This is the basic text of my speech in the House of Lords this afternoon, not wanting to repeat what had already been said and trying to make a contribution (in a five minute speech limit) that others might not.

This House takes note of challenges to the liberal international order posed by the development of populism and nationalism around the world.

This is an important debate because it invites us to go behind the popular terms of discourse and to identify some of the philosophical dynamics at play in contemporary political developments.

The excellent Library Note makes it clear that language matters – that definition of terms is not incidental. Populism is clearly more than a movement of people who listen only to the facts that support the prejudices they have already nurtured; but, it can exploit assertive language in such a way as to obscure truth.

And this is what I wish to focus on here. Whereas others will discuss the importance of a rules-based international order, I want to say something about language in a post-truth or post-factual world, and pose a couple of questions about the assumptions we make regarding history.

The United Kingdom (as illustrated by the unfortunate reference of the Foreign Secretary yesterday) has defined itself by its share in the defeat of fascism in the twentieth century. Have we moved on? If we assume that our domestic order has been defined for ever by a past victory, we should not be surprised when our complacency finds itself undermined by events that are not trapped in that same narrative. Democracy and the rule of law are not natural and immutable givens, but are goals for which we must struggle in each generation.

This is why the narratives that guide our self-understanding as a nation among nations on a very small planet in a very large universe matter so much. It is why the UK seeing itself through the lens of a long-gone empire is so facile. It is why seeing Germany simply through the lens of Adolf Hitler is ridiculous. It is why illusions of power are dangerous when they shape language and rhetoric that are heard differently by other audiences. We need new narratives for the contemporary world – narratives of hope rooted in an authentic anthropology that takes seriously the destructive elements of human nature (what used to be known as ‘sin’).

Western liberalism has become complacent about its own self-evident superiority. It is arguable that the proper balance between individual rights and concerns for the common good has not been established. I would argue that this complacency has contributed to the sense of alienation and detachment being seen in what is being called political populism. Progress is not inevitable; it is not true that things can only get better; human rights cannot be assumed to be self-evidently right. Battles for peace, order and social cohesion are not won once and for ever. The tendency to entropy is powerful and finds it easier to pull down rather than build up.

The sorts of populism we see now (and I am trying not to load the term beyond the observation that certain demagogues claim to speak on behalf of ‘the people’) are destructive precisely because they evidently collude in destruction without a compelling vision for what should be constructed. Hence, we have seen a referendum campaign fuelled by lies, misrepresentation and an easy readiness to abuse language.

Who are the elites? Especially when they are being condemned or ridiculed by public school and Oxbridge-educated journalist-politicians who command six-figure incomes above and beyond their basic salary, and who will, whatever the outcome of Brexit, not suffer greatly? Why does it not matter that promises can be made in a referendum campaign that simply get dismissed within hours of that campaign ending? Can liberal order survive the corruption of language and the reduction of truth or fact to mere political convenience or expediency? It is not a game.

Tomorrow sees the inauguration of a US President for whom truth is a commodity to be traded. Direct contradiction of what is proven fact is loudly asserted without shame or embarrassment. I make no comment or judgement about his ability to govern the United States or contribute intelligently and wisely to the establishment of a just international order; I simply observe that the corruption of language and truth is in itself dangerous for everyone.

This debate is about the challenges to the liberal international order posed by the development of populism and nationalism around the world. The liberal international order is not a natural given or an inevitable right. It begs as many questions (of inherent legitimacy) as it addresses. Populism and nationalism are not new phenomena, and their development is a constant in societies that feel uncertain or have lost the security found in a clear sense of common or mutual identity. The particular danger of today’s developments around the world is that instability is far easier to create than stability; that order is fragile and chaos a tempting attraction; that the spectre haunting Europe and the world has little to do with ‘what the people – whoever they are – want’ and much to do with how they can be manipulated into thinking that what they are told they want is in fact what is good for them. The anti-elitist anti-establishmentarians are perpetrating a fraud in their elitist and self-promoting rhetorics. But, they will not be the people to pay the price.

I suspect that the order of the past is being challenged by the threat or promise of a new order. It is essential that we articulate a compelling vision for an order that serves the common good, shapes a good society and resists the claims of a post-truth rhetoric which tells us lying is acceptable as a means to an end.

So, the new year has begun. In with a bang, or with a whimper of fear and hesitation?

I was reminded this morning (while preparing for a radio interview) of the entry for New Year’s Day 1917 in the diary of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia: “The year 1916 was cursed; 1917 will surely be better!” Well, the Somme might have been appalling, but the Russian Revolution was to take the lives of Nicholas and his family (and, consequently and ultimately, millions of others) less than a year after writing his diary.

Wishful thinking is not the same as hope. Hope – which has to be vested in a vision – commits the hopeful to work towards the fulfilment of that vision. Hope has little to do with optimism: whereas optimism looks for the bright side in what happens, hope looks reality in the eye and is not diminished when that reality renders optimism as fantasy.

2017 will see the centenary of the Russian Revolution and the quincentenary of the Reformation. Both revolutions set Europe and the world ablaze. The language of freedom and a new world order exploded as an old order was challenged and assumptions (about why the world is the way it is) were questioned. And they remain pertinent as we move from 2016 into 2017.

2016 saw the rocking of an established order as the UK voted to leave the European Union and Donald Trump was elected President of the USA. Further elections in France and Germany in 2017 have the potential to further reshape Europe and the international relationships that have held the world together since the Second World War. ‘Populism’ is the word of the day – either an accolade or a term of derision, depending on whether you approve of the what the populace asked for. Whatever the choice, we face two questions: (a) 2016 showed us how easy it is to bring down; 2017 will show us whether we know how to build up. (b) we are where we are (regardless of how we got here), so how can we commit to shaping the future rather than bemoaning the past?

Photo-20161129151817817.jpgIt takes centuries to build a culture and a community; it takes minutes to destroy it. Look at Aleppo. If the commentariat is correct in judging that Brexit and Trump represent a rejection of ‘establishment’ and ‘elites’ (that is, we know what we are against), then what are we for? Put to one side the worrying irony that the articulators and leaders of the anti-establishment and anti-elitist movements are themselves the epitome of establishment and elitism, we have to ask what we wish to replace the current establishment with. My guess is that those who found common cause in ‘breaking down’ will struggle to find common cause in what they wish to see ‘built up’.

I come back to the distinction between wishful thinking and hope – the former leaving it to others to shape (as it is easier constantly to criticise and pick holes in those who try to bring about change) whilst the latter invest themselves sacrificially in making a positive difference even where this might be diminished or rejected. This is why, following Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified for it, Christians are drawn by hope and not driven by fear.

We do not know what 2017 will bring. We can fear for a (worryingly narcissistic) Trump presidency and we can come to terms with the sheer complexity of what Brexit might turn out to look like (with “the best deal” not being achievable?), but, ultimately, we will have to face the consequences of the decisions we have made whilst committing ourselves to shaping a common future in which the poor and marginalised are not left behind. Brexit is usually defined in terms of economics, trade and finance; it has to be about people, society, values and the common good of the whole nation.

We don’t know how the future might look. We do not know whether further Aleppos will curse our global humanity in 2017 – or whether revolutions might come where they have not come before. We cannot be sure what the impact of Trumpian protectionism and disregard for the environment will be. We must join in the argument as adults who take responsibility, even when the decisions do not go their way.

A reading of history makes clear that ‘now’ is never ultimate. Tomorrow will come. We must, as a people of hope, live in the reality of the day, learning from the past but drawn by a vision for and from the future, committed to shaping and not just complaining. “The Word became flesh (and dwelled among us)”, wrote John in the prologue of his gospel; our words will become flesh – one way or another – and we must take responsibility for them. Then we must use them to shape a vision that captures the imagination
and is not swayed by events, fears, conflict or destruction.

It is not enough to know what we are against, and to be angry about it; we must know what we are for, and commit ourselves to making it happen. Building up is always harder than breaking down.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in which dementia was one of the themes chosen by guest editor Carey Mulligan:

When I was a Vicar in Leicestershire I was constantly surprised by visits to elderly people who suffered from some form of dementia. Now usually silent, play a harvest hymn or sing a Christmas carol and they would join in. I well remember the agony of a wife no longer recognised by her husband, and her bemusement when he broke his silence and started singing.

With dementia it seems as if the person we love has entered a different world, and it is those who remember all too well who feel the deep sense of loss and bereavement.

Some things go very deep. And when all else has become submerged into a different sort of consciousness, a vestige of deeper identity sometimes survives. Is it just the poetry? Or the tune? Or what?
These are not insignificant questions for anyone coping consciously with the onset of their own dementia or the almost-disappearance of someone they have loved for decades. When our memory has gone, who are we? And, I might add, why do we still matter?

Memory is so important to our sense of who we are that the loss of it is always going to be grievous. So, there are two responses that I as a Christian would venture in the face of this experience.
First, the creation narratives in Genesis (which address ‘why’ questions and not ‘how’ questions) state simply that human beings are made in the image of God. All Christian ethics emerge from this. That is why every human being is ultimately valuable, worth loving and capable of redemption. So, losing my own sense of identity does not reduce my intrinsic worth. If I forget God, God does not forget me. Or, as the prophet Isaiah put it to a people who feared for their future, “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”

Secondly, the liturgical shaping of the year by festivals like Christmas is designed to instil deep within us – from cradle to grave – a sense of individual and communal identity. The people of Israel entering the land of promise were required to tell stories that would be handed down the generations, accompanied by simple rituals involving stuff and action – no disembodied spirituality here. This ensured that the memory was formed and recalled. It was also so that people inhabited the memory of who they were and where they had come from; it wasn’t just that life rolled on in some formless way without the waymarkers of identity.

Dementia raises big questions. But, maybe the carols get sung by the silent because they grew up hearing, telling and living the narrative of God who never forgets his people. In an age when so many rituals and the repetition of stories are losing their grip, this faces us with the question of what will form our generation’s children and root their sense of meaning and value.

This is the text of an article published today (and written in haste) in the Yorkshire Post following the attack in Berlin last night:

Any pretence at optimism about the world must surely lie bleeding in the ruins of the Christmas market at the Breitscheidplatz in Berlin. If the assassination – live on social media – of the Russian ambassador to Turkey was not shocking enough, the blood continued to flow in Germany. Remarkably, even before facts were known, the commentariat leapt to judgement on the causes of this latest atrocity.

I know Berlin well. I walked across the Breitscheidplatz only a few weeks ago while attending a conference on freedom of religion and belief. It adjoins the iconic church (the Gedächtniskirche) recognised around the world as a symbol of destruction and reconciliation in the 1940s. Yet, here, in a place of celebration and mercy a lorry is driven into crowds of innocent people, bringing death and injury. What are we to make of this?

Well, it demonstrates that there is no escape from a globalised world. That is to say, the small planet does not provide any private annexe for people who wish to live in a way that is disconnected from the lives of others. What happens in Syria impacts on Ankara and Berlin; what happens in Iraq and Yemen impacts powerfully on Italy and France. What happens in Pakistan impacts on Bradford and Dewsbury. Whether we like it or not, there are no hiding places in an interconnected world.

But, what is sobering about the latest attack (following on from the atrocities in France since the Charlie Hebdo shootings) is that conclusions were being drawn before facts were known. The suspect is a Pakistani asylum seeker … or have the police arrested the wrong man? They are unsure if the man arrested is the right one. Which means that the murderer is still at large. He might be an asylum seeker and might be an Islamist terrorist, but we don’t know. Yet, there is an explosion of assumptions. In a post-truth era it appears that any opinion will do.

Anyway, whatever the identity and motive of the perpetrator in this case, here is a sobering fact: if he is an asylum seeker who entered Germany last year when Angela Merkel opened the doors, that still leaves another million asylum seekers who have not committed a crime or abused the hospitality of the host country. What conclusions should we draw from that?

The violence in Berlin does raise other questions, however. What are we to make of people who are willing to inflict misery on others in pursuit of very particular ends? And how are we to address our own fears in the face of such shocking events – where people going about their Christmas business are mown down indiscriminately? (Discriminate murder would be no less morally offensive, of course.)

There is little comfort to be given in a world in which we are deeply connected but often in ways we don’t understand. We can cope with watching violence on the screen when it is happening far away; but, when it happens to us on the streets of our own cities we struggle to understand. Yet, if you are on the receiving end of British-made cluster bombs in Yemen or a rogue lorry in Berlin, the misery and injustice of it all seems indifferent. I suspect there will be more to come – grievances go deep across the planet, and they last for a long time.

So, is there anything to be said that doesn’t just resort to platitude or escapist wishful-thinking? I think there is.

I am a Christian – that is, a follower of Jesus Christ. Some people assume this is a bit feeble in the modern world. But, there is nothing feeble or romantic about a baby born into political and military oppression under the heel of the Roman Empire. There is nothing sentimental about growing up, firstly, as a refugee in a place that represents everything you ever wanted to escape from (Egypt) and, secondly, getting abused and ultimately executed for loving the wrong people and saying the wrong things.

Christmas brings this home. Christmas is about God opting into the world as it is with all its violence and contradiction, and not exempting himself from it. We shall move from the manger in Bethlehem to a cross at Easter and find ourselves challenged by an invitation that looks ridiculous if put in a religious box and removed from the real world: we can be driven by fear or drawn by hope. Christian hope comes to us and grasps our imagination. It comes from a God who is no stranger to suffering and who doesn’t turn his face from horror. It is a hope rooted in a refusal to see death and violence and destruction as having the final word. And we are invited/challenged to commit ourselves to being this sort of hope-bearers in the face of all the misery and fear.

I suspect we might have to cope with more atrocities as the world has become a more dangerous place. How we respond will determine whether we are agents of hope or not.

I pray for the people of Berlin. And Turkey. And Russia. And Syria. And England. And so on. But, it is prayer that commits me not to withdraw, but to engage with the mess of it all.

I have a weird life.

Last Monday I chaired a Bishop's Staff Meeting in Leeds before getting the train to London to record BBC Radio 4's The Infinite Monkey Cage (Christmas special) with Robin Ince and Professor Brian Cox. I got the first train back to Leeds for the formal opening of our new diocesan office on Tuesday morning. Wednesday saw me back on the train to London for the House of Lords (also on Thursday) covering a number of issues facing the country and the world. Thursday evening I was on a panel at City University, London, on the ethics of migration – with some excellent panellists that made me want to do more academic work again. Friday morning I did Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 (always a privilege) before having coaching and then doing a shed load of emails and other work. Saturday and Sunday were spent at Limehouse with my cell group, and Monday I spent in bed feeling like death. Today was the House of Bishops at Lambeth Palace, followed by a meeting with the government's Lord Bourne on faith issues'. Now I am back on the train to Leeds.

Me and Nick Baines

Why do I tell you that? Well, few people get an idea of what a bishop does – or the range of stuff that he/she is expected to cover. Simply illustrative. Back in Leeds, I start at 8am tomorrow and have meetings all day in the Diocese. Never boring.

But, while all this is going on the world bleeds.

One of the recurring conversations at the moment is whether democracy works. Well, of course it does. It delivers what people vote for. However, it is not necessarily truthful, intelligent or wise. It does not necessarily deliver what people thought they were voting for. Nothing new there. But, one of the glaringly bizarre questions emerging from both Brexit and Trump is why people didn't question the language used by the elite who led the campaigns. For example, who exactly is “the establishment” if it isn't the very people who were slagging off the establishment? How is “the elite”, if it isn't hugely privileged and economically comfortable people who will not suffer one iota from the consequences of what they persuaded people to vote for!

How many billionaires are there in the Trump administration? Why is President Putin so happy?

And all this finds focus in the cries of the children of Aleppo. While the blood flows today in the final brutality of war, the rest of us are confronted with an unpalatable challenge: we tell our government not to apply military power in Syria … only to complain that the Russian/Assad violence on our screens has been exercised without opposition. The West doesn't know what it believes. No wonder Sergei Lavrov (Russian Foreign Minister) was quoted on Twitter this afternoon as saying: ” We are fed up with the constant whining of our American colleagues.”

We will see what happens. In the meantime, Christians will find a vocabulary in the Psalms for the conflicted cries of “how long?” and “why do the poor suffer?” and “why are we so rubbish at getting things right for the sake of the weak and vulnerable?” (which,I admit, is a rough translation).

As I mentioned in a debate in the House of Lords some weeks ago (on the admission to the UK of unaccompanied Syrian refugee children from Calais), the generation of children who suffer from our inactivity will not forget what we did not do for them. The seeds of the next three or four generations' violence are being sown now.

And we cannot pretend ignorance.

 

This is the text of an article I published today in the Yorkshire Post marking the eightieth anniversary of the abdication of King Edward VIII:

It is not every day that a Church of England bishop sparks a constitutional crisis. Especially not a Yorkshire bishop. But, that is exactly what happened eighty years ago on 1 December 1936.

The then Bishop of Bradford, Dr Alfred Blunt, delivered a carefully prepared speech to the Bradford Diocesan Conference (today it would be to the diocesan Synod) in which he referred rather pointedly to the rather deficient piety of the soon-to-be crowned King Edward VIII. However, to understand the speech, it is first necessary to know something about the context in which it was delivered.

Edward was not known to be a regular worshipper. Furthermore, his romantic interest in American divorcee Wallis Simpson was causing some scandal around the Commonwealth. The British press had decided not to report the disreputable stories, but the media around the wider Commonwealth did not feel bound to be so morally scrupulous. What was widely known and commented on around the world was largely muted in Britain itself. A self-imposed censorship – unimaginable in today's UK media world – created some space for waiting to see what would happen … at the same time as frustrating the gossips.

And this is where Bishop Blunt came in. In his speech to his Diocesan Conference he drew attention to the imminent coronation of the new monarch, but exhorted him to spend more time more consistently in church. In itself this was unremarkable – after all, the king would also become the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and could, therefore, reasonably be expected to show a little more conviction. His speech was a defence of the coronation as a sacramental act.

But, the bishop then said this: “The benefit of the King’s coronation depends upon… the faith, prayer and self-dedication of the King himself; and on that it would be improper of me to say anything except to commend him to God’s grace, which he will so abundantly need, as we all need it – for the King is a man like ourselves – if he is to do his duty faithfully. We hope that he is aware of his need. Some of us wish that he gave more positive signs of such awareness.”

It is not clear whether he intended this to question Edward’s love life, but the ambiguity of his language allowed those so inclined to see it as a sanction to question his morality. Debate has continued through the years since Bishop Blunt gave this speech.

How do I know this? I have the original text of his speech, complete with pencil-written annotations, in my office. In fact, I have his entire set of speeches in a box in my filing room. Furthermore, I also have a box of the correspondence he then received as a result of his speech.

Coming from all around the world, many letters praised the bishop for having the courage to speak about a scandal that was being hushed up in the press. At last, they said, someone is telling the truth and upholding moral propriety in the face of such public scandal. Others, however, berated the bishop for being such a prig and for behaving in such a moralistic and vindictive manner.

These letters are mostly handwritten in beautiful English. One of the most striking is typewritten by a lawyer at Gray’s Inn in London and condemns the bishop for his “most contumacious and impudent pronouncement,” referring later to “the sole and arrogant opinion of the (for the time being) Bishop of Bradford.” One is addressed to “You worm…” Another complains about “gross interference in his private affairs by the traditionally stupid forces of orthodoxy and stagnation,” concluding “This is 1936, not the Dark Ages.”

If anyone tries to tell you that Internet trolling is a new phenomenon, point them to these letters. They are fewer, took longer to write and send, and are written mostly in excellent and elegant grammatical English. But, they are equally intended to challenge, belittle, ridicule or encourage the man at the centre, who probably had little clue what was going on.

The question is: did Bishop Blunt intend to say what he was taken to have said? In other words, did he intend to provoke the debate that led to Edward abdicating, George VI acceding and, eventually, Elizabeth II being crowned. Or was it a case of the bishop making a comment – almost as an aside – only to find that his words had become incendiary in the wider world, rather than merely mutedly critical for the benefit of a particular audience?

The rest is history. Edward married Wallis Simpson, they flirted with Adolf Hitler, and then lived the rest of their life away from the public glare of a prurient England. Elizabeth began what has become the longest reign of any monarch, serving both Church, nation and Commonwealth with a diligence and fidelity that commands the respect of even the most republican observers. And during her reign the world and the Church have changed. Modern media have changed the relationship between the Royals and the people, and the line between public and private has been blurred beyond recognition.

The world has changed. Human inconsistency and frailty have not changed. The public still love scandal, and elements of the media feed it. The Church is probably less moralistic.

What will happen next time we await a coronation? Who knows? Perhaps there will be a less blunt questioning of morals and motives. We shall see.

 

This is the script of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show in the company of the Kaiser Chiefs, actors Michael Fassbender and Strictly judge Bruno Tonioli:

What I am about to tell you is seriously unlikely to change your life, and I don't predict a riot.

90 years ago today – 9 December 1926 – the United States Golf Association legalised the use of steel-shaft golf clubs. I assume that before then only wood was used. Or maybe papier maché? My source wasn't clear on the matter.

Now, the reason I mention this world changing event is simply because it illustrates how difficult it is to change. Apparently, there was considerable resistance in some quarters to any move to change the material used in golf clubs. But, before you wag your head in disbelief, just consider how difficult it is for most of us to get out of what has become known as our “comfort zone”. For example, what are the chances of me, a red Scouser, responding well to the suggestion that I should in future support Chelsea?

Most of us find it hard to change our mind, let alone our behaviour. Yet, the clearest invitation we get in Advent – we don't get to Christmas for another couple of weeks – is to do precisely this. The word used by John the Baptist and Jesus in some of their first recorded words is 'repent' – and it means simply that: change your mind in order to change your ways.

Easy to say, but hard to do. It's easier to see where other people ought to change than to spot our own need. Didn't someone once say something about taking the plank out of your own eye before focusing on the speck in someone else's?

OK, Jesus also told a story about someone who was mugged and who was not helped by the people you would expect to be generous, but in the end was aided by the Samaritan – the outsider who nobody trusts. In other words, we should be open to surprise and to changing the way we look and see and think and live.

So, we have a couple of weeks left to consider how, strictly speaking, we might open our mind to be surprised by Christmas – by the sight of a God who doesn't look like we might have expected. If I was a bit more trendy, I might even look into a manger and go: “Oh my God”!