Mixing politics with the priesthood, is it such a bad thing?

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?

Yesterday was Election Day in Canada. Tutu’s policy notwithstanding, many clergy from both the Anglican and United Church traditions have run for office in the past. This is particularly strong in the United Church of Canada—figures like Jim Manley, Bill Blaikie, Lorne Calvert have all been ordained and served in elected office at the provincial and federal levels. In the Anglican tradition, in each general election in England 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.

So who was right? Was Tutu’s approach preferable or is there space for clergy to run for and hold elected office? There are no simple answers and any answer will be heavily dependent on context. But whether you ever run for office or not, social media has made it tantalizingly easy to express one’s views on politics as on so much else. Politics will never be far away from ministry. For some clergy, the solution is to retain a public neutrality, the better to minister to all who come through the doors. For others, the very idea of ministry requires political witness.

It is helpful to remember that the relationship of church and politics is complex and involved. 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 exercise your right to vote. Whether you should join a political party after ordination or run for office is, to my mind, an open question.

Faithfully yours,

Jesse Zink

This message was written by Principal Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.