” on some sections of the electorate, specifically voters from the Muslim Bangladeshi community.
The incorrigible Giles Fraser has given a fascinating account of what he describes as “this extraordinary and highly politicised piece of law”, looking at its mid 19th century origins when it was first introduced as a response to the fear of the Irish, and specifically of Irish Roman Catholicism. The introduction of the ballot and the extension of the franchise meant that by the 1880s Irish voters were likely to vote just as they wished, rather than at the behest of their lords and masters. So somehow the power of the parish priest had to be restrained.
Fraser refers to a pastoral letter of 1892 from the bishop of Meath, who urged his flock not to vote for “Parnellism” (despite the fact that Charles Stewart Parnell had died the year before!). As a consequence of his intervention, the general election result for the constituency was set aside on the grounds of “undue spiritual influence”, even though he did not threaten hellfire or damnation. He simply told his congregations that, in his opinion, a vote for Parnellism was incompatible with being a good Roman Catholic.
The name Parnell of course rings bells within our own traditions. As the power of Nonconformity grew in England and Wales in the latter part of the 19th century, there was a growing sense that Nonconformist churches were being called to take a leading part in setting the nation’s moral standards, and that their members were to be an influence for good in public life. The phrase “Nonconformist conscience” was first used by their opponents as a term of abuse, at the time of the fall of the Irish political leader Charles Stewart Parnell. Nonconformist supporters of Gladstone’s liberal government had been shocked when Parnell’s extra-marital activities were revealed, and their reaction was a significant factor in the failure of the Liberal Government to put through a home rule bill.
However great the influence of the Nonconformist conscience in subsequent years, I doubt if any Nonconformist minister was ever charged with exerting “undue spiritual influence”, even though there will have been many who regularly urged their congregations in non-too subtle ways to vote Liberal. So if anyone is feeling anxious on what to say on this coming pre-election Sunday, they can be pretty sure that the pressures on them are going to be moral rather than legal.
But what might our consciences urge us to say? I see that one of my colleagues is to preach on the question “Should Christians vote?” – which I suppose is a good start, and much safer than “How should Christians vote?” But should we be more directive? Having attended the local hustings earlier this week, I was struck by the disappointing low key response of most of the candidates when asked why, “Pontius Pilate like”, they and their parties were washing their hand of climate change issues. And looking again at our own Joint Public Issues Team material on Trident (and the similar statements from other churches), I wonder how our consciences can remain quiet if we do not warn people of what the three main parties are all threatening by retaining nuclear weapons: the unleashing of warheads of more than twenty times the strength of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima which killed 100,000 people. As one of the questioners at the hustings asked “How are we going to explain this to our grandchildren?”
The preacher who wrestles with their conscience may not find it that easy this Sunday. And even if there is a danger of exerting “undue spiritual influence” (though most us will doubt if our congregations listen that attentively), I’m with Giles Fraser in thinking that that may not be the most important thing. “I think there is a big question about why such things should be illegal. I mean, if I think voting for an out-and-out racist party would be a sin (and I do), and that sins have eternal consequences (and I do), then I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to say such a thing in a free society. And from the pulpit too.”