February 2017


This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

Just about a year ago I skirted the Isis stronghold of Mosul in Iraq. I was out there with colleagues visiting refugees, internally displaced people, church leaders and politicians in Kurdistan – particularly in and around Erbil and Dohuk. We spent time with Muslims, Christians and Yazidis, hearing harrowing stories of loss and fear and hope.

Yet, Mosul, so solid a base for Isis only a year or so ago, is now seeing the possibility of release and relief. How the mighty fall.
This shouldn’t come as any surprise. After all, this is the part of the world where civilisation as we know it actually began. When you read the narratives of three thousand years ago which we call the Old Testament, the events recorded took place here – between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Here we find the ruins of the most ancient societies – where human beings brought order out of chaos and the first empires were built.

And this is what the story of Iraq teaches us. Now is not the end. There was a time when mention of the words Babylon, Assyria, Egypt or Rome struck fear into the hearts of ordinary people – not least those conquered by the apparently invincible powers. Living in what is often called ‘the ultimate Now’, it is hard to see beyond the suffering or success of the present day – to hang on to the possibility of freedom or the defeat of the empire which controls life and death now.

So, when we read texts like those of the Old Testament – their poetry, their protest and passion – the point is clear: empires come and go; the powerful will be brought down and the meek raised up; tomorrow will not always look like today.

But, such a perspective demands a rare discipline. We have to be able to see the present as transient – not the defining reality. Put differently, we have to be drawn by hope and not driven by fear. Our central core as individuals and as a society has to be rooted in a clear understanding of what makes a human being and what makes a humane society. Christians would say that whatever the state of the world now, wherever power is seated, it is the God of resurrection who draws us into a future that is not held captive to the past. It is a vision drawn from a reading of history and scriptures that keeps power and suffering in perspective – that death, violence and destruction do not actually have the final word.

Now, not everyone will be fired by the same conviction. But, the warning to Babylon, to Isis, to global military, economic and political powers, has not changed since human society emerged in what is now Iraq: you won’t be here for ever and you might be called to account.

Before resuming debate on the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill the House took four oral questions. Lord (Norman) Tebbitt, commenting on emissions of nitrous oxide from cars in London, was invited to “get on his bike”.

OK, you had to be there…

The final straight of the Brexit debate then resumed. I cannot speak in the debate because to do so I would have had to be in the chamber yesterday as well as today. (In a listed debate you have to be there for the beginning and the end of the debate, and this one is taking two full days – 184 speakers.)

Many speeches have been informed, passionate, realistic, pragmatic, principled and intelligent. Read the record in Hansard. But, the consensus is clear: the UK must leave the EU and the Government has to be given the power to trigger Article 50. However, there is not consensus about whether or not the House of Lords should allow itself to be intimidated into ducking its responsibilities under the constitution to scrutinise legislation that comes from the House of Commons. Threats to abolish the Lords if they dare to do their job is not worthy of a mature democratic discourse.

I think Lord Birt probably summed up what even many Brexiteers in the House believe, however reluctantly, when he began his speech last night as follows:

My Lords, I was a passionate remainer but I will vote to pass this Bill without a moment’s pause for we simply must respect the people’s choice. However, we are woefully underprepared for the gigantic challenges ahead.

There is no sense here – despite the slurs to the contrary – that peers wish to delay the inevitable, or that amendments are being put down in order to frustrate the “will of the people”. Assertion (that all will be well) is not the same as argument (for how best to ensure that it may be well). Amendments are intended to ensure that debate is had and questions addressed.

It is clear that the Lords will not stop Article 50 from being triggered. But, the central plank of the Brexit campaign – that parliamentary sovereignty be restored to “the people” of the UK – surely means that this parliament should be encouraged to do its job as part of the democratic process.

Does anyone really think that had the referendum gone the other way, the Leavers would have declared, “Well, the people have spoken and we must shut up, accept it and embrace membership of the EU without comment, demur or debate”?

“The people” include not only the 48% who voted to remain in the EU, but also those younger people who have (or will have before the two-year negotiation period is concluded) reached the magic age of suffrage – and will endure or enjoy the consequences of “the deal” that is done on their behalf. The people have spoken, but the concerns of nearly half of them also need to be heard as together we build the new country and settlement chosen by the majority in the referendum.

Despite all the bold assertions, “we are woefully underprepared for the gigantic challenges ahead”.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 with Sara Cox (and after a nice chat with Strictly dancers Ian Waite and Natalie Lowe):

Guess whose birthday it is today?

OK, yeah, Paris Hilton and swimmer Rebecca Adlington … and probably a few thousand people listening to the programme now – in which case, happy birthday to you.

But, the one I am thinking about is Ed Sheeran. 26 today. How do I know? Well, someone told me he originally comes from Hebden Bridge in my patch of West Yorkshire, and I thought I’d check it out. They’re right … and I noticed that it’s his birthday today.

So, open your ears: I’m going to pause for a thought (which means thinking out loud) about one of his best-known songs – recently nominated for a Grammy. Love yourself is a great command … or invitation. After all, there are plenty of people who don’t love themselves – or don’t believe themselves to be lovable – and who sometimes then find it difficult to love others.

There is a link here that Jesus got in one when he asked his followers to love God and love your neighbour as yourself. Actually, he was picking up on a maxim that had already been around for a thousand years or more, but he gave it a new twist – and it goes a bit like this:

Loving yourself can turn you into a narcissist who sees everyone and everything through a lens shaped only like yourself. (Apparently, even leaders of countries are not exempt from this.) This makes me the centre of the world – even other people’s worlds. It isn’t attractive, and it can produce dreadful selfishness.

So, this is why Jesus gets the order right: loving God turns your attention away from needing to justify your own worthiness and focuses on something much more fundamental. I matter because I am made in the image of God. Therefore, I see myself through God’s eyes: infinitely valuable and eternally loved. So, what do I do with this? Well, it turns me outwards to love other people whose value is to be found in the same way. I am loved, therefore I love.

So, Ed has got it right: love yourself, but only once you know you are loved. And then pass it on.

So, happy birthday Ed Sheeran. Have a good one, and may it be filled with love.

A meeting of bishops from the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Churches is coming to an end here in Birmingham. It has been a stimulating, encouraging, challenging and good time together. In brief, we have looked at the international scene, the European scene, prayer and evangelisation, and where we go from here together.

Haunting the meeting is the spectre of a Trumpian revolution in the United States – with considerable implications for the rest of the world – and the debate about Brexit.

One of the interesting features of debate about the USA and Brexit is the constant attempts to close down debate on detail on the grounds that “we won, so shut up and let the winners get on with it”.

Politics cannot be run only by politicians. Politics is about people who hold different views, different values and have different priorities. In other words, all of us. A vote does not end the conversation. Had the UK voted to remain in the European Union, there is little chance that those who ‘lost’ would be accepting the status quo and going quiet; nor should they.

The referendum on membership of the EU delivered a decision to leave. However, almost half of those who voted did not vote that way. It was not overwhelming or decisive (as has often been stated). The country is divided – almost in two – over the matter. So, how we proceed from here must take seriously the concerns of the half the country that does/did not want to leave the EU. How we leave matters. The language we use in the course of the debate (on how to leave) matters.

From my own experience – and despite some of the public posturing – some of those in government take the 48% seriously and understand the need to hold the country together.

I have not changed my view that much of the language of certainty and promise is at least speculative and at worst fantasy. This means that we have to be prepared for huge disillusionment and further resentment when many of the Brexit promises turn out to be unfulfilled. Yes, the gains must be identified, too, it is the deficits that will provoke the reaction.

Donald Trump might well be doing what he said he would do – which is his prerogative – but democracy means that the debate continues. If lies are told, this matters; and the nature of the lies must (if we believe truth has any value) be named. However, not everything inconvenient to my preferences are necessarily lies.

It is right that serious questions are asked about policy from any democratically elected government. Protest must be legitimate. The questions we must ask about the questions raised pertain to very basic stuff: what is a human being? why do people matter? what is a good society? from what (theological) anthropology do our values and moral judgments derive? what responsibility do I take as a citizen for shaping our collective common life?

For Christians the answers will be rooted in the nature of the world as God’s creation, people as made in the image of this creator God, and neighbourliness being rooted in more than seeing others as commodities or merely economic entities.