I have been wondering (a) if and (b) how to post responses to two matters this week. I sometimes feel that the dominant language of some public issues is one that belongs to a different ’empire’ from the one in which reasonable people should feel at home. I fear this won’t be brief, but it will be too brief to avoid a backlash.
The first matter was the media coverage of Dr Maggie Atkinson‘s questioning of the Jamie Bulger case. Dr Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England, questioned whether the murderers of Jamie Bulger should have been tried in an adult court and, therefore, whether some children are too young to be considered in the same way as adult criminals. (Phil Ritchie blogged on this recently – well worth a read.) Jamie Bulger’s mother hit the headlines with her call for Dr Atkinson to either resign or be sacked. Fortunately, Dr Atkinson’s position was defended (rather meekly) by some politicians who recognised that it is precisely her job to ask such questions.
It is impossible not to have sympathy with Jamie Bulger’s mother for the appalling loss of her son in such grievous circumstances. But that loss does not legitimise anything Denise Fergus says about the subsequent case or issues associated with it. A society cannot make law simply to satisfy those who have been through terrible injustices. Presumably the Foreign Office doesn’t consult Ken Bigley’s or Margaret Hassan’s families when deciding how to counter/handle the Taleban, Al Quaeda or Iraqi insurgents?
So, why is Denise Fergus’s opinion considered important enough to report as a headline item? I guess one response will be that it will get people to read the story. But, her grievance does not make her views about penal policy any more intelligible than those of anyone else – however awful the experiences that led her to them.
I remember voicing a view such as this on another matter and being castigated that I – “as a bishop” – am out of kilter with public opinion. That response was even more worrying. Yesterday I sat in a room in London where Dietrich Bonhoeffer had ‘gone against the grain of public opinion’ both in England and Germany and taken the Christus Kirche into the Confessing Church in Germany. Sometimes it is vital that people resist public opinion: being a majority does not make you right.
The second issue that has bugged me is the campaign by Ekklesia to embarrass the 26 bishops in the House of Lords into backing a 100% elected second chamber. Inundating the said bishops with emails has been proclaimed some sort of victory, but this is bizarre, even for an organisation not known for underselling its self-regarded achievements. For starters, the numbers of people joining in the campaign (purely electronic) is open to a range of interpretations and readings and cannot be seen to exemplify mass conviction about the place of bishops in the second chamber.
Secondly, I for one do not support a 100% elected chamber – and I do not sit in the House of Lords. (For the record, I have neither desire nor expectation to do so.) But, I have operated in a number of countries around the world where different systems of representation are applied. I have not seen one where the election of a second chamber does not lead to the same sort of short-term partisan political game-playing that we see in the House of Commons. One of the recognised glories of the House of Lords is the ability of experienced and learned people – many of whom would never stand for election – to contribute intelligently and fearlessly to important legislative debate. To sacrifice this on the altar of some narrow and naive assumption about what makes a society ‘democratic’ would be absurd – like cutting off your nose to spite your face. It feels a bit like being led by inverse snobbery.
Bishops might either stay or go in the inevitable reforms of the House of Lords. It is also possible that if they stay their numbers will be reduced. I doubt if we will weep either way – we’ll just get on with it like we always do. But I would still argue that bishops of the Church of England are often better informed and better experienced in the realities of all levels of our society than almost any elected politician or unelected Lord. They have representation on the ground in the parishes of the country and know the realities that the clergy and churches live with every day of every week of every year as they serve their local communities. That knowledge – not subject to any electoral advantage – gives a voice in our legislature to all sorts of people who otherwise have no voice. Ekklesia doesn’t like that – doesn’t like bishops and has some weird axe to grind about them.
This isn’t a fundamental reason to retain bishops in a reformed second chamber. But it is worth recognising the potential loss, especially if the rationale for getting rid of them is rooted in some ideological silliness that can only imagine one way of doing things.
Which brings me on to the article advocating a Robin Hood Tax by Rowan Williams and Richard Curtis in today’s Sunday Times. Spotting an opportunity for helping the world’s poorest people and redeeming the bankers at the same time, they conclude with the following:
Are the politicians and financiers ready to commit to reconnecting banking with real life and real need? Are they ready to affirm that we are still, as a society, focused on the development goals spelt out 10 years ago and on eradicating poverty at home? Are they willing to lift their eyes beyond short-term problems and to imagine a world in which those most at risk can be assured of the best resources we can offer them?
The key word in that paragraph is ‘imagine’. I once suggested to a group of City financiers that stochastic modelling is ‘an exercise in imagination’ – positing a range of different scenarios in order to see what emerges from them. The word ‘imagination’ caused some disquiet – I think because it was heard as an ‘exercise in fantasy’. But imagination is not fantasy; rather, it is the ability to conceive of a different way of being and ordering and having the courage to see if we can make it happen. Imagination is a crucial element of the prophet’s psyche, the poet’s vision and the planner’s potential. Lack of imagination condemns us to repeating the same old models of doing things – even if they haven’t always served us as well as we like (romantically) to think in retrospect.
The criminal justice system might need to have the courage to think imaginatively about how to treat children who commit appalling crimes: to refuse to ask the questions for fear of public scolding is to cave in to a very unhealthy sort of power. Campaigners for democratic change might like to think out of their ideological boxes and imagine more than one way of squaring the circles that bother them. Bankers and governments will need courage to think creatively about re-shaping the global financial relationships according to different values.
It might not come as a surprise that Jesus asked for a ‘repentance’ – literally a change of ‘mind’ – from those who might imagine a differently-shaped world. This went down so well that they crucified him. Public opinion might not always ‘get it’, but an imagination such as ‘the Kingdom of God’ seems to have been going for a very long time and certainly longer than the empires that tried to kill it off.