This is the text of a commissioned article published in the excellent Yorkshire Post yesterday:

A quick story.

A little boy sat in his room trying to write his Christmas letter. He wrote: “Dear Jesus, I have been a really good boy this last year, so please can I have a bike for Christmas?” He knew this was a bit of a fib, so, he threw it in the bin and tried again: “Dear Jesus, I have tried really hard this year and have mostly been a good boy; so, please can I have a bike for Christmas?” Again, he knew this was pushing it a bit; so, in the bin it went, and then he wrote: “OK, Jesus, I haven’t been great this year, but I can try harder next year, … if you give me a bike for Christmas.” Then he threw it in the bin and gave up. “I need some fresh air,” he thought, and went out for a short walk before trying again. As he went around the corner, he glanced inside a garden and saw a large Nativity set near a neighbour’s front door. He checked no one was watching, nipped in, grabbed Mary, and hid her under his coat. Then he ran home, went up to his room, got out his pencil and paper and wrote: “If you wanna see your mother again, gimme the bike!”

At a time in our nation’s history when all the talk is of ‘deals’, it might be salutary to realise that deals are not everything. Christmas tells us that we can’t bargain with God and there are no deals to be done.

Does this sound a bit odd? Well, it should do. We now seem to live in a culture that values economics, money and trade above all else. Each time I ask (in the House of Lords, for instance) for whom the economy exists, I get blank looks. That the economy exists for the sake of people – and not vice versa – seems counter-cultural these days. Not everybody welcomes the question: what is the vision that Brexit is supposed to fulfil, and how do we quantify ‘the national interest’?

Christmas has something powerful to say to us as individuals – yes; but, it also challenges our social assumptions and rhetoric. Christmas says that people matter more than money, generosity more than the grasping of rights, love more than competition for advantage. Christmas whispers to an unsuspecting world that God comes into the ordinary and makes it extraordinary – not waiting until the world and our lives are all sorted, but coming among us as one of us and not open to bargaining, deal-making or competing.

This is why Christmas creeps up on us once a year, inviting us to put aside the truth claims of politicians, the power claims of those who have lost sight of dignity and social order, the pompous pretensions of those for whom status is everything. The baby of Bethlehem is born to parents whose relationship is socially questionable; born in obscurity in territory occupied by a military power; born to be hunted by a king and sent into exile for his own protection. A refugee as a toddler, he will lose his father by the age of 12, leave his family by 30, and be dead within two or three years.

And this is where the no-deals come in. The people who would respond to Jesus were those who knew they had no pretensions to uphold – that God comes to them anyway. And to those who assume that God is distant, standing remote from the muckiness of the world and keeping himself clean, Christmas says that God plunges into the heart of the real world – right into the places where the pain is most acute and life most bewildering or challenging. When I pray, this is a God who knows where I am and we are.

So, I will sing the carols of God’s free offering of himself in love to a complicated and sometimes brutal world. And I will still feel a little unease when the organ strikes up with Adeste Fideles and its glorious descants: I still think we should be singing “O come, all ye faithless”. For Christmas is the opening of God’s arms – and, therefore, of the arms of those who bear his name and claim faith in him – to a world that hasn’t asked for him, but longs for liberation and healing and redemption. No deals. No bargains. No competition. Just grace, mercy, generosity and the possibility of a new start and a different way.

Fantasy? Nonsense? Or a message that dares us to think again about who we want to be and how we want our society to be shaped?

Christmas can be sidelined into some religious compartment that we drag out once a year but keep tamed and away from real life. We can keep it as a remote and other-worldly fairy story … or we can dig deeper into the familiar story and ask what the God behind this story offers to people everywhere. For myself, I will consider again the response that Christmas – God surprising earth with heaven – invites from me: to follow the Jesus of the gospels, wherever this leads, whatever it costs, and however it challenges my assumptions about the way the world is.

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

Icelandic isn’t one of my languages, but I learned recently about something called Jolabokaflod. It literally means ‘Yule Book Flood’ – a tradition where Icelanders give each other books on Christmas Eve and then spend the night reading them.

Of course, what this Jolabokaflod tradition suggests is that reading is a good thing and worth investing in. Reading – especially fiction – awakens the imagination and has the capacity to get around the intellectual defences to reach the parts propositions don’t usually reach.

Former US President Barack Obama said in an interview with writer Marilynne Robinson: “The most important stuff I’ve learned I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy – with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of greys, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to work for that.”

Clearly, there is something powerful about reading beyond your own experience and looking at the world through the eyes of characters who are different from yourself. It is how good stories work: opening us up and not closing down our capacity for reflection.

The Christmas story is no different. A million Nativity plays have the power to make the story of the birth of Jesus either remote and fanciful or just dulled by familiarity. It isn’t hard to see why some people assume the whole thing is a quaint fantasy. But, this is to miss the point. The Nativity smacks of real people, real human experience and the real world of politics, injustice and fear.

Jesus wasn’t born in a school hall or at the front of a church in England. Rather, he was born to bewildered and conflicted parents in a part of the Middle East occupied by the Roman Empire … who were not known for their philanthropy or human kindness. This was a world of violence in which life was cheap and survival everything.

And, yet, the gospel writers shine through this scene of childbirth-against-the-odds the light of hope and possibility. They suggest that light has shone in the darkness of a complex world and whispered a hint of newness into the human lives that we know – with all their pain and joy and doubt and confusion. The power mongers scheme to keep the world shaped in their own interest while a vulnerable baby breathes in the air of freedom – the freedom of one who will grow to challenge the powers, the ‘this is just how the world is’ merchants.

In other words, whatever dominates the news and crowds out our consciousness can be challenged by the leaking in of a different light. That’s Christmas. Is Jolabokaflod worth a go, even if I can’t quite pronounce it?

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2. In the studio were Lee Mack, Paloma Faith, Tom Kerridge and Catherine Tate and the Kingdom Choir. Last time before Chris moves to Virgin after Christmas.

‘Tis the season to be joyful, ‘tis the time to be glad. Apparently. And so it should be, too. Christmas is about God surprising earth with heaven and leaking some hope into the stuff of human life.

A remote fairy tale? Some might think that, but the stories in the gospels tell of ordinary people – sometimes the unlikely people – finding light interrupting their darkness and opening up a new future.

So, ‘tis indeed the season to be joyful and a time to be glad. But, ‘tis also the season to have humdingers of arguments and family squabbles. How do I know this – when my own family exemplifies perpetual and imperturbable peace and harmony, (of course)?

I read in a newspaper on the train yesterday that it’s good to argue with your partner and bad to keep it all in. The article was actually about couples where one vents their feelings and irritations and the other keeps schtumm – keeping in what really needs to get out. It seems it’s bad for your health to do this.

And, as Christmas approaches with the speed of a kid running away from the sprouts, we all know that tensions rise and tempers flare. The pressures of money, time and relationships all pile on, and some people cope with it better than others.

I know people this Christmas who will be spending the day in a church or community centre with people who are alone, lonely or otherwise isolated. Many bishops will be going into prisons where ‘happy Christmas’ sounds a bit hollow. I will be in two cathedrals (because I am greedy and have three of the things in my Diocese), conscious that apparent joy can hide grief … and it needs someone to help it out.

So, ‘tis the season to look out for your neighbour – to look behind the tree and the tinsel to the flashes of pain and grief that might be lurking underneath. But, it’s also the time to belt out the carols – even the ones that have a baby who never cried – , be surprised by heaven, and to have your imagination grasped by a God who comes among us as one of us and whispers behind our defences: “I am with you, I am on your side.”

Ths is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme – delivered five minutes after the announcement that Tory MPs have triggered a vote of no confidence in Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party.

Today Russians are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their post-Soviet constitution. Russians tell a powerful and emotional story of their past – of their identity, the “soul of Russia” – a story that gives meaning and direction to who they are in the world today. For them, the idea of the Motherland is everything.

But, Russians aren’t unique. Every country, every community lives within a narrative – a story that shapes their unconscious worldview and directs their affections … for good or ill.

Christians inhabit a narrative that emerges from particular stories in their scriptures. The liberation theologians who sided with the poor in South and Central America in the 1970s onwards were fired by the story of Israel – held captive in Egypt for four hundred years before being liberated to freedom in a new land.

As these people prepared to start a new life there, they developed narratives and rituals to remind them of their fundamental story and identity. For example, they would always bring the first 10% of their future crop harvests to the priests and recite a creed that began with a founding statement: “My ancestors were homeless nomads.” So, inhabiting this story today, backed by ritual, should suggest how poor homeless people should be seen in the society being shaped.

Later, in the New Testament account, when Jesus invited his friends to share bread and wine in memory of himself – what we call Communion or the Eucharist – he did so knowing that they would filter this through the story of the exodus.

So, Motherland, Exodus, Communion: our guiding narratives grow out of what’s gone before and now shape our behaviour and values. But, what happens when stories collide or pass each other by? For example, the current mismatch between understandings in the UK and Europe of their shared history of the last century – particularly over the purpose and value of shared EU institutions. In a UK that itself comprises a number of national identities, we must ask if it is possible now to create a shared story that can challenge the clashing assumptions feeding our current confusions.

The thing about the Christian narratives I mentioned earlier is that they are spacious. That is, they demand human agency and commitment, and they do not remove moral accountability from those who claim or inhabit their narrative.

So, can the British agree on a story that will guide us in the future, reminding us where we have come from, who we are and who we want to be? Faced with a crisis that demands an immediate fix, it is probably this deeper story that will fire our affections and drive our allegiances.

This is the Hansard transcript of my speech in the House of Lords yesterday (39 out of 180) in the take-note debate on the EU Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration.

My Lords, I wish that I could pack as much into a single speech as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, but I defy the challenge.

It is perhaps not a bad idea at this stage in the debate just to take a step back and to remember what the point of all this is. I was doing “Thought for the Day” on Radio 4 this morning and picked up on three words from the title of a Theos think-tank report on resilience in the north-east of England—people, place and purpose. They are three words that offer us a lens through which to see what all this is about. I endorse what the most reverend Primate said this morning in his speech.

Whatever the ultimate outcome, one of the legacies of the Brexit process thus far is, as I have said before, a corruption of public discourse, polarisation between people and communities, and a too frequent reduction of the polity to the merely economic. People are now too often categorised as either Punch or Judy; argument and nuance are dismissed in favour of emotive ad hominem judgment.

I understand that the withdrawal agreement is necessarily a technical means of achieving a political end, but the political declaration is aspirational in its language without offering a big vision for a society that is more than an economic market. Aspiration is good, but it needs to be accompanied by some articulated obligations and accountabilities. Therefore, I repeat the question that has come out in this debate: what is the big vision for British society, not just trade relationships, into which the technical agreement fits as a mechanism? What is the vision, and what is the future that we are asking our young people to build?

To be biblical for a moment, when Moses led the people of Israel out of captivity after 400 years in Egypt, they did not go straight to the promised land; they spent 40 years in the desert. There, a whole generation of romanticisers about the past died out. That is the point. You have to let a generation go in order to have a new generation that can envision and build a new society fired by their own imagination and not something that they were simply required to inherit from their forebears. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, that today we are talking about process and not event. I, along with my right reverend colleagues in this place, see deep divisions and significant challenges every day in our communities, and they will not be resolved immediately. In fact, they might define the next generation while we go through a sort of desert and all this gets sorted out. However, I do not believe that all this will evaporate merely by coming to a conclusion. This is not a zero-sum game and it must not become that.

The deal before us has the virtue of being a compromise. Compromise is often spoken of pejoratively, but it is a good thing because it assumes that people have listened to opposing arguments. They have weighed things up in the balance. They know that there might not be a perfect answer but they weigh things up and come to a judgment, and then together try to work out what is best for the common good. I may be naive but I do not believe that anyone could have got a better deal because, frankly, the people they were negotiating with would have been the same and the maths would have been the same, and we would have ended up with the same narrow criteria having to be worked through. It is a fantasy to say that someone else could have come up with a better compromise. That does not address the question of whether this compromise is acceptable but the options were never vast, even if some of the fantasies about Brexit were ridiculous. It was clear from the beginning that some circles were never capable of being squared, and the Government should have been honest about that from the word go.

I confess to being bewildered. I have heard some very powerful speeches today and in one sense I could go either way. I want to vote against an agreement that leaves the country poorer and possibly more isolated. I want to vote against a deal that commands so little support across the country or even in this building but is being pushed as a binary choice. Yet I also want to vote for it, mainly because a compromise was always going to be costly and this one gives both sides something, if not everything, that they wished for. However, I also want to abstain, as I think that the choice before us compels a short-term decision that might have medium to longer-term negative consequences. “No deal” is a failure to deal. This deal reduces the sovereignty—or control—that Brexit was supposed to recover and simply loses us the rather good deal that we already have within the EU. Another referendum is a risk, but it cannot be said to diminish parliamentary democracy any more than the first referendum did—that pass was sold in 2016.

I am in a difficult place, so I will carry on listening to the debate and then make my mind up on Monday. However, assuming, as I do, that there is no ideal outcome—that whatever outcome we come to will have us poorer than we are at the moment—in conclusion I would like to address two or three principles that might be getting lost but which might be worth bearing in mind as we go forward.

First, whatever the outcome of this process, how are we to take responsibility for what we have done and for shaping the United Kingdom and the Europe of the future? We do not just sail off into the sunset and say, “Now that’s all up to them”. I have no doubt that the United Kingdom, if it remains intact, will grow a younger generation who will create a prosperous and creative future for our islands, even if we suffer short-term loss. But the generation that has led us into this mess—my generation—might have to make way for those who can shape a new narrative for our collective future, and they will not be helped by self-exonerating blame games by those of us who can see ourselves only as victims. A new sort of leadership will be needed in future that can rise above the divisions and seeks to reconcile and unite people around a common vision for more than trade and economics.

Secondly, when we speak of “we” and “us”, that must include the EU 27. The demonisation of those remaining in the EU is infantile, counterproductive and unhelpful. If our language reflects who we are, then we are going to have a problem encouraging the next generation to speak, relate and behave like adults.

Finally, very briefly, whatever Brexit looks like in the end, we will still be left with the massive challenges of poverty, homelessness, debt, food banks, poor health among too many people, challenges in education when children come to school hungry, and so on—I could go on and on. We must move on to face the challenges of the NHS, castrated local authorities, transport failures, infrastructure and other consequences of a decade of austerity. The EU cannot be blamed for that lot.

If a divided people are once again to know that they belong—whichever way they voted in the referendum—they will need to hear from this place an articulation of vision, hope and reconciliation: that people in all places have a common purpose that is worth adopting.

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

Some years ago a Church of England report confidently asserted that people increasingly live in networks rather than localities. According to this thinking, people relate to people with similar interests and commitments rather than being constrained by geography. The growing power of the internet and the massive explosion of social media communication enabled us to transcend mere physicality and the limits of place.

Of course, this is questionable. Although we can now communicate across the globe instantly and with people we have never met, human beings still have bodies and – as Neddy Seagoon* once put it – “everybody gotta be somewhere”. In other words, place still matters.

This notion lies at the heart of a recent report from the think tank Theos. It is called People, Place and Purpose – three words that encapsulate what it means to live well as individuals in community. The report is based on research done in the North East of England, but the title offers a lens through which to look at any community – recognising that even those who prioritise social networks still live in a physical place.

You have to be pretty well off to ignore your immediate environment. One of the lessons to be learned from the whole Brexit experience is that communities who feel ignored, left behind or deliberately disadvantaged will eventually remind the complacent secure that place matters to those who are privileged or condemned to live in it.

This is hardly new. Way back in the Hebrew Scriptures a simple ethical dynamic lay at the heart of social order and religious ritual, and we might describe it like this: human beings live in particular communities that find their common life shaped by the physical environment and the people who inhabit it; their common purpose is aimed at mutual thriving with the freedoms and responsibilities that make it work. Being realistic about human nature, these scriptures don’t hide from the need for restriction or sanction if all in a community are to flourish. And this is why the Ten Commandments still make moral sense – they take people seriously and recognise reality with all its fragilities and failures. It’s why many of the seemingly obscure rituals of this community make sense when you start to think about how we might create a society that works for everyone.

What I learn from this is that if people, place and purpose are reduced to slogans or political categories, then we begin to lose the plot. If political purpose reduces people to mere economic consumers, human identity is diminished.

Amid the loud voices claiming attention in the week ahead, we could do worse than to defy any kind of reductionism and insist on the priority of real people in real places seeking real purpose for our common life.

*It wasn’t (as many pointed out) – it was Eccles.

This is the basic text of my speech in the House of Lords in today’s debate on the Prime Minster’s Statement on Brexit last week.

 

House of Lords

Tuesday 20 November 2018

Brexit: Debate on the Prime Minster’s Statement

My Lords, only four months remain before we walk arm in arm to the sunlit uplands where the easiest deal in history will have been made … and everybody will be happy.

Except, my Lords, we know this is not the case. Other noble Lords will concentrate on the details of the ‘deal’ (a word that reduces an existential question simply to a matter of trade and transaction) and the position in which it leaves us. I want to pick up on one line of the Prime Minister’s Statement to the House last week – the line I questioned in the short debate on Thursday.“If we get behind a deal, we can bring our country back together and seize the opportunities that lie ahead.”

I asked if the promise to “bring our country back together” is credible and achievable and, if so, how this is to be done. The answer was simply a repeat of mantras about ‘the deal’. I thought I was being helpful to the government by inviting a response such as: “The country is split down the middle and the language and behaviour around Brexit have become toxic – even in this Parliament. So, it is not going to be easy to reconcile people and parties in the wake of such a divisive issue. But, in acknowledging the size of the task, we intend to pay attention in due course to the language, symbolism and mechanisms of reconciliation.”

Because this is the challenge here. The government, by virtue of being the government, has a primary duty to pay attention to such reconciliation – to the healing of relationships that have been fractured by this process and the restoration of trust as a public value.

I am not making a case for leaving, remaining, wishful thinking or dreaming. The referendum happened, the rest is history (in the making). However, the factual phenomenon of Brexit, its language and behaviours, its polarising aggression and its destructive reductionism are not going to be addressed by statements about getting behind a deal and people romantically falling back into line. That line has been crossed in our public discourse, and I think two things have exacerbated it: first, the repeated implication that “the will of the people” is immutable and clear; and, secondly, that the nature of the split down the centre of the United Kingdom is being ignored.

This, my Lords, raises a question of honesty – honesty with the people of this nation. Now, to ask for honesty is not to accuse anyone of dishonesty. But, we hear little or no acknowledgement of the fracture that polarises our people – a fracture that will neither be addressed nor healed by the repetition of mantras about a glorious future.

This is not about Brexit as a choice; rather, it is about Brexit as a cultural phenomenon – what has happened as a consequence of the referendum. Social media is not the most edifying place to seek enlightenment and calm reflection; you have to wade through acres of muck to find any gems. But, where the gems are to be found is precisely where adults behave like adults, face reality (whether or not reality reflects their own preferences), moderate their language in order to prioritise relationship and values over conflict, and show a willingness to listen before speaking and an ability to look through the eyes of my interlocutor.

My Lords, I admire the committed resilience of the Prime Minister and the remarkable expertise of our civil servants. But, I appeal again for those engaged in this debate to take seriously the language of the discourse – not least in how we speak of those in the EU with whom we deal. And I appeal again to the government not to dismiss with easy words the crying need for an honesty of discourse that actually sets people free to grow up, own the truth about the deep challenges we face, and offer the people to whom we are accountable and whom we are called to serve a model for reconciliation and hope.

My Lords, whatever happens, the Church is committed to stand with and serve those who suffer, especially poor, marginalised and disenfranchised people in our communities. But, we need an articulation of political vision that goes beyond economics and trade. So, what will those in power do to offer language and symbols of reconciliation and hope in practical ways that recognise the divisions and take seriously the need to bring our country – and our Union – back together?