Today saw the recall of both Houses of Parliament to pay tribute to Jo Cox, the MP murdered last Thursday in her constituency of Batley and Spen.

I will catch up on tributes made in the Commons when I get home, but speeches in the Lords were powerful and moving. I spoke on behalf of the bishops, deciding not to repeat much of what had already been said more eloquently than I could have done.

The House adjourned at 3.35pm when we left in procession with MPs to a service at St Margaret's Church. It was a beautiful, poignant and appropriate service, with addresses by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Speaker's Chaplain following readings from both Old and New Testaments. Jo Cox's parents sat at the top end of the chancel; I sat with the Archbishop and the Prime Minister.

What impressed me was the weight of responsibility carried by the Prime Minister and colleagues. The fact that many present would differ strongly on policy, there is still a common humanity – something that only becomes evident when the veneer of the 'routine' is stripped away by tragedy and disruption. I felt strongly that our politicians are too easily categorised and demonised at the expense of their own humanity: they, too, are husbands, father, wives, daughters, and so on.

Anyway, my contribution to the tributes in the Lords can be seen here and read below:

My Lords, I speak on behalf of the Archbishops and Bishops and the Church of England. I do not want to repeat what has already been said but to associate ourselves with those remarks and offer deep sympathy to Brendan, the children and the wider family, and to the Members of the other place.

We live with our mortality and the fragility of civilisation. It is not very deep, and it can be easily penetrated. When I heard of Jo’s death, in my office in Leeds, I was reminded of those words from “Julius Caesar”:

“Cowards die many times before their deaths. The valiant never taste of death but once”.

There are many cowards around who have died inside, and Jo was the antithesis of that: she was full of life. She was passionate, she was intelligent and she was always generous. Her constituents, among whom I have spent the last few days, are unequivocal about that.

Jo said in her maiden speech that she was “made in Yorkshire” and went on to talk about manufacturing in Yorkshire. However, her credibility was not only that she was local, and that therefore people knew where she had grown up—her family still live there—but that she had travelled the world and engaged with issues, many of which we discuss but of which we have very little first-hand knowledge. If I want to hear about refugees, I prefer to hear someone who knows what they are talking about because they have been there. Jo Cox was certainly that.

Christians look through a resurrection-shaped lens called hope. Appalling though her death is, I want to pay tribute not only to her but to her constituents. Over the past weekend, they have had to engage with their own shock and grief and, in many cases, their anger. They have come together. Clergy have opened churches and mosques have been opened, and will continue to open, to create a common place where people can live with their emotions and responses and with their memories of Jo Cox, who was not only their MP but a daughter of their place.

We pray that Jo will rest in peace and that her family will find peace. I pray that Birstall will be remembered more for the manner of her living than for the manner of her dying. As we look to the future, from these Benches we say with confidence that death, violence and destruction cannot and will not have the final word. If we want to be the answer to our own prayers, and Psalm 23 makes it clear, then we are the people who will be the rod and the staff that will enable her friends and her family to continue as life continues for them.

 

Well, we didn't see that one coming, did we? The Archbishop of Canterbury has had to rethink who he actually is. As was revealed in the Daily Telegraph last night, his father turns out not to be his biological father after all, and his real father was another man with an 'interesting' life.

The Archbishop has demonstrated once again why he is the right man for the job. Look at his statement. Not a shred of self-pity or any attempt to use this news for some politico-emotional gain. His identity is secure in being known and loved by God (and I had no idea this was coming when I did Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 yesterday morning and quoted the same Psalm) – in being “in Christ”. No excuses rooted in genetics – no loss of perspective, given the recognition that people have to deal with such news every day (and worse). His senses of humour and irony have not gone – his security as a person remains intact. His theology is big enough to cope with challenge.

It is also worth remarking that Charles Moore's handling of both the investigation and the reporting of the result have been a model of good journalism. There was no sensationalism and no prurience – just clear, sensitive and humane observation on response to reality. It is very impressive and clearly a model of how journalism can work in the public interest with the parties being observed.

But, it is unfortunate for the Prime Minister that this revelation has coincided with a torrid week for David Cameron and his family. The truth about his benefits from offshore investments has had to be dragged out of him. Today even he admits it could have been handled better. And the political hounds are in pursuit.

It is not hard to recognise the case against David Cameron in his apparent obfuscation while in a public office that has demanded transparency from others. And he would certainly not be surprised to see people like me adding to the pain.

But, I feel sympathy for him. He is a human being and he has a family. He has always known who his father is. And this week the human being has been in tension with the public being in a world in which there is little room (or sympathy) for both. How do you cope with trying to protect your memory of your own father when it is under attack – not for its own sake, but because of who the son is and what he does for a living?

Now, I realise that people will respond that he chose to be in office and has to take what goes with it. I get that completely. Then they will argue that hypocrisy is unacceptable in public office, and, again, I will agree (even if even those who complain about the hypocrisy of others ignore their own hypocrisies). Next they will claim that this is bigger than just one prime minister or one politician, and that this is just one obvious symptom of a deeper and wider systemic corruption – one inherent to the unjust world in which we live. And I will nod to that one, too. And, just to be clear, I think the whole “offshore tax avoidance or money laundering” thing is scandalous and wrong.

But, I also see a man trying to not have his dad rubbished in public in a way that dehumanises.

OK, David Cameron deserves the scrutiny and some criticism. But, let's not forget the man behind the office (even if we insist on reminding him and his government of the human faces and vulnerabilities subject to some of the ideological policies that shape their lives and relationships and memories).

The Archbishop of Canterbury now has to consider his shaping of the memory of two men: the one he thought was his father and the man who he now knows is his father. The Prime Minister has to hold on to the memory of his father while abstracting himself from that in order to do the moral politics his office demands. I sympathise with both men.

 

This is the text of an op-ed article I published in the Yorkshire Post this morning:

The Prime Minister has been clear that the UK’s response to the refugee crisis has to engage both head and heart. He is right. To divorce one from the other is not a good thing to do.

It has also been argued that policy should not be made on the basis of an emotional reaction to a distressing photograph on the front page of a newspaper. Yet, the photograph of a drowned little boy became the icon that transformed “swarms” and “hundreds of thousands” into the raw and defenceless humanity whose fragility is easier to relate to. There is a human face to each individual refugee.

So, the current migration crisis in Europe – driven by the destructive violence of dysfunctional countries in the Middle East and northern Africa – is a tragedy of such enormous proportions that we have to respond with the heart (and our hands) in order to address the immediate plight of stricken people. There is little point holding committee meetings to discuss politics if the people the policies are aimed at helping die before the deliberations are complete.

Yet, the Prime Minister is right to insist that the head be engaged. We can rightly be caught up in the immediate anguish about the plight of so many refugees – particularly children who have no family, no home and no obvious future. But, we also need to do the cool work of assessing the implications of the compassionate response we offer.

So, it seems to me that the massive popular response of practical compassion is both powerful and moving. It is also challenging: are we prepared to still be supportive in ten or twenty years time when the consequences of our compassion have to be lived with?

The Archbishop of Canterbury has been clear in recognizing the complexity of the situation, but also in demanding a clearer response by the UK Government to the crisis: “Now, perhaps more than ever in post-war Europe, we need to commit to joint action across Europe, acknowledging our common responsibility and our common humanity. As Christians we believe we are called to break down barriers, to welcome the stranger and love them as ourselves (Leviticus 19:34), and to seek the peace and justice of our God, in our world, today… We need a holistic response to this crisis that meets immediate humanitarian need while tackling its underlying drivers.

This statement recognizes the challenges of finding a common strategic response to a situation of chaotic origin. It should not be surprising that millions of people feel they have no option but to flee from appalling violence, nihilism and destructiveness. And it should not be surprising that they want to come to Europe when we have spent generations praising the standards of living and relatively peaceful nature of the Europe we have created since the Second World War. It has become a test of our humanity as to whether we respond with practical compassion to our fellow human beings or leave them to their own fate.

Some politicians and commentators are suggesting that we can't solve the problem (principally, but not exclusively) in Syria by simply taking more and more refugees – and reasonably make the case that to do so simply feeds the human traffickers. They are right to insist that more strategic attention has to be paid to tackling the problem at source – especially as so many of the problems have arisen partly as a consequence of western military intervention in places that have now collapsed into violence.

But, this is not an ‘either-or’ conundrum. The Prime Minister has been reported as saying that “we can't take any more”. But, this is not a given – it is a choice. We can take more refugees – we choose not to. That is a different matter.

Conversely, we can choose to take any number of refugees we like, but only if we do so knowing that we must then – willingly and generously – pay the price for doing so. After all, many countries in Europe took in millions of migrants during and after the last world war, and this at a time of poverty, crisis and economic privation. We now have more than the means to address our human and moral obligations; the question is simply whether we choose to do so or not.

To do nothing is to choose. And that choice also is a moral one.

Perhaps the compassionate and costly response of Germany has something to do with a living memory of such humanitarian need on their own land and caused by their own choices. There is no reason why we on our island should not demonstrate a similar compassionate imagination. Furthermore, if not already being done with some urgency, other Middle Eastern countries (probably excluding Jordan which has already absorbed huge numbers during the last few years) should be pressured to take refugees – something they seem not to be keen to do.

Many groups in society – including churches – have responded with remarkable love and care, seeking partnership with local authorities and other groups. We must be prepared for the long haul and not just the quick fix.

Well, if we had any suspicion about polls before, we certainly do now. And, if we needed any confirmation that politicians should tell us the truth and not play to the polls, we certainly have it now.

Like almost everyone else (including the Prime Minister), I expected another coalition and a bit of a mess for the months and years ahead – whichever party had won the right to form a government. I wondered how long we would continue to play ‘majority party’ games in a coalition world. And I pondered on what the role of the church would be under the rolling out of different scenarios.

wpid-Photo-29-Oct-2013-1402.jpgInterestingly (for me, at least), what I intended to write following the election has not been changed by the outcome. Whichever party had ‘won’, the church’s remit would have been the same: to pray for those who govern, to recognise the will of the people as expressed in the election (although that is more complicated to order under the first-past-the-post system), to hold government to account (along with others) by questioning both policy and implementation, to defend the weak and speak for those whose voice is silenced, and to model how leaders might show an openness to listen and learn – changing their mind when necessary and appropriate.

Given the competition to out-do each other in being ‘hard’ on some issues – both economic and social – this critique would have been equally valid whichever party had been elected to govern. The Labour Party would have been as open to this as will, now, the Conservative Party.

Politics is a brutal business, and there are many bruised casualties of last Thursday’s vote. Those who put themselves forward for public office deserve our thanks and not our opprobrium. But, a further casualty of this election campaign was truth. We get the politics we deserve – and we go along with processes in which politicians play the games we allow them to play. The trading of policies almost daily was embarrassing and, sometimes, confusing. The economy might well be the basis on which elections are won or lost, but much of the rhetoric on all sides was competitive obfuscating mirage – and apparently based on the assumption that a market society (as opposed to a market economy) is what we have all now settled for. If we have, we are stuffed.

This is where we need to continue pressing our politicians for the vision that fires their policies, and the basis of that vision. And it is where we need to keep on questioning whether the economy is there for people, or people there for the economy. There is a fundamental visionary distinction there, but it is not always clear whether that distinction is recognised.

The Prime Minister and his colleagues now deserve and need our prayers as he and they negotiate a raft of contentious issues and play the parliamentary numbers game. It is going to be an interesting ride, but I suspect it is not going to be a comfortable one … for anyone.

It is an interesting week for words. Try these:

1. CLEAR: When will politicians realise that repeatedly using the word ‘clear’ does not actually make their view or policy clear? It is very odd to keep hearing it – in almost every statement. Saying something is clear doesn’t make it clear any more than saying something is good actually makes it good.

2. PLAN: Miliband and Cameron have a ‘plan’. We know this because they keep telling us. We get glimpses of what these and might look like, but we don’t get any idea of what the vision is that will shape their respective plans. On the other hand, it would be a bit weird if they didn’t have a plan, wouldn’t it? But, why do they need to keep telling us they have one?

3. AMORAL: In his Easter message, David Cameron pleads with those who disagree with his policies not to dismiss him as ‘amoral’. Fair enough. But, who has dismissed him as amoral? Disagreement with policies also surely cannot be dismissed as merely dismissive, rather than principled. Bishops seem to be a target, but our recent Pastoral Letter was also theologically and morally driven – and should not be dismissed by politicians who find that moral and theological basis inconvenient or objectionable.

4. EASTER: According to the Prime Minister, “Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children.” Oh. I thought it was about the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I applaud David Cameron’s defence of the place of faith in the public square, but he can’t escape the cultural and political dynamic that reduces (legitimate) subversive religious vision to some bland appeal for community cohesion.

5. SYMPATHY: This is what I feel for all politicians, especially party leaders. They are partly trapped in a culture that the rest of us either foster or accept – one that expects them to have a view on everything and an ability to perform an act before an audience. Driven by the media we pay for, we don’t allow leaders to change their mind, learn to learn, or develop their thinking-based-on-experience. We are the poorer for it.

In his book Culture and the Death of God Terry Eagleton quotes Voltaire being rude about the English. “They give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts,” he said. I guess his point was that the English are cool about religion, hating extremes and being wary of enthusiasm. It also suggests, though, that the English are concerned only with money, and that the greatest blasphemy is to lose it.

But, heard in today's world, it questions our basic values and what, essentially, we consider to be worth living and dying for – or, at least, what we consider worth allowing others to die for.

At the end of August I wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in which I put a series of questions about British foreign policy in the Middle East and its coherence within a clear strategy for realising a thought-through vision. The letter caused a bit of a media storm when it was published in the Observer newspaper. The PM was – understandably – not pleased.

When I received a long, helpful and detailed response from David Cameron, he addressed some questions more clearly than others; but, it was certainly not a fob-off response. I replied to his letter recently and pressed certain points.

As I said at the time, my purpose in writing the letter was to articulate what I thought to be the focused questions that went to the heart of people's concerns about what was going on particularly (but not exclusively) in Syria and Northern Iraq. What, I asked, is the overarching vision that guides responses to the particular crises that keep exploding? In my response I explained that the reason for allowing the Observer to publish the letter was that too many people were writing to ministers and MPs with serious concerns about the plight of suffering people and simply getting no response – including the Archbishop of York. For weeks. My approach certainly got the debate out into the public and media and placed the question of coherence at the top of the agenda.

Or did it?

Parliament is being recalled on Friday in order to – and I quote the BBC news report I heard on the way to the airport this morning, prior to writing this post on the flight to Berlin – “endorse military attacks on Islamic State”. Not to debate and decide, but to endorse a decision already made.

Now, the morality of this decision will be for another discussion. What concerns me here is the strategic purpose of the decision. What I meant in my question about coherence and (ad hoc) reaction is this: how do we avoid foreign policy commitments that simply respond pragmatically to short-term stimuli whereby yesterday's friend (to whom we supplied arms and money) becomes my enemy and today's enemy becomes my reluctant friend simply because he happens – for now, at least – to be my new enemy's enemy?

Is the planned use of violence part of a coherent long-term plan, or a short-term pragmatic response to an immediate stimulus – which might cause problems down the line which haven't been thought through properly now? Killing terrorists is the easy bit.

One of the problems with our politics is that we don't allow space for doubt. Repeatedly stating that “our policy is clear” does not make that policy clear, any more than me repeatedly saying I am a banana makes me yellow. But, politicians aren't allowed to ask difficult questions publicly because (apparently) we, the electorate, want clarity and certainty. Not always helpful, is it? I, for one, would prefer honesty – and some clarity about what would be gained and lost by any particular policy, without the pretence that every policy has to be 100% clear and certain. And right.

So, what have I learned from recent correspondence? (a) If the overarching vision and strategy are clear and coherent, then I still can't see it. Perhaps that says more about my limited mind than it does about policy. (b) What is very clear, however, is that there is no intention to make any asylum provision for IS refugees beyond what is already open to people wanting to claim asylum in the UK. I suspect this is because the PM (but other leaders are not breaking ranks on this) sees electoral suicide in doing anything that feeds UKIP or associates such provision with toxic immigration contamination. The only way to get around this is for those – particularly Christians – who don't like this to bombard party leaders and MPs with very focused letters that demonstrate that not all voters are xenophobic. (c) Asylum provision should be made, but should not be a tool for encouraging the evacuation of Christians and other minorities from the Middle East where they have been for centuries and where their spiritual, social and cultural contribution must not be lost. The stakes are high.

Incidentally, the two unanswered questions put down in the House of Lords by the Bishop of Coventry regarding asylum were eventually answered on 15 September by Lord Wallace of Saltaire. They read as follows:

“There are no current plans to resettle those displaced from ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq. However, we are proud of the UK's record of offering protection to those genuinely in need, and the Government will of course continue to consider asylum claims, including from Iraqi nationals suffering religious persecution, under the normal rules.”

“The safety and security of the UK are our priority. An essential part of delivering this is knowing who is coming to the UK and carrying out all necessary checks in advance of their arrival. We therefore ensure that the necessary checks are undertaken before those accepted on the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme arrive in the UK. We have also been working with local partners, including local authorities, the police and healthcare sector, to ensure the safeguarding of individuals on the scheme when they arrive in the UK.”

Was Voltaire right in his assessment of the English? Discuss.

(And the reason it has taken me so long to post on this blog is simply that I have been working all hours for weeks – the creation of this new diocese is a little demanding at present – and haven't had the headspace or time to write. And, coincidentally, I am now in Berlin with the Meissen Commission, having spent time today in the Reichstag being hugely impressed with the approach and deep thinking of German political leaders.)

PS. Letters from anonymous people who don't have the courage to put their name and contact details on their communication will be disappointed that all their green ink was spilled in vain. I don't even read anonymous letters – they go straight in the bin.

 

A letter was published in the Daily Telegraph this morning, signed by fifty eminent people, in which they criticise the Prime Minister’s article of faith published in the Church Times last week.

The letter itself is fairly unremarkable – and certainly not a surprise – although why such people think it is worth all the energy, time and activity involved in getting such a number of signatures, still beats me.

The statistics cited are, of course, at variance to other published statistics (e.g. the 2011 Census), but that is in the nature of statistics and we draw to our defence those that suit our argument the best. So, I won’t waste time arguing with the numbers.

What is bizarre is the charge that the Prime Minister, by saying what he said, “fosters alienation and division in our society.” That ” this needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates that are by and large absent from the lives of most British people, who do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government.” Good grief!

First, if politicians were to refrain from saying anything ‘divisive’, they would be silent. Any stated viewpoint or priority is by definition ‘divisive’ as there will always be people who strongly disagree. The use of potential ‘divisiveness’ as a charge against anything inconvenient is ridiculous. Presumably, the divisiveness caused by publishing this letter is to be excused?

Secondly, why should ‘secular humanism’ be prioritised above other world views or identities? There is no neutral territory – something is always being prioritised over other preferences. That is a fact of life. And if you want a purely relativistic world view to dominate (which is a perfectly legitimate thing to want), you can’t then decide to absolutise certain priorities or assumptions.

‘Fostering division’ is a phrase that should be dropped as a threat. Anyone can use it and, being a threat, of course, there is no evidence that it has or does.

Having had a big needle in my shoulder yesterday, I followed the Syria crisis developments without knowing whether to or how to respond. So much has been said and is being said that adding to it seems pointless. Nevertheless, ahead of the debate in the UK Parliament yesterday, Dr Charles Reed offered a concise elucidation of 'just war theory' (in a series of short blog posts) in order to provide a framework for ethical thinking in relation to the decisions to be made.

No one doubts the seriousness of the issue, and any sign of gloating over David Cameron's 'humiliation' in the House of Commons last night simply demonstrates the ethical confusion that is around. The debate seemed – to me, at least – to revolve around pragmatic questions of achievability rather than questions of ethical consistency. And that is not a criticism. It was not clear what the objective of military action should be and, if done, how its effectiveness might be gauged.

Perhaps these questions focus the matter a little more sharply:

  • Is military action intended to deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons and, if so, what action might achievably serve as an effective deterrent?
  • Is military action intended to weaken Assad's military strength and disrupt his ability to fight his civil war – and, if so, how achievable is this, especially when the civil war is being fought by monsters on both sides?
  • Is military action intended to target stocks of chemical weapons and render them useless – and, if so, how does blowing them up not create an even bigger chemical problem?
  • Why is mass murder using chemical weapons the trigger for military intervention when sustained and systematic mass murder using 'conventional' weaponry was not?
  • Is military action intended to make a difference on the ground in Syria, or to salve the consciences of those who look on helplessly from outside?
  • What is the point of the United Nations when resolutions can be sought, but subsequently overridden by 'exceptional circumstances'?

Contrary to some assertions in the last few weeks, chemical weapons have been used more recently. Saddam Hussein used them against the Kurds. I seem to remember that it was the West that funded and equipped Saddam during the 1980s when our later enemy was our friend because he opposed our then enemy Iran. Can someone remind me who paid for the chemical weapons and who supplied them?

It seems to me that democracy worked last night and for that we should be grateful. Recriminations for political decisions should not take our eye away from what is happening to innocent people in Syria. The regime is behaving barbarically, but so are the rebels. As in the 1980s with Iran and Iraq, taking a short-term approach to funding, equipping and supporting one faction (Islamist fundamentalists, for example) now will lead inexorably to further injustices, cruelties and problems later. That is what history tells us, but what we find hard to learn.

David Cameron's political misjudgement or humiliation is irrelevant. The point of this whole business is how to find an effective way of galvanising international power to bring an end to the brutal civil war in Syria. Our MPs have reflected what seems to be the mood of the country – which, of course, doesn't make it right – and declined the use of military force by the UK. So, what is now their alternative strategy? My guess is that it lies somewhere in diplomatic battles with Russia, China and Iran – however difficult that may be. And Obama must decide, having taken a longer-term view, what will be most effective rather than what might make the USA look strong. This is about Syria, not the political power of 'us' and 'ours'.

In conclusion, I just wonder how those who now 'humiliate' David Cameron would be reacting if Tony Blair's 'winning the vote' over Iraq had equally failed. Would we then have praised the power of democracy – or would we have called for his head for having put his case to Parliament and failed? I would give Cameron some space: he is asking the right questions and they have not gone away just because the UK has vetoed the possible use of our forces in an intervention.

 

Too much travel and too many meetings make it hard to hit the keypad and write stuff here. But, today’s ridiculous preoccupation with David Cameron’s abandonment of his daughter in a pub forced the issue.

Apparently, the Prime Minister and his family went for a pub lunch with friends a couple of months ago. They got in separate cars to go home and only discovered when they got home that their daughter Nancy wasn’t with either of them. She had gone to the loo and got forgotten – being picked up 15 minutes later by a ‘distraught’ father.

I wonder if he was actually ‘distraught’ because he knew the media would get the story and make a meal of it?

Now, I can think of many reasons for criticising David Cameron. In fact, make that ‘many, many reasons’, starting with his policies, going though his values and continuing along the road of his leadership competence. But, to spend a whole day debating his parental competence is just absurd. If anything it exposes the pathetic lack of perspective offered by people who like to point a finger and sneer behind a hand. He didn’t abandon his daughter and she was totally safe while she waited to be picked up.

In other words, this is a non-story. Except, of course, in the hands of those who think it contributes to a growing picture of an incompetent man. Give the guy a break! I don’t ever remember losing my kids in a pub, but I do remember losing sight of my son on the beach once. Cue the media to rubbish my performance as a bishop and a human being.

While I’m at it, what’s all the nonsense about the PM relaxing too much? Haven’t we all complained that people in high-pressure jobs like his need to be counter-cultural and learn to get some space? You know, for weird stuff like thinking or dreaming or reflecting or reading or playing a game? Don’t we constantly hear of PMs from earlier days who used to read widely and write books while thinking about politics and the ways of the world? And don’t we constantly wish our PMs would think more deeply, act more wisely and live more healthily?

Maybe. But we also admire the French for having lunch breaks and sleeping properly at night. And we persist in this ridiculous notion that the PM must flog himself to death just to prove he isn’t slacking while there is so much to do in a tough old world out there. This all becomes a PR game in which too much energy, time and talk goes into creating images instead of dealing with reality.

Time to grow up, I think.

(I forgot to note that the ‘Nancy affair’ reminded me immediately of the episode in the gospels when Mary and Joseph forgot Jesus and left him in Jerusalem for several days. At least when Dave got back to the pub Nancy wasn’t having an argument with the local vicar…)

Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a speech yesterday in which he praised the impact of the King James Bible, stamped all over the nonsense assumption of secular neutrality, and called for Christians to be confident about their faith, the Bible and their right (nay, responsibility) to speak into public life. Not surprisingly, it has caused a bit of a stir amongst the commentariat whose assumptions got a bit of a kicking.

Cameron was speaking in an Anglican cathedral, so was duly confident in his laudatory observations on the impact of the King James Bible. He also used the occasion to give the Church of England a bit of a kick in relation to its wrangles over women and sexuality. Fair game, I say. And it was good to hear a British politician ‘do God’ without embarrassment, hesitation or self-exonerating caveat.

But, having praised the phenomenon and some of the content, I am still left with a cautious hesitation myself. And I think I know why this is.

He managed to talk up the language of the Bible without really referring to the content of it. Yes, the KJV has powerfully influenced our language and, proclaimed by the Church, has shaped our culture and law as well as our worship. But, we can’t just leave it there.

It reminds me of a rude remark I made recently at an interfaith gathering. I said that many of the global interfaith conferences I attend are a bit like a glorified BT commercial: ‘It’s good to talk’… provided we don’t actually talk about anything. Yet, avoiding ‘content’ is a sure way to waste time and money on non-engagement and the fostering of a false sense of coherence when all we have done is avoid speaking about ‘content’ that might prove contentious. Of course, this is a caricature, but it made the point: we have to move beyond talking about talking to talking about something.

Well, Cameron lauded the language and spoke eloquently about the need for moral codes and ethical foundations in private as well as public life. He argued for a thought-through moral and spiritual basis for our ethics – rather than just assuming one.

But, the problem with the Bible is that as soon as you get beyond the language to what it says, you begin to find it challenging – on lots of fronts. Beautiful language is a means to comprehension, not an end in itself. And it’s taking a bit of a risk challenging the Church of England on its ethical conflicts when those conflicts arise precisely from going through the language and on to conflicted ways of reading the text in its integrity. So, it is alright for the Prime Minister to “recognise the impact of a translation that is, I believe, one of this country’s greatest achievements” and to claim that “the King James Bible is as relevant today as at any point in its 400 year history” as long as we don’t delve too deeply into what it says. He goes on:

One of my favourites is the line “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” It is a brilliant summation of the profound sense that there is more to life, that we are imperfect, that we get things wrong, that we should strive to see beyond our own perspective. The key word is darkly – profoundly loaded, with many shades of meaning. I feel the power is lost in some more literal translations. The New International Version says: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror”. The Good News Bible: “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror”. They feel not just a bit less special but dry and cold, and don’t quite have the same magic and meaning.”

I take the point (and basically agree with him), but the Bible isn’t meant to dazzle us with poetic magic; it is meant to open us to the mind of God… which tends to be a little bit challenging.

Like Shakespeare, the King James translation dates from a period when the written word was intended to be read aloud. And this helps to give it a poetic power and sheer resonance that in my view is not matched by any subsequent translation.

Again, point taken. But, resonance isn’t enough. It isn’t a performance prop. Like with Shakespeare, it is possible to enjoy the spectacle and experience of a play while going home oblivious to the point of it all. It won’t kill you, but you are missing out on rather a lot.

Cameron (or whoever wrote the basic text) does a good job of exposing assumptions of neutrality, affirming the role of the Bible in the development of British politics and culture, the fundamental power of biblical anthropology in shaping what would now rather weakly be called ‘human rights’, and the importance of biblically informed theological and spiritual motivation in social altruism. He says:

The Bible has helped to shape the values which define our country. Indeed, as Margaret Thatcher once said, “we are a nation whose ideals are founded on the Bible.” Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love… pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities… these are the values we treasure. Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that.

I didn’t know we were afraid to acknowledge that. But, we are not told which biblical origins these virtues are derived from… or just how to deal with the fact that some people who read that same Bible will not recognise in the same way Cameron does how those virtues should be worked out in concrete priorities, policies or practices. He is absolutely right to knock on the head the utter nonsense that confident Christianity confounds those of other faiths – usually a patronising and ignorant gesture from secular humanists who think they know better than Muslims what offends them. Christianity has indeed created the space in which all people can freely worship or not.

However, Cameron’s conclusion made me wince a little – not at what he said, but at the unarticulated assumptions behind it:

I believe the Church of England has a unique opportunity to help shape the future of our communities. But to do so it must keep on the agenda that speaks to the whole country. The future of our country is at a pivotal moment. The values we draw from the Bible go to the heart of what it means to belong in this country
…and you, as the Church of England, can help ensure that it stays that way.

And what might the ‘agenda that speaks to the whole country’ actually be? I suspect it has to do with stuff that some Christians, precisely because of their reading of the Bible – in whatever translation – believe is contentious on moral grounds. I am not saying they are right or wrong; my point is simply that Cameron’s point is itself contentious… as soon as you move beyond vague generalities about ‘values’ and ‘magic’ and into the text itself.

But, maybe he has just opened the door a little to a willingness to take the content of the Bible seriously and invite people to look at the text itself rather than some general or selective bits of nice language. (‘The Word became flesh’… which is when it all got a bit difficult…)

Two cheers for a brave and serious speech. One cheer reserved for the reservations above.