July 2019


This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought with Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2.

I’m off on holiday soon – with my eldest son and his wife and their two young kids. I can’t wait. But, before I go I’ve got to do the job I dread every summer: sort out my office, sift the books, and decide what I want to read on the beach. (Although I suspect I might get buried in sand more times than I’ll get books read.)

So, what would you choose, if you were me? A bit of heavy theology or philosophy to keep my brain in gear? The epic book on history I have just been sent, but haven’t had the time to get stuck into? Or the poetry books I have had sitting on my table waiting for “the right moment”? Or the biography of Eric Clapton and the two books about Bob Dylan  I’ve been waiting to read for months?

You know what? I’ll probably take a few novels and give brain-strain a rest. Something that has a good plot and makes my imagination run riot without the interruptions of work and the phone and Twitter.

Because it’s the imagination that too easily gets squeezed out in my line of business. And yet it’s the imagination that fires the soul and keeps curiosity alive.

This matters to me because, as a Christian, I follow someone who kept prodding behind the mundane and the routines of everyday life and framed questions that went beyond mere ideas about God, the world and us.

For example, Jesus never defined where God is to be found in statements that had to be agreed with or denied. He kept saying: “The kingdom of God is like…” and then told a story or tried out an image. The idea was to subvert those who wanted to use argument about God and the world and get behind the words to the imagination. So, he grabbed their attention, awoke their curiosity, teased their imagination, and left them with questions. They had to work it out for themselves. No wonder people wanted to come out of town to hear him.

So, saying all this has helped me to decide. One history book, four poetry books and a pile of novels. It’s my imagination that’s going to get a work out on the beach this time.

The Bishop of Clogher in Ireland published in the Daily Telegraph today an open letter to the Prime Minister. John McDowell’s diocese straddles the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – post-Brexit the border between the European Union and the United Kingdom. This is the text of his letter which I post with his permission:

Dear Prime Minister,

Now that the campaigning has ended and the governing must begin I wanted to write to you about the matter of the Border on the island of Ireland, which is close to where I live. Indeed, the Diocese of Clogher, which I serve, includes all of County Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland and County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that my Diocese transcends the Border.

No doubt many others representing many people and interests will have communicated with you on this subject before. So I would first reassure you that I am writing as someone who has always recognised the almost impossible difficulties and stresses placed on those who have a vocation to public life, particularly politicians.

I cannot claim to represent a huge electorate or to have any specialist knowledge. But sometimes an individual should say things which might otherwise go unheard in the cacophony of other, better-known voices; the alternative would be to simply wither in the silence of exhaustion.

As Bishop of Clogher, I have a vocation to care for people on both sides of the Border and a responsibility to pray for both British and Irish Heads of State and their peoples, day by day. Although that is principally a spiritual job of work, it would be hypocritical of me to pray for something without actively working to achieve it. Besides, spiritual wellbeing needs a material basis on which to live.

So, although our priorities and the methods we use to achieve them may be different, I think it is fair to say that our goals overlap; nowhere more so than in the current difficulties surrounding Brexit and the Border, which (very worryingly) give every impression of escalating towards a crisis. For those of us old enough to have lived through longest civil conflict in post-War Europe, the very word “escalation” is resonant with overtones of lived horror and real tragedy. As such, it is reassuring that those in power on both sides have repeated their desire to find answers to the Brexit/Border conundrum problems that protect what has been achieved here since 1998.

What your Government chooses to do to that end will be inevitably one of historical magnitude.

Government’s role is to use the very substantial resources of the State to sift evidence, consider policy options and plan a way forward. In so doing it should take into account the needs of society as a whole, i.e. to seek the common good. In light of this, the worst thing a Government can be is irresponsible or careless. No Government should commit a country to a course of action in which the consequences were so opaque as to be incalculable. It would, therefore, be both logically and morally correct for a Prime Minister to give deep pause before allowing a no-deal Brexit.

But I principally wanted to write to you about the Border.

The Border and the problems which it poses for any form of Brexit are not only technical or technological issues.  Nor are they simply issues to do with trade or security matters. Expressed in the starkest terms, the Border is the background against which all political and much cultural life in Northern Ireland (and in a more limited way in the Republic of Ireland) is worked out. Some people like the Border and others do not, but positively or negatively, consciously or unconsciously, it is pivotal to how politicians and people here assess almost all policy alternatives.

For this reason alone, any big change which has an impact on the Border is unavoidably complicated and inevitably charged with emotional and symbolic significance.

After a period of relative obscurity, it now appears that everybody is fascinated by the Border. It is interesting, for a while, to be at the centre of the world’s attention. But on the whole I think many of us would rather have been left alone.

For a political border, it is very beautiful in places. That is largely because of the hundreds of small farms looked after by hundreds of sturdy farmers along its length. There isn’t much money in it for most of them, but if you ask them why they don’t move to somewhere less difficult to farm they say “You can’t roll up the land and take it with you”. The long term well-being of men and women like these, and their neighbours all along the border, requires and deserves a clearly spelt-out, sustainable agreement between both sides. This is so that they have not only that material basis necessary for civilised living but also hope for their children’s future. Neither peace nor prosperity are possible without hope.

I think it was the great English public figure and man of Letters Thomas Babbington Macauley who said of Ireland that “the molten lava of the past flows hot and dangerous under the thin crust of the present”.

The ground on which people build and grow in the Border region feels particularly fragile today. It is almost possible to feel the heat of the past burning the soles of our feet. So, please, in your consideration of the future of this place: tread carefully.  And with deep and genuine concern I would ask you to be very conscious of the legacy your Government will leave.

Rt Revd. John McDowell is bishop of Clogher

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2019/07/26/dear-prime-minister-please-tread-carefully-handling-irish-border/

26 July 2019

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

This weekend I was a little surprised to read in a German magazine that democracy might be under threat … from silence.

The silence referred to is the anecdotal evidence that people are declining to engage in argument or debate – even with friends and family – because dispute and disagreement in the public sphere have become so toxic. Here in the UK this perception might be attributed to a reaction against the divisive discourse around Brexit. But, in Germany it has a different root: although their media do comment on events in the UK, they are primarily occupied with the end of Angela Merkel’s reign – and the transitional time when the Far Right are pressing their case for change and the Left are falling apart.

If the silence this generates is real, then worry about the future of democracy might be well-grounded. Why? Well, I can understand people saying that arguments in private are not of the same order as those in the public or political sphere. And, of course, there is some truth in that.

But, the point is that we learn how to argue and debate in private well before we test out how to do it in public – how to do it as individuals before we try it out in a complex public arena where the voices might be loud and multi-accented. So, if we don’t practise arguing with our family and friends, we don’t learn the skills of differing and disputing … and we risk not learning the behaviours that go with it.

As a Christian, I sometimes wonder who argued with Jesus in the thirty years or so before he began his controversial and short lived public ministry.  We know he was an argumentative child, but, I wonder who helped sharpen his wit, shape his stories, steel his mind and hone his rhetoric. It doesn’t happen by magic.

This is important because ideas – even silly ones and heresies – need to be articulated and tested if I am to learn what will hold water and whether an idea or ideology will stand the test of contradiction or rebuttal. In other words, argument and debate are positive things that should be encouraged and learned in order that matters of common life and order can be properly understood and their consequences explored ahead of any commitment to them. After all, as we are experiencing now, the only alternative to arguing or disagreeing well is simply arguing or disagreeing badly. And then everyone suffers.

This is why I think our children need to be encouraged and taught early not only to argue a point, but to learn how to lose an argument – and that this can be a strong thing, not a weakness.

Silence can be golden, but not when it is born of fear.

Last night I delivered the Harold Wilson Lecture at the University of Huddersfield. The theme was ‘The Will of the People?’ and was followed by some very good questions which both amplified and challenged my text. It was long, so the bets way to access it is to click on the link and then the further link you will find there.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Zoe Ball Show on BBC Radio 2:

Well, Glastonbury seems to have gone well. I caught up with bits of it on the telly, but would love to have been there.

Instead, I found myself a few days ago speaking at the launch of a literature festival. I didn’t know I was speaking until shortly before it began. So, I cast around a bit for an opener and landed on Billy Ocean … if you see what I mean.

I was once in a studio with him and was waiting for him to launch into ‘When the going gets tough the tough get going’, but he didn’t. So, I offered: “When the going gets tough the tough … write poetry.” He laughed.

What I was getting at was that I grew up thinking poetry was a bit wussy – a bit indulgent and fancy – only to discover that it’s actually the poets who deal with the hard stuff of life. And you can include lyricists in that, too. Because they use words and images that get behind the defences and have the power to move and surprise us, shining a different light on something we take for granted or think is just ‘normal’.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the books I read every day – those that make up the Bible – are full of poetry. Jesus never defined the kingdom of God; he just kept saying “It’s like this…” and offered a story or image. And he knew that once you have told a story or evoked a picture, you’ve also given it away and lost control over what people might do with it.

If poetry enables me to look differently, to see differently, and to think differently about God, the world and people, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise that scriptures are full of it. The poets tease the imagination and dig into the complex experiences and emotions of people’s lives. They refuse to let us get away with compartmentalising – you know, keeping your mind in one box, faith in another, experience in another. The poets hold us together.

As Leonard Cohen famously put it: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”