We need Europe in our relations with China

Before long, China will become the world’s biggest economy, so it was natural to pull out the stops for President Xi’s visit. The Duchess of Cambridge’s tiara; the golden coach; the speech to Parliament – all much to be expected.  Even Chinese Investment in our nuclear power plants is tolerable, though I doubt its wisdom.

Of course, everyone knows that China calls the shots.  The closure of steel plants in Redcar and Scunthorpe shows that Britain is at the mercy of global economic trends.  Even China, with all its economic strength, has to adjust to them.  In bilateral trade, especially in manufacturing, the UK will always be the poor relation, but we function in a global market place and must try to carve out a place for ourselves, playing to our strengths and grasping opportunities as they arise.  That’s what President Xi’s visit was all about.

A more pressing anxiety is cultural, rather than economic.  The history and values that underlie Chinese economic and political life are very different from ours.  That doesn’t mean we cannot have a productive relationship, but it does mean we need to be careful to protect what is most precious to us.  Freedom of expression and belief, democracy and equality before the law are vital cultural values that have been won with difficulty over the centuries – to a large extent the product of our Christian heritage.  They are in danger of being sidelined for the sake of money if we embrace economic partnerships too enthusiastically.  If our leaders avoid speaking too publicly about human rights, and attempt to stifle those who try, in order to avoid offence, it won’t be long before they disappear from public discourse altogether.  If they become purely private matters, there will be little to distinguish us from China itself.

Economically, our relations with Europe are a mixture of competition and co-operation, but culturally we share a common heritage, not determined by national boundaries, like trade agreements and treaties.  If it is not to be sacrificed to the materialistic gods of global capitalism, it needs to be celebrated and nurtured.  Above all, it is in Europe that our political and moral values were fought for, and exported to many other parts of the world.  There is no room for feeling superior or self satisfied, as Europe has exported many far less desirable things, and we don’t always live by those values ourselves, but we should all the same be proud of that part of our heritage.  It is not to be bought and sold for money, but that makes it more, rather than less valuable.

Economic considerations dominate our conversations with China in the pursuit of our national interests.  But there are other considerations, even more fundamental.  They are also more fragile.  We need to maintain our common European identity and heritage in order to help protect them from the threats that they face today – not only for our own sake, but for the sake of the people of China who seek them, and for the sake of those who live in other countries even more vulnerable to the power of money in international relations.

Those whom God has joined together . . .

The family gathered in London over the weekend for Will and Abby’s wedding.  Thank you for the opportunity to catch up with the important people in my life!  All five of the newest generation were there (Noah, Willow, Rowan, Corin and Seth).  Weddings are not really for toddlers, but they were great and put up with all the waiting and talking brilliantly.

As with all church weddings, I say, when I conduct one, that marriage is a gift from God, in which a man and a woman are united, promising to share their lives until death parts them.  And at the end, I declare that God has joined them together.

All of us are the products of the union of a man and woman, and marriage is a relationship based on that union.  It reflects the complementary nature of humanity as male and female and forms the foundation for family life and society, especially as far as children are concerned.  If there is a God who has any interest in humanity, then God is involved in marriage.

But can marriage be a gift from God for those who do not believe in God?  How should society define and understand marriage?  As the understanding of marriage becomes more secular, how should the Church respond?

The development of reliable contraception has had a huge impact on the way we think about marriage, of course, resulting in greater sexual freedom and gender equality.  Attitudes towards divorce, pregnancy outside marriage, illegitimacy (even the word has become out-dated), gender equality and same-sex relationships have also changed profoundly.  Greater affluence, the use of technology in the home and the increased cost of housing have transformed domestic life.  Alongside all these changes, and perhaps largely caused by them, the Church has lost much of its its role and authority.

Some reject marriage, either in principle or as an irrelevance.  Others seem to think of it is little more than an excuse for a party.  Tax legislation that favours marriage, and therefore discriminates against single people and couples who are not married, is controversial.  So can it continue to be central to the way society organizes itself?

There is a strong case for the Church distancing itself from the State in order to say that there are two distinct ways marriage is understood – a “secular” one and a “religious” one – as happens in other countries.  That would have the benefit of meaning that, as a minister of a church, I would no longer find myself in the uncomfortable position of being a person authorized by the state to conduct a wedding.

But I do not want to abandon the idea that marriage is a gift from God that touches profoundly who we all are as people, even for those who do not acknowledge God.  It derives from God’s loving commitment to us, and demonstrates that commitment more powerfully than any other human relationship.  Many of the reasons why people got married in previous generations – unwanted pregnancy, shame, illegitimate children – have diminished, but the real heart of marriage lies elsewhere: in our sexual complementarity as human beings, in our need for security in a loving, lasting relationship and in the stability it brings to children and society.  Something to be profoundly grateful for, to nurture and promote.

An alternative to the Tories?

I am sure that the Conservative Party will never build the kind of society in which I want to live.  It is too firmly tied to the interests of the wealthy and privileged.  Its success in the General Election was a surprise and a disappointment, a consequence not only of a well run campaign, but also of the dominance of the Scottish nationalists north of the border, the impact of UKIP, the miserable tactics of Labour and the collapse of the LibDems.  Even so, with support from less than a quarter of the electorate, it is hardly a wholehearted endorsement.

But who else to turn to?  Since the election, Labour, the LibDems and the Greens have all tried to establish a distinctive voice and presence, but the overwhelming sense one gets is that their messages are not very different from each other.  They identify themselves chiefly by their opposition to the Tories.  Even the SNP is energized to a large degree by the same stance.  Labour is the only realistic alternative to the Conservatives in the foreseeable future as the main Governing Party, and I was inspired by Corbyn’s speech at the Labour Party Conference, with its call for a kinder, more caring politics and its emphasis on listening to others, sustainability and equality.  But I cannot easily shake off the feeling that the working class roots and culture of Labour belong to an era that is past.  Also, to write off the smaller parties as irrelevant closes the door to longer term future change, which I don’t want to do.

Tim Farron of the LibDems and Natalie Bennett of the Greens both had similar things to say about the disastrous and growing division between rich and poor, and the need to protect the environment.  I like the LibDems emphasis on the need for an international approach to the economic and environmental challenges facing us – the narrow nationalism that pervades large sections of the Conservative Party is one of its most worrying features.  And I sympathize with them for the way they were unfairly punished for their involvement in the Coalition, which I’m sure was beneficial to the country.  Like the Greens, I believe that climate change is likely to eclipse all other issues if we don’t take it seriously.  But they seem more like a single issue pressure group than a genuine political party.

The whole concept of party politics inevitably throws up difficulties.  Every serious political party is a coalition of interests that necessarily involves compromise and therefore invites the charge of hypocrisy.  Everyone claims to support justice, freedom, equality before the law, decency, respect and democracy etc., whatever party they belong to, but no two people are likely to agree entirely on what these things mean in practice when it comes, for example, to foreign policy or legislation on taxes and benefits.  Compromise for the sake of power is unavoidable.

So is party politics always a messy, dishonest business to be avoided at all costs?  The answer must be no, because it is only through political parties that political decisions can be made and things get done.  We just have to be mature enough to accept that practical politics will involve compromise, and that for the sake of everyone’s welfare, people sometimes have to support decisions they disagree with.  What is important are the underlying values that hold people together in spite of their differences.

Which brings me back to the question of what is the best alternative to the Tories.  To put it negatively, which party holds to principles and values which do not conflict with those I hold to be essential?  If the answer is “none”, then politics is probably better avoided.  But as it seems politics is an important business, and that involvement in it – at least to some degree – is an important principle in itself, then I need to continue asking the question, looking hopefully for an answer.