Three weeks to go, and we have yet to be enthused about the General Election. So last week, enter stage left: the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, with a pastoral letter to the faithful.
It is much as you would expect. Worded in archiepiscopal fashion neither to offend, nor (alas) inspire. A mixture of the self-evident and the bland. This letter is not the document to set the election on fire.
There are, of course, slip-ups, on which journalists looking for copy seize. The Archbishops stress ‘stability’, without, it seems, realising this will be heard as endorsement of Theresa May’s ‘strong and stable’ campaign mantra. Their appeal to ‘cohesion’ will be seen as a dig at nationalists hoping to advance Scottish independence.
So praise from the right (Archbishops ‘have seen the light!’ trumpets the Daily Mail), criticism from the left, and a quick walk back from Justin Welby, insisting there is no political endorsement here of anybody. These are challenging times, is the message, and we must weigh options, renounce cynicism, and vote.
But must we?
I can’t be alone in finding the electoral choices before me uninspiring. What’s on offer seems too left-wing, too right-wing, too nationalist, or too (frankly) irrelevant. There’s really nothing here that grabs me. For those on the centre left like myself, this is indeed a depressing election.
And as I flick through campaign flyers, and watch desultory television coverage, a heretical thought creeps into my mind. Is it really a Christian duty to vote? Do we have to? Even when we don’t like the choices? Is voting, as the archbishops claim, our moral obligation?
‘Of course it is!’ you will argue. ‘What if nobody voted? Where would we be then?’
(An argument advanced by no less a philosopher than the great Immanuel Kant, whose ‘categorical imperative’ declared you must ‘act only according to a maxim that you can, at the same time, will should become universal law.’)
‘And though no government is perfect’, you will add, ‘a bad government is better than no government at all. You can’t always get the best in life. Sometimes, you have to choose the lesser of two evils.’
(An ethical dilemma that explains theologian Martin Luther’s otherwise startling command ‘to sin boldly!’ An exhortation to be used from the pulpit only sparingly and carefully, I have found.)
And when I still equivocate, you will look me in the eye, and lean in closely with the guilt-inducing words: ‘People died for the right to vote, you know. The least you can do is use it.’
But I can’t help thinking I want more.
I don’t want to settle for whichever party appears marginally less unappealing. I don’t want to vote for the lesser of two (or three, or four) evils. I want to vote for a party with a vision that inspires me and whose policies I endorse. And if that’s not on offer, I want to send a signal to the whole system that I’m looking for something better.
Naïve, no doubt. But I’m not the only one thinking these things. So here’s my question. I am a vicar and theologian. I even try to be a Christian. And what I want to know is this:
When it comes elections, is it ever OK to declare ‘none of the above’ ?
(For press release and full text of the Archbishops’ letter, see https://tinyurl.com/klk47cb)