February 2023

This is the text of a commissioned article published today in the Yorkshire Post on the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (I write as a former Soviet specialist at GCHQ in Cheltenham and current lead bishop for international affairs in the House of Lords.)

Yorkshire Post: One Year On: Ukraine (23 February 2023

Hubris. When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on 23 February 2022 he was convinced that his ‘Special Military Operation’ would be over and done within a month. At least, he had convinced himself that this would be the case. He had excluded the possibility of defeat or failure. He fatefully combined destiny with opportunity. And it is worth reflecting on why he was able to do this.

Putin is not just a politician who wields power without really knowing what he wants to do with it. It has been said of certain prime ministers that they wanted to be PM, but didn’t know what for. This has never been the case for the ex-KGB officer who described the end of the Soviet Union as a ‘catastrophe’. There are two powerful drivers of his political ambitions: religious myth (rooted in a perceived historical integrity) and grievance. In the West the former has been grievously misunderstood in the last three decades since the latter radically motivated his decision-making.

Every time he leaves his bubble in the Kremlin Putin passes the statue of Vladimir the Great who, according to one reading of history, established ‘Holy Russia’ in 988AD, uniting what we now know as Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The patriarchate – religion and politics were inseparable – was begun in Kyiv and only much later transferred to Moscow. Putin sees himself as the latest and greatest Vladimir who is destined to bring back together the three elements of Holy Russia which have been disintegrated by a Ukraine that had no right under God in declaring any sort of independence.

This is why Putin is supported uncritically by the Patriarch of Moscow in his war on Ukraine. There is a bigger prize to play for: not just an expedient political settlement for the here and now, but, rather, the fulfilment of a divine destiny for which he is the primary agent of delivery. To think about this conflict simply in terms of secular politics or events of the last century is to miss the deeper reality.

The reason Putin grieves the collapse of the USSR between 1989-1991 is not merely down to some offended nostalgia. While the Soviet Empire survived, the elements of Holy Russia were essentially held together in a single entity. To use a biblical image from the gospels, when it fell apart and left a vacuum, the demons came pouring in and occupied the space. Hence, it is not wrong to describe Putin’s motivation for prosecuting the current war as righting a wrong in the name of God.

However, understanding this does not lead automatically to a solution that guarantees a safer and more peaceful future. For Russia the rupture between the elements of Holy Russia will for ever be an igniter of collective psychic grievance and actual violence. A short-term resolution of the current conflict will not decide for ever the question of Ukraine’s identity – as a people, a nation or a race. That is why these current horrors will not answer the ultimate question.

The West has responded resolutely, confounding Putin’s assumption (based on our failure to do anything of significance when Russia ruined Chechnya, invaded Georgia, annexed the Donbas and claimed Crimea) that we don’t believe anything enough to pay a price. However, the original rationale behind the West’s response was purely to enable Ukraine to defend itself against military aggression. That is now beginning to creep into enabling Russia to be defeated. These are different goals – even if you think that Russia’s defeat is essential. How the move from ‘enabling defence’ to ‘defeating the enemy’ is handled will be vital as the uncertainties of other factors proceed.

For example, while the West steps up the nature and quantity of weapons and ammunition donated to Ukraine, powers such as China and Iran clearly contemplate arming Russia for a longer-term war. India and Brazil just want it all to stop; but, if it doesn’t, they, too, might get drawn into taking sides. The permutations then become less certain and more problematic. The future certainly looks potentially very dangerous.

It is hard to believe now that only one year ago the West thought it highly unlikely that Putin would launch an invasion – even while he was amassing troops and armour on the border of Ukraine. Since that fateful day in February 2022 millions of refugees have fled the country as Russia’s military devastated Ukraine’s infrastructure, flattened its buildings, butchered its people, internally censored all media, stamped on any dissent, and wantonly committed what can only be described as crimes against humanity. Any respect for the rule of law is dead – which it is why it remains so important for even suggestions of breaching international law by our own governments to be opposed at source.

This war will not be over soon. Refugees might decide to stay in the countries where they have settled, and that will change local communities. The cost militarily and economically will continue to grow (as demands expand), as will the cost in human lives and critical infrastructure – the cost of rebuilding Ukraine one day will be enormous.

But, for today, we must continue to hear and tell the truth, be realistic about the potential for peace, continue to work and pray for those impacted most severely, and look further back and further forward than we in the West are sometimes wont to do.

This is Hansard’s record of my speech in yesterday’s Committee stage debate in the House of Lords as we began line-by-line scrutiny of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. All amendments, having been debated and responded to by the relevant Minister, are by convention then withdrawn so that the government can take back the content of the debate and decide whether the text of the Bill might be amended before bringing a (hopefully) revised text at Report Stage.

My Lords, at Second Reading, I remember applauding, broadly speaking, the ambitions of the White Paper. However, I share the concerns of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, who of course brings to this much more experience than I do.

I am pleased that, already, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has alluded to the interconnectivity of all these different missions; they cannot be seen in silos or in isolation. For example, if you have children who are turning up at school unfed or living in poor housing, you can try teaching them what you will but it may not be very successful, and that has an impact not only on individuals but on communities and their flourishing.

I will speak to Amendment 15, tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, and briefly to Amendments 7, 30 and 31.

Health disparities require discrete attention in the Bill. It is not an optional extra. The Bill as it stands states the missions but does not provide mechanisms for action or accountability. How will we be able to measure whether they are effective or not? The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London has said that, although assurances by the Minister are very welcome, they are not enough; they have to be backed up in the Bill with measurable implementation gauges.

Good health is key both to human—that is, individual—and social flourishing. As I said, we cannot separate out such things as housing, education, health, transport and so on as if we can solve one without having an impact on the other. However, there are inequalities between the regions in many of these areas. I speak from a context in the north: the whole of west Yorkshire, most of north Yorkshire—but do not tell the right reverend Primate the Archbishop of York that—a chunk of Lancashire, one slice of County Durham and a bit of south Yorkshire. The inequalities are serious. The economic squeeze, in the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, is an incubator for inequalities, and we know the impact that inequality has across the board.

The White Paper rightly recognises the centrality of health to levelling up, but the actions by which this will be achieved could be argued to be lacking—and we certainly need long-term solutions and not quick fixes or slogans that sound good but do not lead to content. Can the Minister therefore offer assurances of the Government’s commitment to health within the levelling-up agenda in ways that can be measured and accountability upheld?

I support Amendment 30, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond. The Government must give formal consideration to the inclusion of social prescribing. Why? Because social prescribing recognises the social determinants of health and the importance of community in improving health at every level. There are good examples already of where this is being explored, such as the National Academy for Social Prescribing, and I endorse the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, at Second Reading in this regard. There are examples of services run by faith and community groups in London and beyond, and the pilot by the DHSC in Wolverhampton is promising. The key to all of this is the relational dynamic in the well-being of both individuals and communities. This leads me to ask how social prescribing might be used to tackle inequalities in health and well-being. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to that.

I turn briefly to Amendments 7 and 31. The text of the missions might be important but we need evaluative measures in the Bill so that they can be measured. Otherwise, they are merely aspirational and all we can do is trust the word, however well-meaning, that is applied to it. Moreover, how can the Government be held to account on delivery? Commitment to the missions can be measured only by some process of assessment on implementation, and this needs to be in the Bill.

I conclude with the obvious statement that healthy life expectancy is surely a key measurement of our effectiveness in tackling health inequalities.

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

When I was just twenty years old I worked in France for six months. This allowed me to become the only bishop I know who’s been arrested for busking on the Paris Metro. I don’t think it was the singing or guitar playing that was bad; it was just that I didn’t know you had to have a licence. To cut a long story short, I talked my way out of it … and even got to keep the money.

At the point the police stopped me I was doing a John Lennon song from the  ‘Imagine’ album. When my father heard this he responded not to my predicament, but merely observed of John Lennon that you can’t get good fruit from a bad tree. I even took him seriously at the time.

But, of course, this is nonsense. Yesterday I listened to Mozart – evidently a bit of a moral nightmare, but who wrote some of the most sublimely Christian music. Nick Cave, in his marvellous book, Faith, Hope and Carnage, written with Sean O’Hagan, emerges from the shattering death of his young son to wrestle hauntingly with mortality, God and meaning.

What holds these two musicians together is the recognition that human beings are complicated, that mortality is fundamental, and that everyone is messy.

Which comes as a relief for many of us. One of the things Jesus does in the gospels is gently explode assumptions of self-sufficency, self-righteousness and self-purity – especially sacrificing other people on the altar of my cleanliness. It is the unlikely people – who know their own weaknesses and failure and don’t need to have their wounds salted – who find liberation and new life, not those who want to hold other people to standards they can’t keep themselves.

It seems to me that it is experience of the rough side of life that strips us of illusions, but also relieves us of the need to pretend to be right all the time. And I worry about the people who get put on pedestals – sometimes involuntarily – but whose feet of clay will one day be revealed … leaving them rubbished and others disappointed.

There is a massive danger in creating or sustaining a culture in which we set certain people up as heroes, only to wait for the time we can knock them down as failures. This might make me feel better – or morally superior even – but humility is surely the key to compassion: the recognition that, in biblical language, “we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”.

Yet, rather than piling on some neurosis, and like confronting mortality, this can actually be the beginning of freedom.

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

President Zelenskiy’s address to Parliament yesterday was another step in maintaining solidarity with Ukraine.

I simply can’t imagine what it will be like to live in Ukraine right now – waiting for the military onslaught that threatens to accompany the first anniversary of the Russian invasion. I can’t imagine such fear of the imminent unknown, having no control over what is to come.

As Anna Reid illustrates in her excellent book Borderlands, Ukrainians live on an edge, a border between Europe and Asia.

But, living on an edge – the word for it is ‘liminality’ – changes perspective as well as behaviour. I have good friends who live in Basel which borders Germany, France and Switzerland. Wherever you go there you have to pay attention to a different language, variations of culture and history, architecture and mood. You drive down a road and find you’ve been in two or three countries. And this means navigating strangeness, respecting difference.

Now, nothing should ever trivialise the predicament in which Ukraine currently find itself. Although for many of us, borders do not represent a threat, simply dividing, but also open us up to new people and experiences, this is not the case with Ukraine: their border is characterised by extreme violence, fear and blood.

Yet, there is a parallel in the ways people think and relate in any context. Living on an edge compels us to face difference and respect narratives that are not mine. Having been a professional linguist many years ago, I understand what it is like to look, think and listen through the lens of a different culture – a people whose story is different from mine.

But, the bigger influence on me is the Judeo-Christian tradition which tracks the formative story of people for whom home is always contested, estranged or constantly moving. In fact, the earliest credal statement in the Hebrew Scriptures begins with a striking statement: “My father was a wandering Aramaean…” Exile is one of the major biblical themes – and this is a reality we are now seeing every day as millions of Ukrainians flee. In the biblical story people are exiled without their consent, often at the sharp end of an empire’s weaponry. Jesus himself constantly crossed borders to be where people actually stood – never seducing anyone with false promises, but being realistic about the brutality of the world. He, too, paid with his life. For him the injunction to “love my neighbour as myself” was never some romantic idea – it is costly, especially for those who live on a sharp edge.

I look at Ukraine from a place of security; but, I can also look through the lens of their experience to better understand my own, too.

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

When I visit schools – usually primary schools – I always get asked what is the best thing about being a bishop. I usually say: it’s this! Visiting schools. And I mean it. I genuinely think that teachers do one of the most important jobs in any society and we should value them accordingly.

The main thing about teaching is that, obviously, it is really about learning. We give our children into the hands of other adults for hours every day and expect them to be nurtured – body, mind and spirit. Because teaching is not about force-feeding information into soon-to-be economically-active receptacles, but, rather, about curating character, shaping a world view, forming a mind, opening up the world, stimulating curiosity. And this can only happen if children learn to learn.

At a time of uncertainty on just about every front, I think it is wise to stop and think about what education is and what it is for. Questions about teachers’ pay and conditions are not to be confused with the deeper questions of what they are actually doing and what the rest of us expect of them. As I hinted earlier, a society that sees the economy as an end (rather than a means to an end – human flourishing) will never value the intangible work of shaping personality, character and community.

I come from a tradition that sees children as more than potential workers. Jesus warned against offering a stone to a child who asks for bread. Three thousand years ago the Hebrews placed priority on teaching your children from a very early age – but as part of a community that shared a view of love and justice and mercy that was rooted in a memory of humility.

It’s easy to say, isn’t it? But, any child who listens to the news can be forgiven for being fearful of a secure future. A Czech philosopher, Jan Patočka, came up with a striking description of this fragility when he wrote of “the solidarity of the shaken”. Teachers are also part of this solidarity, and bring to their task all the same uncertainties everyone else feels. But, the children we entrust to them can only find security if the wider society sees them as vital human beings and not just potential commodities – shapers of human futures rather than cogs in a merely economic wheel.

And that’s why I am gripped by the value placed on children in the scriptures I read. It’s also why I think teachers do important work on behalf of the rest of us.