August 2019


Twenty five diocesan bishops signed an open letter that was published today. It was slightly overtaken by the news of the Prime Minister’s intention to prorogue Parliament, but the issues remain and the letter is pertinent. Most of the criticism of it has been, predictably, that the church shouldn’t meddle in politics. I just wonder who else should be excluded from comment on the good of the people.

Anyway, the statement is as follows:

The Archbishop of Canterbury has conditionally agreed to chair a Citizens Forum in Coventry and, without prejudice for any particular outcome, we support this move to have all voices in the current Brexit debate heard.

However, we also have particular concerns about the potential cost of a No Deal Brexit to those least resilient to economic shocks.

As bishops with pastoral responsibilities in communities across urban and rural England, we respond to the call by Jesus to tell the truth and defend the poor. We also recognise that our obligations go beyond England and impact on relations with the wider UK and our neighbours in the EU.

Exiting the EU without an agreement is likely to have a massive impact on all our people and the Government is rightly preparing for this outcome. The Government believes that leaving the EU on 31 October is essential to restoring trust and confidence. It is unlikely, however, that leaving without an agreement, regardless of consequences, will lead to reconciliation or peace in a fractured country. “Getting Brexit done” will not happen on exit day, and we have to be transparent about the years of work ahead of us in bringing the country together for a better future. We also need to be frank about the potential costs.

Our main social and political priority must be to leave well, paying particular attention to the impact of political decisions on those most vulnerable.

We hold different views about Brexit and how our country should proceed from here. However, although we agree that respecting a public vote is essential, democracy and committed debate do not end after the counting of votes. Our concern for the common good leads us to express concern about a number of matters. Our conviction is that good governance can only ever be based on the confidence of the governed, and that includes minorities whose voice is not as loud as others.

Seeing the evidence of division in every part of England, we are deeply concerned about:

  • Political polarisation and language that appears to sanction hate crime: the reframing of the language of political discourse is urgent, especially given the abuse and threats levelled at MPs doing their job.
  • The ease with which lies can be told and misrepresentation encouraged: leaders must be honest about the costs of political choices, especially for those most vulnerable.
  • The levels of fear, uncertainty and marginalisation in society, much of which lies behind the vote for Brexit, but will not be addressed by Brexit: poor people, EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in Europe must be listened to and respected.
  • The Irish border is not a mere political totem and peace in Ireland is not a ball to be kicked by the English: respect for the concerns on both sides of the border is essential.
  • The sovereignty of Parliament is not just an empty term, it is based on institutions to be honoured and respected: our democracy is endangered by cavalier disregard for these.
  • Attention must be paid not only to the Union, but also to the meaning of Englishness.

Churches serve communities of every shape, size and complexion. We continue to serve, regardless of political persuasion. We invite politicians to pay attention with us to the concerns we register above and encourage a recovery of civil debate and reconciliation.

The Rt Revd Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds
The Rt Revd Donald Allister, Bishop of Peterborough
The Rt Revd Robert Atwell, Bishop of Exeter
The Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool
The Rt Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham
The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, Bishop of Southwark
The Rt Revd Dr Christopher Cocksworth, Bishop of Coventry
The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford
The Rt Revd Tim Dakin, Bishop of Winchester
The Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, Bishop of Bristol
The Rt Revd Christopher Foster, Bishop of Portsmouth
The Rt Revd Richard Frith, Bishop of Hereford
The Rt Revd Christine Hardman, Bishop of Newcastle
The Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury
The Rt Revd Dr John Inge, Bishop of Worcester
The Rt Revd Dr Michael Ipgrave, Bishop of Lichfield
The Rt Revd James Langstaff, Bishop of Rochester
The Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, Bishop of Truro
The Rt Revd and Rt Hon Dame Sarah Mullally DBE, Bishop of London
The Rt Revd Dr Alan Gregory Clayton Smith, Bishop of St Albans
The Rt Revd Martyn Snow, Bishop of Leicester
The Rt Revd Graham Usher, Bishop of Norwich
The Rt Revd Dr David Walker, Bishop Of Manchester
The Rt Revd Andrew Watson, Bishop of Guildford
The Rt Revd Dr Pete Wilcox, Bishop of Sheffield

Coming to Headingley for the third day of the third Ashes Test match was as much an act of hope (if you are English, that is) as optimism. A clear determination to enjoy the game, regardless of the outcome – a heavy and embarrassing defeat for England a couple of days short of the five-day limit or a miracle – was what characterised historian Tom Holland‘s Twitterfeed all day yesterday.

This attitude is one that runs through his writings and is best exemplified in his new book Dominion, to be published in a week or two. I have been reading a proof copy.

Holland tackles a huge task: not to describe the theology of Western Christianity since year zero, but to describe with breathtaking clarity and zest how the development of theology (and the people shaped by theology – i.e. everyone) has shaped the way western people see the world, understand history, assume morality and regard the rule of law and human rights. The ambition is great and he pulls it off. Like his other books, in my experience, it is very hard to put down once started as the narrative drives the reader on for more.

Yet, it isn’t just the content of the book that thrills (not a word I use often). The writing never fails to add colour to the description of ideas and movements. One example regarding Gerrard Winstanley in 1649 (page 350):

His foes might dismiss Winstanley as a dreamer; but he was not the only one.The occupation of St George’s Hill was a declaration of hope: that others some day would join the Diggers, and the world would be as one.”

He got John Lennon into a line on a seventeenth century dissenter and it is perfect.

Tom Holland doesn’t need me to review or commend him, but he is unique in his ability to bring history alive, particularly in its sweep and not just its detail. It is the big narrative that occupies the direction of this book. His contention that Christianity has shaped much of what is assumed in western culture and might not survive when Christianity’s roots are severed from the tree (human rights did not descend from nowhere and should not be assumed to be universally held or eternally guaranteed) is one with which I have a huge sympathy (predictably?). However, setting out a narrative rationale in the way Tom Holland does it in Dominion offers a basis for arguing the point and a provocation for those who see history differently. He seems to be asking that prejudices against religion or theology be suspended and the mind opened to what history itself might suggest to us.

I hope and expect that this book will prove to be the opening bat on a fertile wicket and I look forward to the game, which, judging by the plethora of reviews already ahead of publication, should itself prove to be thoroughly stimulating.

This year’s MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival was given by Dorothy Byrne and it is brilliant – sharp, incisive, important and very funny. It is a must-read for anyone interested in media, politics, the lack of democratic accountability enjoyed by both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition (to say nothing of ‘unelected bureaucrats’ such as Dominic Cummings).

Compare the utter lack of scrutiny or accountability by Boris Johnson – to Parliament, let alone the media – with Macron’s two and a half hour press conference yesterday. Jeremy Corbyn’s absence also gets a serious dig. This is not about political sympathies or partisan claims; rather, it is about democracy, accountability, integrity and the culture we are creating … and the important role of the media in exposing dishonesty, lying, misrepresentation and obfuscation.

Even if you don’t agree with Byrne, it is a romp of a read.

Today my new book is published by SPCK. Titled Freedom is Coming, it offers readings for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany based on Isaiah 40-55.

It is intended to make further sense of what Christmas is about and where Christian hope actually lies in a complex world.