River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Anglican Newsletter

July 2009

Keith wonders about the fairness of elections, where for the Eutropean parliament, Local Councils or the new Bishop of Ely

On 14th June I was preaching in Church. One of the readings for the day (in the 3 Year Lectionary, which is used by most Christian Churches throughout the world, as a way of trying to make sure that virtually the whole Bible is covered in daily and Sunday readings) was from the Old Testament book of Samuel. Many of you will not be familiar with the background, so here goes. God had favoured Saul as King of Israel with Samuel as a supportive priest, until the point came when God no longer favoured Saul! Our reading started with God telling Samuel to stop grieving for Saul, now effectively yesterday's news, and to get on with visiting Jesse near Bethlehem, where the new King would be found. Samuel was worried that Saul would see through this trip for what it was worth, but God (an early example of political spin?) came up with a ruse for Samuel to use to explain his trip. Having arrived at Jesse's, Samuel reviewed his children and found them all wanting, except the hitherto ignored youngest son, who was out tending the sheep. This was of course David, who after Samuel's anointing (at God's behest), became Israel's most famous King.

This was only a couple of days after the Iranian Presidential elections and the dissatisfaction with the apparent results were beginning to be felt everywhere (although it was before the massive demonstrations in Teheran and other cities and before, as I write, a final outcome has emerged). It was also only several days after the European Parliamentary and local Council elections in this country, where there was a massive sense of discomfort with the election of BNP MEPs and councillors. Moreover, only the day before, I had attended Ely Diocesan Synod, where we had had presented to us the procedure for the finding of a new Bishop of Ely to replace the current Bishop, who retires in February 2010. Each step was clear enough, but I have to admit by the end I could not remember what all the steps were - it certainly seemed rather remote from the ordinary people who sat before me in the Church while I meditated on all these ways of choosing our leaders.

Earlier on the same day I had heard Bishop Buchanan on Radio 4 explain that the Church of England was concerned that an electoral process should be evidently fair and that the results would follow and should be accepted. This seemed to me somewhat at odds with the (s)election of David as King of Israel - a man no one in Israel had heard of and who was discounted by his own family - definitely a case of the process being less significant than the outcome (except, of course, that the process was God at work).

All this left me in quite a whirl about fair elections. Is there actually no such thing as a fair election? The proportional voting system used for the election of British MEPs produced bizarre results, although it is held up as being fairer than the first past the post system we use for the election of MPs. Has any of it got much to do with actual Government? The President of the EU is not chosen by or out of the MEPs, but by the unelected Council of Ministers! Today, the most powerful Minister of State in the UK (after the Prime Minister) is currently an unelected member of the House of Lords.

Jesus said 'Render unto God what is God's and unto Caesar [ie the Government of the day, however alien and/or unfairly imposed] what is Caesar's'. He was in some sense legitimizing obedience by the Jews to Roman rule. The Bible also appeared to lend support to the idea of the Divine Right of Kings, finally blown out of the political water in England with the execution of Charles 1, in France with the execution of Louis XVI and in Russia with the execution of Czar Nicholas II and so on. However, to this day, in the UK, we have our new sovereign anointed in God's name, as part of the process of instituting him or her.

A simplistic and rather trivial way of looking at this is to say that we get the governments we deserve, rather than those we might or try to choose. One very important reason why the European elections in the UK went the way they did was the deliberate failure of many electors not to turn up and vote - that has nothing to do with the system of voting at all (whether fair or unfair)! One of the very important reasons why we have an important, but unelected, Minister of State is because we, as ordinary citizens, have been as venal in our own way as the MPs we have recently been criticizing - borrowing and spending unwisely for years, greedily and selfishly - and so allowing the economy to so grossly overheat and, as one consequence, to weaken the Government (setting the example of venality for our MPs to follow; exposing Ministers, who have had to leave the Government; and so on). The Prime Minister has had to look where he can for ministers.

So, is there a Christian or even simply a moral answer to all this confusion? Where do we as individuals face as we try to sort out in our own minds what we do about it all - or even if we can do anything? It is perhaps too easy for a Christian to rely on that old hymnal adage that God moves 'in a mysterious way his wonders to perform'. The ways may often be mysterious, but they are not always so. Even where they are mysterious, we are bound to do something to help, not to sit idly by and just hope for the best. So, what's the answer?

I think the answer is micro, not macro. The answer is the butterfly's wing syndrome. Each of us must do our best with the situation we have. If we have a vote, we should be very cautious about deciding not to exercise that right. If an honest system (whether or not 'fair' by some arbitrary set of criteria) exists, we should honestly try to work with it and with its consequences. If the system and/or its consequences seem to us to be palpably unfair or unfortunate, then we should seriously try to change or moderate it. I cannot say how far 'seriously try' should go. It is difficult to find fault with the French and Russian Revolutions, although it is equally impossible to stop finding fault with how they were carried out. Perhaps the answer is to be revolutionary, but not Revolutionary. If you are fortunate enough to be Christian, you will be able to take comfort (note that I do not say 'take refuge'!) in the expectation that God is with you and (possibly mysteriously) guiding you.

Keith MacLeod

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