Priestly ministry and party membership? An election day reflection

Dear colleagues,

When he was Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu instituted a policy that prohibited clergy from being members of a political party. The decision, which was announced in early 1990, was immensely controversial among clergy. Nelson Mandela had just been released from prison, his African National Congress party had just been unbanned, and many clergy thought (rightly) that change was coming and they wanted to be part of it. Indeed, during the ANC’s many decades underground, many clergy had been closely—and secretly—associated with the party and they faced a particularly difficult choice.

But Tutu stuck to the policy. There was crescendoing violence around the country as rival parties to the ANC emerged and elements of the white government worked to undermine the prospects for majority rule. Tutu was dismayed by signs of party loyalty in churches, insisted there was no place for such displays, and upheld the policy in the face of vociferous opposition from his clergy. In such a sharply divided political space, he said, if clergy belonged to a party how could they minister to people from other parties?

That story comes to mind today, Election Day in Quebec. To the best of my knowledge, there are no members of the clergy on the ballot. But Tutu’s policy notwithstanding, that is relatively unusual for Anglicans. In each general election in England, for instance, there are often members of the clergy who stand (usually unsuccessfully) for office. In the United States, John Danforth is an Episcopal priest who also served three terms as U.S. Senator (and has been back in the news for his role in shepherding the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh through the Senate in recent weeks). Bishops of the Church of England, of course, sit in the House of Lords, though in a non-partisan fashion. Aside from actually holding office, there are many examples of Anglican clergy who are heavily involved in political activism, which in many instances around the Communion puts them in close contact with partisan politics.

The relationship of church and politics is complex and involved. There is a strand of the Christian witness that has historically advocated withdrawing from politics, to the point of declining to vote or engage with political institutions. To my mind, it is clear that the church has a public role in society. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has implications not just for individual lives but for communities and societies. The church and Christians are called to work for change and that will inevitably run up against politics. Tutu himself exemplified this brilliantly and repeatedly in his ministry. I hope, if it is legal for you to do so, you vote today. Whether you should join a political party after ordination is, to my mind, an open question.

Faithfully yours,

Jesse Zink

This reflection was written by College Principal Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a community news digest named for our patron, St. Luke, and published weekly during the term on Monday (or Tuesday when Monday is holiday). Photo: Archbishop Desmond Tutu casting his ballot in South African local elections, 2016.

Leave a comment