This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought with Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2 (but from my office in Leeds).

Do you know what it’s like when you get an entire soundtrack running round your head? I do. Maybe it’s got something to do with the strange times in which we live. It’s as if loads of the music in my memory now finds the space to peep out of the undergrowth and sniff the fresh air.

My kids will probably raise their eyes at this, but the loudest echo belongs to one Bruce Cockburn, a Canadian singer-songwriter very few people have heard of. He’s written all sorts of stuff over the last fifty years or more and some of it is fairly gritty. Then he does one with the great line: “Don’t forget about delight.” When you find yourself in times of trouble – as someone else once sang – don’t lose sight of the nice stuff, the delight.

It’s not a bad idea is it? Because it’s too easy just to hear the bad news and find the imagination heading in the wrong direction. What the poets and musicians do is tease us to look at a wider horizon – to expand the range of possibilities beyond the ‘now’. The thing about poetry is that, if you give a bit of time to thinking about words, it opens space for the imagination to get working.

I would say this, wouldn’t I? I read the Bible every day. It’s full of poetry and songs in which the writers express what lies deep within them. They don’t care too much about whether what they say is watertight morally all the time; they just get it out of their system and into the fresh air. Then readers can engage what being a human being looks and feels like to the poet – even if the poet lived and died three thousand years ago.

Most of us are going to need some routine during the weeks ahead. But, we also have a chance to do something new for which there normally isn’t time or space. Like reading a poem each day, for example. Or, how about trying to write my own? Get it onto paper and play with the words? Because when the news is not great, don’t forget about delight.

I know. I nicked the title from the late great Terry Pratchett. But, I also used it in the book I published last year for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany: Freedom is Coming. The phrase just summed up a chunk of what lies behind the musings of that great prophet of the eighth century BC, Isaiah. People, he suggests, have such small ambitions – they serve such small gods.

You have to read the text to get the point, but, basically, the story goes like this. The people know themselves to be God’s people, called to a particular vocation in the world. The problem is, that – just as they had been warned before they entered the land of promise – when things go well for us, we forget who we are and where we have come from. In the case of the Israelites, they forgot that once they had been slaves and that they had begun with nothing to their name. And now they thought the world belonged to them.

The prophets – who clearly knew their history, politics and economics three thousand years ago – saw through this. They also saw where this sort of living would inevitably lead. Injustice has a way of catching itself by the tail; inequalities sow the seeds of inequities, and this leads to conflict. A society in which particular people see their life’s work as holding onto power and accumulating stuff eventually find that it is all a bit disappointing. It is not what human beings are made for … even when we try hard to convince ourselves that it matters.

So, Isaiah mocks the small gods, the tribal deities, the idols made of wood and stone. He asks why the creator of the cosmos is ditched in favour of a bit of fluff. And the question that this framing of experience, from so long ago, hangs over us today is this: why do we settle for ‘death by entertainment’ (just look at what’s on telly) or anaesthetising by endless activity when a bit of space might just open up new possibilities? Isaiah is clear that the God who brings order out of chaos, but never exempts even himself from all the world can throw at him, made us for more than this.

The relevance to now is simple. I don’t know about you, but having to spend every day in the house would not have sounded like my idea of fun a week ago. But, now, thrust upon us by the worst of circumstances, the forced isolation could become an opportunity – to not run away from the challenge to live with the exile, the emptiness, but to stick with it, live through it, and contemplate what my life is for.

Isaiah suddenly seems to sound very contemporary. His questions are for every age, not just his in Babylon. On the other hand, I could just watch telly and keep my horizons close, my ambitions manageable, my gods small.

Speak of ‘strange land’ and musicos will immediately think of the great, anthemic album by Keane. Older people (ahem) might recall an echo of Boney M or, even, Don McLean, both of whole recorded versions of ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’. And anyone who wonders where that came from will remember that it comes from Psalm 137.

What do you do when your world falls apart? What can it look like when everything you assume to be ‘that’s just how it is’ collapses and, amid the disorientation, you find yourself living in a different country, looking out at different horizons and listening to different languages?

Well, we don’t have to face this for the first time when the great virus brings the world to a halt and changes the way we live, relate, touch, hear and smell … possibly for ever. As usual, the resources go back a long way – like 3,000 years in the Middle East.

The people have been exiled from the land that gives them history, identity and meaning. They now live in a strange land where their oppressors have a laugh at them: “If your God is so powerful, what are you doing sitting on our river banks and looking so miserable? Go on – sing us the songs of you cosmic God who appears to have been defeated by our tribal deity!” That’s the scenario. Everything that gave the people meaning and identity swept away to be replaced by bewilderment and fear, any future looking radically different and totally unwelcome.

Now, exile in Babylon, subject to an alien and oppressive empire, is not quite the same as being grounded by a virus. But, what many people are now experiencing is. The end of a way of life. The prospect of having to change the way we live and move and have our being in a world that we thought was familiar. Wondering how to fill time when the normal contours have been wiped out. Questioning what we are for when the things into which we had invested such meaning have dropped out of the picture.

It now begins to sound more familiar, doesn’t it?

Well, Psalm 137 is really uncomfortable. These people have both a loving memory of home – of how life used to be – and a recognition that they would now have to live differently. In this strange land they would need to get their bearings, find a way of life, then shape a different future. And while doing it they would have to re-think the resources their story held for them, re-imagine what their (land-rooted) faith now meant, and begin to sing new songs without forgetting the songs of home.

My chapel this morning. The light shines in and the darkness will not have the last word.

I think this is going to be the task for our times – for Christians, of course, but, actually, for everyone. Stripped back to the bare bones, why do we think we are here and why do we think we matter? How do we cope with mortality and contingency … even before we get to morality? How, then, shall we live?

Psalm 137 ends with a horror prayer: “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us. Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.” Embarrassing? No – essential. The psalmist doesn’t vindicate the ethic; he expresses the emotion. In other words, tell God the truth. Don’t pretend to say “hallelujah” when your heart says “shit”.

Prayer in these days can become an expression of honesty that compels us to face the truth about ourselves – our rank selfishness in stockpiling, for example? The prayer might change over time as we seek to live faithfully in a strange land. But, it must always be rooted in reality and honesty, exposing us to the possibility of change and transformation as we learn to trust that the God of the past will be faithful in a different future – that the strange land might even become a familiar home.

The silence outside the house is a little unnerving. The birds clearly haven’t spotted the problem yet – they just keep tweeting. But, otherwise, here in Headingley, the skies are empty, the roads still and the stillness remarkable.

This morning I called a number of people to see how they are doing. All are in good spirits. But, we are only at the start of this mass experiment in dispersed togetherness. All the signs are that the lockdown will soon get tighter, but this means that we will all need to get more creative with how we relate and communicate.

Already there are some brilliant examples of how to do this – and the ability of people to find (or make) the funnies amid the misery is simply stunning. Twitter has come into its own.

The challenge for many people unused to limited company and social restriction will be how to establish some shape to each day – a routine that offers some order to an indeterminate future. For me this forced purdah means I shall spend longer in Morning and Evening Prayer each day. I will walk for exercise each day (without touching anyone out there, of course). I will study more, read more, and watch more films. I’ll also be on the phone and social media more, checking that vulnerable people and colleagues are OK.

I also intend to resume more regular posting on this blog than has been possible for several years. Radio scripts and journalism will still go up, but I’ll be offering more – possibly daily. We will be streaming some action/reflection stuff in Holy Week and Easter and I will also write. Provided there is something worth hearing, that is.

Christians read the Bible every day and some of us try to dig under the words to work out how these would have been heard by those to whom they were addressed. One of the themes that emerges time and again, but is easily missed when things are calm, is that of time. We cannot always control – and are never exempted from – what the world can throw at us; but we can learn to live faithfully through it all. Deserts, exiles, strangeness, loss, disorder and chaos: they are the experiences that gave rise to our scriptures as people tried to work out who God is, what life is for, and why we matter.

So, I guess we now enter an uninvited and unwelcome time of exile in which we have an opportunity to dig deep into ourselves and ask hard questions about life, the universe and everything. It might become a time of reorientation – like a hard retreat that compels is to face ourselves and the society we shape. As so many people suffer loss of loved ones, we will ask into which activities or relationships we invest our time and money; as so many lose jobs, homes or livelihood, we can decide if the economy exists for people or people for the economy.

Hard times, maybe; but, possibly times for renewal, too.

This is the basic text of a lecture given at Bradford Cathedral on Sunday 16 February 2020, followed by a Q&A and a sermon (at Choral Evensong) on Revelation 4.

Introductory survey

”The world isn’t working. Things are unravelling, and most of us know it.” So begins the Introduction to Jim Wallis’s book The Soul of Politics. He goes on: “Our intuition tells us the depth of the crisis we face demands more than politics as usual.” He then cites Gandhi’s seven social sins: politics without principle; wealth without work; commerce without morality; pleasure without conscience; education without character; science without humanity; worship without sacrifice.

When did Wallis write this? 1994 – twenty six years ago when Bill Clinton was US President, John Major was Prime Minister, Helmut Kohl was German Chancellor, Mandela was elected as President of South Africa and, while the world was horrified by the Rwandan massacre, the Balkans reminded us that ethnic wipe-outs were not just the stuff of European history. The blurb on the back of the book helpfully says: “As the acquisitive eighties are left behind and we bask in the idea of the more ‘caring’ nineties, Jim Wallis’ book is both a sharp reminder of cold reality and an encouraging manifesto for change.” Remember the ‘caring’ nineties? They came before the nervous noughties and austerity teens, leading us into the world of Trump and Johnson, fake news and unaccountable demagoguery, brazen lying and morality-free manipulation of people and facts.

Well, in my own lifetime I have seen the colour of politics change. The ravages of the Second World War were even to be seen in the buildings and bombsites of Liverpool in the sixties when I went to school. The seventies saw battles for the economic life of this country, leading eventually to Thatcherism and the radical reordering – some would call it destruction – of many communities in the wake of social and economic engineering. And all this was going on while the bipolar world threatened nuclear war and global extinction – the Cold War turning into a very Hot War, as it were. Proxy wars were fought around the world as Right and Left, Capitalism and Communism, fought their corner in places where weapons were the most powerful currency. The eighties ended with the end of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Iron Curtain, leaving a supposedly monopolar world in which liberal free-market Capitalism led an uncontested procession through financial deregulation, globalism and optimism (unless, of course, you lived somewhere that paid the price for all these marvellous benefits to the wealthy West).

The ‘caring’ nineties ended in Blairite optimism, facing a new millennium in which the planet could see only growth, peace and liberal ascendancy. 9/11 put an end to all that. The Twin Towers, almost a visual symbol of the dollar sign itself, collapsed under attack from a form of Islamism of which the world was largely ignorant (despite Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, and other riven countries) and for which the world was unprepared. Assumptions about the inevitability of liberal domination bled into the dust of New York, provoking an awakening awareness of what was going on in the shadows. Economic globalism opened the windows to globalised terrorism and experiences of brutality that most civilised people thought had gone out with the Romans – or, at least, with the horrors of the twentieth century and its Hitlers, Stalins and Pol Pots. Extremist politics began to breathe the fresh air of societies unprepared for the challenges of a brave new world in which migration, once seen in Europe as an economic necessity, turned into a mass movement of people driven by fear to escape oppression, bloody conflict and violence.

At the beginning of the new decade we see the Far Right rising in both west and east, re-running Weimar in an age desperate for nostalgic certainties, but forgetful of how democracies were undermined less than a century ago by demagogues who loved power more than truth, morality or integrity. Brexit has exposed much that we might have preferred to keep hidden beneath the complacent skin of a Europe that assumed its liberal credentials without ever really checking them. Nationalisms are growing, language is being corrupted, lies are deemed acceptable, and, in the USA, people who would have damned Obama for kissing the wrong woman excuse the amorality, stupidity, recklessness and incompetence of Donald Trump (who will probably get re-elected in November). I have said enough elsewhere about Brexit, Boris Johnson, the public discourse and the triumph of slogan over truth.

Where we are now

But, contemporary politics in the UK and wider western world face other challenges. The legitimacy of electoral systems, assumed until very recently to guarantee security and democratic accountability, is now being questioned. A referendum seemed a reasonable mechanism to use in gauging the mood of a nation until, too late, we realised that it has little or no place in a system of parliamentary democracy in which representatives (not delegates) are elected to make decisions together on our behalf. The stability of German political life is currently strained by the presence in both the Bundestag and state parliaments of the Far Right pro-nationalist Alternative für Deutschland – now evoking memories of Weimar: they are getting into power by electoral means, but their manifesto is one that, once in power, will undermine the very democracy that allowed them to be there in the first place. (As I discussed in a sermon in autumn 2019 at Manchester Cathedral for the start of the new legal year, democracy depends not on the rule of law, but the rule of good law.)

The 2019 general election in the UK made clear that, for now at least, old tribal identities and loyalties have been replaced by new alliances around eclectic identities and affections, often based on false associations. As I have said more than once in the House of Lords, the surgery of Brexit will not address the disease that ostensibly caused people to vote for it: most complaints about the EU had little or nothing to do with membership of the EU, but everything to do with Westminster, austerity (a choice of the UK government without any interference by Brussels) and metropolitical complacency. Wealthy Old-Etonian, Oxbridge-educated professionals, immune from any economic consequences of a bad Brexit, persuaded the rest of us that other people were the ‘elite’ ‘establishment’. How did that happen?

Behind this lies a feature of political life that certainly isn’t new. Those profiting now from the reordering of political life and discourse are those who know how to disrupt, cause chaos, kick the furniture around. While everyone else is either distracted or disorientated the disruptors exploit the chaos, capitalise on the collapse, and then proclaim themselves as the saviours from the chaos they caused, but for which they take no responsibility. Trump, Cummings, Salvini, Bolsonaro, Orban: I could go on.

Well, that’s all pretty miserable, isn’t it? And that is only a rather selective thumbnail sketch of where we are and how we got here. Others will see it differently and describe where we have got to as progress. And that is a debate for another time and another place. For today, however, I want to pose questions about the nature of good politics, healthy discourse, and accountable power.

Politics

Politics is simply the discourse of our public life – our common life. Bring two human beings together and you have politics: potentially two different perspectives, two understandings of what matters and what should be done, two parties to a power relationship, and so on. The negotiation of a common life and ordering of how we live is the stuff and raison d’etre of politics. It has to do with people, priorities and principles, praxis, personalities and power. (So many ‘p’s.) Rowan Williams puts it like this in his introduction to an excellent book edited by Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplin and entitled ‘God and Government’ (SPCK, 2009): “… if God’s purpose for humanity is a common purpose, not just a set of individual blueprints for escape from a disaster area, we have a duty to ask how the organising of society makes this purpose harder or easier, more or less attainable.”

This is why the rather tedious protestations that religious leaders should keep out of politics is so absurd as to defy rational discussion. (The establishment by law of the Church of England and the place of bishops in the House of Lords are up for debate, but in a completely different category: that of political ordering and democratic accountability.) Speaking for myself, Christian commitment is about human flourishing (the kingdom of God) rooted in a theological anthropology that holds sacred the infinite value of every human being and the need for mutual sacrifice in costly love in the interest of the common good for all in a particular society. Good politics, in this sense, places people and their essential dignity at the heart of the discourse. Made in the image of God. If politics is about people, it is hard to see how religion can have nothing to do with it. If religion is about people, it is hard to see how it can have nothing to do with politics.

You might be wondering where the title of this lecture came from. ‘Waiting for a Miracle‘ is the title of a 1987 song and album by Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. It recognises that people keep plugging away at making the world more just and more generous, but all the while waiting for a miracle. The task seems both endless and unachievable. The powermongers keep winning out. Like the lament of the Psalmists and the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, we long for heaven while being chained to earth where the poor suffer at the hands of the rich, the weak under the boot of the powerful, the meek in the shadow of the self-interested. But, waiting for a miracle – or someone else to ‘do something’ is an abdication of responsibility on the part of a citizen whose citizenship brings both privilege and obligation.

I remember a number of conversations with Zimbabweans during a visit to that beautiful country over a decade ago. Inflation was around 10,000%, the secret police were everywhere, there was no water in the city of Gweru (all four pumps into the city had broken beyond repair), food was scarce, and social infrastructure was in a state of collapse. And there was real fear. In addition to those who wanted me to give them a job in London (where I was serving as the Bishop of Croydon), others also suggested that “someone must shoot the President”. “We hope there will be change.” I would ask how this hope might be realised and received the same reply: “We pray that God will do something.” I would ask how they might be the answer to their own prayer – not in shooting the President, but in organising and acting to get him out. Somehow. No answer.

Now, I would never be critical of those who live in constant danger and for whom opposition can be hugely costly. My point is simply that hoping and praying should accompany action, not replace it. Citizenship brings responsibility and accountability and that inevitably has political expression because it involves the ordering of society, shaping it for the common good, and the promotion and defence of human flourishing. So, create the miracle, by all means, but don’t just hang around waiting for it. Work at it and for it, but with the patience of waiting.

Wisdom and faith

So, why speak of wisdom and faith in the same sentence as politics?

Well, as I touched on earlier, there is an oft-repeated expression in our society and media of the charge that Christians should stay out of politics – as if neutrality was ever a possibility. I have rehearsed this argument too many times before, so I am not going to flog it again now. But, there is no such thing as a neutral voice and there is no neutral space. Everyone comes at life and politics from a particular perspective, with a particular world view and associated values, and with particular interests at heart. A secular world view is no more neutral than a religious one. (This is something tackled head on, among others, by the American philosopher Alvin Plantinga as far back as the 1960s.)

Wisdom is something we derive from history and from experience. It comes from deep learning and the humility to admit the provisionality of knowledge. Wisdom depersonalises politics, seeks to understand both the polis and the populace, identifies where (and upon which values) integrity lies, discerns which moral framework cannot be negotiated away amid the pragmatic claims of political debate, and informs the reflective conscience that keeps hubris in check.

Which is why faith and wisdom cannot be separated in a consideration of the political task. Because faith is what every individual and society places on certain assumptions about, for example, why people matter, what actually constitutes a good society, what integrity looks like – what I call a ‘theological anthropology’.

Let’s begin to apply some of this to the politics of today. We can start at home, especially in the light of the political behaviour emanating from Downing Street this week. I will be categorical in my language, but you might choose to differ.

Our current Prime Minister is a man who has made a living out of lying. His personal as well as political/professional life betray a set of utilitarian values that revolve around and are oriented towards his own personal ambition, power and hubris. I refer to his admitted invention of stories aimed at misrepresenting and ridiculing the European Union in the Daily Telegraph; his behaviour towards two wives and an uncertain number of children; his deliberate use of misleading language during the 2016 referendum campaign and subsequently; the breaking of too many promises (playing the hero before the DUP, then agreeing a border down the Irish Sea, for example); and his willing subjugation to the strategic will of his Chief-of-Staff, Dominic Cummings.

“Get Brexit Done” was always a slogan disconnected from reality, as the UK will soon find out. “Unleash the potential” assumed that potential had been leashed – and saw the new Chancellor of the Exchequer state only a week or two ago that the UK would now be able to establish freeports for the first time, ignoring the fact that we could already do so and have done so as members of the EU (until we opted out in 2012). I am not arguing here that this is a reason for not leaving the EU; just that the electorate has been repeatedly misled.

Now, why might I be singling him out? Well, basically because the political discourse, so corrupted by the whole Brexit process, has diminished the importance of truth, reality and integrity in our public life. The reshuffle saw the sacking of the one man who has actually achieved anything and who commands the respect of all sides in a deeply divided Northern Ireland – Julian Smith. Threatened by competence? Needing to surround himself with sycophants who will not challenge him? Unwilling to hear what he does not want to hear? Afraid of anyone who might be honest about the costs of policy or who does detail? Fearful of being challenged by the junior prefects? I guess we will eventually find out. But, the point here is that big words and huge ambitions do not compensate for weak character, lack of attention to detail, or the re-discovery of some magic money tree that was absent for the poorest in UK society for a decade. Promises are reneged upon; commitments are laughed off; contradictions are ignored; in a previous age, any one of these would have seen outrage across the political spectrum, action within the party, and a campaign in the media to secure a resignation.

Not any longer. We have now sold the pass by accepting that amoral, immoral and hubristic language and behaviour are acceptable if they promise to deliver on a pragmatic solution to a different problem – whatever the cost, especially to our moral or political culture. It is easy to look across the Pond and mock the Toddler in the White House, marvelling at how, for the Republicans, love of power allows them to dismiss all those things that they would have railed against in a Democratic President. Imagine if Obama had had an affair or told a lie. Remember Clinton’s impeachment. Imagine the response by evangelicals if Clinton or Obama had said something misogynistic or deliberately and openly contradicted reality? But, Trump knows he can get away with anything because morality is selective and power trumps everything else.

The point here is that these guys get away with it because we collude in it. Someone recently complained to me about a ‘culture of deference’ in the Church. I don’t buy this; I think it is a cop-out. When we resort to blaming a ‘culture’ it can only be because we are denying our responsibility as agents who create that culture. A culture is constituted by the behaviour of those involved, and their behaviour is shaped by the choices they make as to how to act – or not act – within it. Not speaking up is a decision; you can’t blame ‘the culture’.

And so it is with politics. If we still value wisdom and accept the claims to responsible action that faith both assumes and imposes, then we must take responsibility for the culture we create. So, when we are told deliberate lies by those in public office (not to be mistaken for errors of information or interpretation), we either allow it to pass – shrugging our shoulders and saying that “this is just how things are” – or we call it out and refuse to bow at this altar of shame.

This is why it is so important for a critical scrutiny to be applied to current political developments. This week’s Church Times carries a commissioned article by me on the danger to democracy and its institutions when a government with a big majority decides to control its own narrative, declining to justify or explain its policies, absenting itself from interrogation by external experts on behalf of the public. In other words, prioritising propaganda over accountability. This is a slippery slope and, if the BBC becomes a casualty of this cultural slide, it will not be for reasons of economics or the vital-but-difficult role of a publicly-funded public service broadcaster, but for reasons of political vindictiveness and a dangerous tendency by the powerful to bypass scrutiny.

Political language, assumptions about the political task, and changes to our political culture all need to be taken more seriously than they are. It is not enough for leaders to ignore challenge in these areas with either hubristic ridicule or sweeping and patronising dismissal. Passivity on the part of the governed brings its own culpability. Visit the Topography of Terror museum in Berlin if you want to revisit how civil society is so easily corrupted by a gradual ceding of territory in language, culture and courage.

Reflections

So, before concluding these provocative reflections, I want to point the way a little further into what a good, ethical politics might look like, and what the place in it of faith and wisdom might be. And I want to do this by commending three books in particular: Rowan Williams, ‘Faith in the Public Square’ – a series of lectures, writings and addresses, some of them easier than others; Luke Bretherton, ‘Christ and the Common Life’ – a recently-published treatment of the theme by a British theologian living and working in the United States; and, briefly, Tom Holland, ‘Dominion’.

The Christian Church has since its beginning held claims against the power of the state. Caesar was not Lord; Jesus is. What Rowan Williams calls ‘procedural secularism’ “was born because Christians insisted that a distinction must be drawn between communities that understand themselves to be faithful to a sacred power and political communities whose task is to sustain the arguments necessary to balance and manage the inevitable differences that constitute our lives.” He goes on to say, effectively that Jesus did not come announcing that the Big Society was at hand.

In other words, the Christian Church – and, particularly, the Church of England established by law – has a responsibility in a democratic society to hold on with both theological and rational confidence to its narrative of the Kingdom of God, being clear how this shapes our understanding of what is either permissible or destructive in and of our particular society. If the narrative told by those in power – that lying is acceptable, that people can be patronised and corrupted by meaningless slogans, that revenge can be taken against judges because the rule of law is to be subjugated to the rule of power, for example – clashes with the narrative of justice, mercy, integrity and accountability, then a stand must be taken.

Hence the role of the Lords Spiritual in the UK Parliament: whether welcome or not, to shine a possibly unique light on matters of our common life and, without fear or favour, to hold power to account. Not with any sense of entitlement or moral superiority, but, rather, with the confident humility that light must be shone.

(I am always struck when in the chamber of the House of Lords that I ’inhabit’ there a remarkable constitution. When (in the Queen’s Speech) the Monarch reads her Government’s legislative agenda before the executive, the legislature and the judiciary – the three legs of a stable parliamentary democracy – she does so in the name of God. The three legs do their work in the name of the monarch who recognises her accountability to God. But, if she looks up, she will see the statues of the twelve barons who drafted the Magna Carta and held King John to account at Runnymede in 1215. That is the political space we inhabit, even if it is difficult to explain.)

So, for example, when we hear language or policies that reduce human beings to economic cogs in someone else’s machine, we need to pay attention and more. When we hear the world spoken of in terms that assume domination instead of dominion, exploitative control instead of accountable stewardship (especially accountability to those generations not yet born), then our voices must be raised in questioning challenge. As John Gray has pointed out (from an atheistic perspective), “The distinctive contribution of Christianity to morality – which is reflected in liberalism now – is that if you think back to the ancient Roman world, then one feature that came in with Christianity was the idea that human beings, reflecting the nature of a Christian god, had some responsibility for not being cruel or not even tolerating cruelty… So this aspect of modern liberal morality – don’t be cruel to people – is hardly found in pre-Christian morality. It’s a gift of Jewish inheritance that Christianity continued.”

Remember who said: “Politics have no relation to morals”? It was Machiavelli. Enough said.

Tom Holland, whose brilliant book ‘Dominion’ describes how the morality of the western world and beyond was uniquely shaped by Christianity, despite the many devastating failures by Christians to live out their distinctive theology, quotes Zhivago’s uncle in Dr Zhivago: “You have to remember that until the dawn of the Christian era, the Mediterranean world was a world of slave empires.” As the new Conservative MP for Devizes, Danny Kruger, implied in his maiden speech in the House of Commons earlier this month, the sort of wisdom that informs and shapes good politics might well be found in the past and not just in the pragmatic present. Good politics needs a good answer to a good question: what is a human being and why do we matter?

These are the matters with which Luke Bretherton wrestles in his book ‘Christ and the Common Life’. I concur with his important observation about secularism and its assumptions: “It is traditions with a cosmic imagery that have the resources to foster the plurality and sense of contingency that is necessary for a faithfully secular, democratic, common-life politics. Without them the state and market have no epistemic, social or institutional limits.”

As Bretherton says: “Sustaining a common life requires commitment to a vision of human flourishing.” Christians – Anglicans in particular – must not be shy in helping to shape that common life by conscious and deliberate engagement in political life as citizens of this world who are drawn by the demands, freedoms and obligations of their citizenship of God’s Kingdom.

This is the text of a commissioned article published last week in the Church Times.

Whenever I go to New Broadcasting House in London I cant avoid the statue of George Orwell and the inscription on the wall beside it: If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. It is taken from Animal Farm, a book that has been selling well in the brave new world of alternative facts and populist politics.

As we know, liberty cannot be the sole preserve of those who claim the power to dictate its terms. Maturity can be identified where people are able to hear what is uncomfortable and reflect on its probity, even if this means changing an opinion or mindset. In other words, citizens, politicians, journalists, personalitiesand anyone else can reasonably be expected to behave like grown-ups, being unafraid to hear a different perspective.

The reason this matters is that we are now seeing before our very eyes a change in how governments handle uncomfortable news. Recently No 10 divided journalists into two lines in the hallway and told one line that they would not be admitted into a press conference. All the journalists walked out in an act of solidarity that in itself became widely seen as a touchstone of liberty. Although No 10 backtracked later and claimed there had been a misunderstanding, every journalist there saw it differently and recognised that this could not be conceded.

This comes on top of the Prime Minister refusing to subject himself to informed policy scrutiny during the general election, then preventing ministers from accepting invitations to appear on BBC Radio 4s Today programme. Petty revenge for past coverage? Fear of detailed analysis of policy or motive? Deliberate strategy to shut out public access to information to which they should, as citizens, be entitled? Well, take your pick.

Anyone in the public eye knows how frustrating it is to be misrepresented, misquoted criticised or ridiculed in the press or broadcast media. A dig into my blog over the last decade will reveal lots of examples of me taking journalists to task and asking for better, more intelligent and less ad hominem journalism. So, I understand why the Prime Minister might, under the direction of his employee Dominic Cummings, decide to communicate directly and without mediation to those with whom he wishes to speak. Digital and social media make this possible. Mainstream media can be bypassed, ignored or belittled in an attempt to control the narrative.

However, this brave new world brings with it significant dangers. As we are already witnessing, direct control of the messaging means avoidance of the sort of scrutiny upon which a genuine democracy depends. A chat show is not the same as being subjected to intelligent, informed and fearless interrogation. Three-word slogans only work so long as no one is allowed to question them, digging beneath the assumptions behind the words, pushing the meanings to see if they contain any substance. One of the lessons of the last three years must be that slogans trump facts where the public accountability of the powerful is simply denied by a refusal to be subject to open scrutiny.

I would say this, wouldnt I? A former professional linguist who worked in the intelligence world prior to ordination, I have not been coy about criticising the corruption of our public discourse, bemoaning the impunity of those who tell lies for a living and know they can get away with it, calling for a recovery of public and individual integrity on the part of public servants – which is what politicians are. US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson reportedly said in 1917, The first casualty when war comes is truth.I am not the first to challenge this: the first casualty is language. We should expect politicians and prime ministers to try to shape their messages in order to communicate well and clearly; but, we should be deeply suspicious when they deliberately avoid scrutiny or examination by experts who, on behalf of the people, hold them to account.

In this context we need to watch very carefully the governments approach to the BBC. If the BBC needs to hear what it doesnt want to hear, then the politicians who want to reform public service broadcasting cannot exempt themselves from scrutiny of their motive. Diminishing those who challenge the integrity or motivation of governments or their policies is what happens in countries not admired for their democratic credentials.

There is much at stake here for those who wish to deepen and not dilute democracy.

75 years ago tonight Allied bombers destroyed nearly 90% of buildings in the German city of Dresden, killing around 25,000 people. Dresden became synonymous with death by firestorm. I have spoken with people who were there and survived.

This is the text of an article published today in the Yorkshire Post to mark the anniversary.

Several years ago I stood in the pulpit of the Frauenkirche in Dresden and addressed an audience of 1200 Germans. It was a poignant moment for me. My parents had endured bombing by German aircraft over Liverpool from 1941 and I was familiar with the stories of destruction, death and fear. But,here I was, in an iconic German church in a different world, but with the scars of war all around me.

Let me put this in context. That same morning I had preached in Meissen Cathedral and had shaken hands with several hundred people as they left the service. The last man to leave refused to shake my hand. When I asked why, I was told that “I come from Dresden and what you did there was a war crime”. I replied that (a) I didn’t do it, and (b) no one wins in war … as my parents could confirm. After a silence he extended his hand. He was in the congregation in the Frauenkirche later that afternoon.

The event he described as a ‘war crime’ was the bombing of Dresden during the night of 13/14 February 1945 which caused a massive firestorm, the destruction of the historic city and the deaths of thousands of people. Allied bombers flew in waves and the cumulative effect of the bombing of the civilian population was devastating.

Of course, Dresden wasn’t the only city to be targeted in this way by the Allies. Arguments have continued to rage ever since as to whether there is some moral culpability – whether it was, in fact, a war crime – that has yet to be acknowledged. Should civilians have been deliberately attacked in this way?

Well, moral culpability in war is not an easy or straightforward matter. One German friend of mine, an academic theologian, wondered why I was spending time thinking about this: “We started it,” she said, “and have few grounds for complaint about what was done to us.” Not everyone agrees.

Frauenkirche, Dresden, with Pfarrer Sebastian Feydt

The Frauenkirche was almost totally destroyed during the attack of 13/14 February. It stood as a ruin in the centre of the old city until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and German reunification in 1990. Local citizens were asked what they would like restored first and their answer was unequivocal: rebuild the Frauenkirche, the symbol of spiritual and moral repentance, resilience, and hope. Reconstruction was completed in 2005 and I first visited it in 2009.

But this was not some nostalgic, overly-sentimentalised restoration. If you stand in the pulpit of the beautifully restored building to lead worship or speak to the congregation, they are looking past you to the Baroque altar. What they see is the original altar restored with new stone and carving, but with original scorched and blackened stones integrated into it. In other words, their eyes are confronted with that shattering remembering: that renewal cannot escape a coming to terms with the past. Healing involves confronting the guilt and the pain of past agonies – received from or inflicted on others – and not trying to whitewash a common moral responsibility.

Dresden has now been almost completely restored to its pre-war glory. Which is a little weird. Like Warsaw and some other destroyed cities, they have been rebuilt to look exactly as they did before the bombing. Rather than build something new, they went back to what was there before. I am not a psychologist, but this must be interesting for those who are. Is it a way of trying to imagine that the Weimar Republic and Third Reich had never happened? Or does it represent a determination to remember a golden age (as if there was ever such a thing), the memory of which reassures them that there was something good in their culture in the past?

This is complex stuff. What I have always encountered in Christians in Dresden – and I have good friends there – is a courageous commitment to face the past, but move on in the light of it. The Frauenkirche stands as a symbol of that commitment. At the heart of the city, the scorch marks in its very fabric cry out with the pain of lost lives and lost decades whilst beckoning us to not repeat the crimes of an earlier time. The black streaks in pale stone confront us with what happens when power lies in the hands of liars and charlatans who see other people as commodities to be traded or extinguished.

But, the wounds also speak of forgiveness and reconciliation. The scars – like those in the hands and side and feet of the risen Jesus Christ – don’t romanticise the pain, but whisper that pain and death do not have the last word. Reconciliation is possible. Healing is not impossible.

It will be interesting to see what role this church plays as Far Right political movements, founded here in Dresden, gain traction amongst the populace. Do we ever learn from history? Perhaps the Frauenkirche might continue to stand as a challenge to sloganizing populism of the sort that, in the hands of those powermongers who exploit chaos and fear,  quickly slides from indifference or selfishness to a dehumanising cruelty.