Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020


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

I think I need to watch more telly. When the Emmys were announced the other day I realised I had never heard of most of the programmes that won. The problem is, though, that I’ve recently gone back to watching the whole box set of The West Wing and anything else seems to get in the way. I know what I like and I like what I know.

The West Wing – which first broadcast on this very day in 1999 – follows a fictional US presidency and is great for learning how the White House works – or doesn’t. But, of the many great lines in it, my favourite is: “What’s next?” President Bartlet, whatever crisis he has just had to deal with, comes out with the question all the time: “What’s next?”

Now, I know the feeling. And I admire the people who just move effortlessly on to the next thing on the agenda. But, I also think it isn’t that easy … and maybe isn’t always wise.

Most of us will know what it’s like when life feels like being trapped on a hamster wheel – or a conveyor belt to nowhere. You want the world to stop – to give you a break. But, things keep happening, time rolls on, and you just get thrown around by it.

And that’s life in the real world. But, I also hear the whisper of Jesus telling his friends to live in the moment: “Don’t worry about tomorrow; … today is enough to cope with.” Well, for some people that’s fine. They are sufficiently comfortable to know where the next meal is coming from. Yet, there is a rising number of people for whom tomorrow is a threat – today brings enough of a challenge.

This uncertainty makes me confront my own fragility. I am not in control of the world … or even my own life. So, when I see people for whom tomorrow brings only fear or failure, I might look for a way to make today better … for them.

Maybe that’s the answer to my own “What’s next?” question … while I continue to be haunted by the relentless pace of the West Wing.

This is the text of an article I wrote for the Yorkshire Post on Saturday 19 September 2020.

I have two images in my mind. One is the old BT commercial that told us in various ways, “It’s good to talk”; the second is the title of a book by the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks: ‘The Dignity of Difference’. Both run the risk of sounding good as long as we don’t get down to detail.

It is no secret that societies seem more fragmented today than they were a decade ago. We don’t need to identify all the changes across the world, but just use a word like Brexit and watch what happens. Differences have always been there, but the fissures seem more exposed these days, and the language more violent. Social media clearly don’t help; they draw people into echo chambers in which the temperature is raised and the room for mutual comprehension or compromise is, at best squeezed, and at worst eliminated. Every argument forces a binary choice – with me or against me. Families have been split over political identity; everything is something to be angry about.

On the other hand, we saw during lockdown how people came together to celebrate and thank our frontline workers – crossing otherwise powerful fault lines and encouraging people to make common cause in a common ritual of gratitude.

The big challenge for us all, however, is how we hold onto the precious experiences of connection and move on from some of the powerful drivers of division. We have a mutual interest in making things better – even if there are powerful voices that exploit chaos and profit from discord.

BT was right: it is good to talk. But, there has to be a relationship from which the conversation can flourish. Talking at is not the same as talking with. And we clearly need to find a vocabulary for talking together about hard choices and opposing opinions.

Jonathan Sacks, in the title of his book, hits on something powerful. As long as there are people – every individual unique and with a different view of the world and why things matter – there will be difference. But, difference is not the same thing as division. The question for us in the noisy autumn of 2020 is not to do with avoiding conflict or pretending to some false unity; rather, it is how to find ways of reconnecting with those from whom we differ in order to disagree well (unless we have the courage to learn, grow and – heaven forbid – change our mind).

Easy to say, but hard to do. How is our society going to find ways of rejecting mere acceptance that division has to follow difference and find the nerve to come together? As the Covid crisis develops and our lives have become less certain, how might we avoid deepening conflict and creating a genuine way of holding together in a common society? For the pandemic hasn’t created disunity, it has exacerbated it. But its consequences have also exposed wider tensions between generations, ethnic groups and degrees of affluence.

Well, like most things in life, the beginning of an answer won’t be found in grand political statements or even economic fixes. Community goes deeper than these social arrangements and power factors. It is rooted in relationships that are honest, humble and realistic.

I chair a new coalition that aims to find ways of encouraging just this and it is starting work in Yorkshire. Called /together, it has emerged from some of the country’s leading businesses, arts, media, politics, youth organisations, charities and faith communities getting together to look for practical ways of doing something – not just complaining about the problems. This is not, however, a top-down organisation aimed at do-gooders dropping their protected benevolence onto a grateful society; rather, it aims at listening, convening, encouraging and resourcing local initiatives for bringing people together in common conversation and common life.

One of the first initiatives, aimed at providing genuine intelligence, is a massive national conversation. Anyone and everyone can join in. We want to hear people’s real concerns and see where they see the potential for creating a kinder and closer society. An online survey, together with conversations with people across the UK, starting here in Yorkshire next week,will help us to understand where difference has descended into division – and where, together, we might begin to address this in a humane, intelligent and mature way. The survey can be accessed at www.together.org.uk and will not take long to complete. Every voice needs to be heard. Other initiatives will soon follow, shaped by what we find out.

Why start here? Simply because we won’t find any answers until we have identified the right questions. In other words, dialogue and conversation must always begin with mutual listening. Listening leads to hearing, and hearing might just lead to understanding … even if not to agreement.

Difference can be dignified. It needn’t be a threat. In fact, in my own Christian tradition Jesus chose friends who (the Gospels make clear) didn’t necessarily like each other. They had different personalities, experiences and priorities. But, their task was to hold together –sometimes despite themselves. They had to learn to love, to make space for each other.

Together must always be better than apart.