This is the script of an article written in London within hours of being released from Westminster Abbey in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Parliament yesterday. It was published in the Yorkshire Post this morning.

When I got to the Bishops’ Room in the House of Lords on Wednesday morning the screen above me said ‘Threat Level Severe’. It usually says that. And I usually ignore it. I park my coat, grab the papers for the day’s sitting, then head for the library or the tea room.

That particular day I had some meetings before preparing to lead Prayers in the chamber at 3pm. I was already in there when a colleague told me that something had happened outside. Within minutes we were locked down and told to remain in the chamber. The rest is, as they say, history.

Having been moved by heavily armed and camouflaged police to a courtyard at the other end of the Palace of Westminster, we could look through the archway to the scene where the policeman Keith Palmer had been killed by a terrorist. The story of the mayhem outside was beginning to drip through. School children on a visit to Parliament were kept with us while we awaited further instruction. Having been moved into Westminster Hall, scene of many triumphs and tragedies throughout history, we were eventually taken over to Westminster Abbey where we remained until released around 9pm.

From a Palace of democracy to an Abbey of prayer.

The police were magnificent throughout. The emergency services were massively impressive. Parliamentary staff were utterly professional. Westminster Abbey swung into action and showed not only pastoral care (and prayer), but also the hospitality that characterises such places. Parliamentarians, visitors and officials – more than 1,000 of us – used the time to talk and wait and conduct the sort of human relationships that defy the chaos that some would wish to reap. People around Westminster showed courage and compassion, helping the injured and dying on the bridge, holding those whose life had been horribly changed for ever.

Here we saw the worst and the best of humanity. And here we saw the brutal reality of human mortality in a world that shares both fragile beauty and appalling violence.

I am writing this only two hours after getting out of Westminster, so my thoughts are immediate rather than considered. But, my thoughts are irrelevant to those of the families torn apart by this particular violence. So, why offer them now?

Well, it is human to wish to bring order out of chaos, to make some shape from the destructive formlessness of mayhem. In the coming days millions of words will be written and spoken about how this criminal tragedy happened. Many will provide analysis, others judgment. Assumptions will be made about the motives or mental state of the perpetrator. And, no doubt, his religious affiliation – should there have been one – will be held up for inspection and condemnation. And why not?

The problem with religion is that it involves people. Violence is not a religious problem, it is primarily a human one. It all too often has a religious root or complexion, but violence is not the sole preserve of religious individuals or communities. If you don’t believe me, then look at the mass murders that characterised the 20th century. But, that does not exonerate or excuse violence when it does have a religious root.

Human beings seem to find violence and destructiveness quite easy to slip into. Yet, at the heart of Christian faith is a man who was crucified by religious and pagan imperial powers that couldn’t cope with love or mercy or forgiveness or generosity. Jesus wasn’t a mere do-gooder who annoyed people by telling them to be endlessly nice to each other. Rather, he got nailed because he lived and embodied and taught a faith that was so radical that it placed a huge question mark above the natural impulses of human beings to love power.

And yet even those who follow him find it easy to miss the point and turn protection of the faith into a commodity of power or preservation.

And Christians are not alone in this. Religious people are always prone to lose the heart of their faith to a divine construct designed to justify their own narrow interests. This is why the Old Testament prophets cry out at the tragic irony of a people who worship a merciful God whilst displaying anything but mercy to those around them. It is a scandal. But, it is also deeply human.

So, what is there to say about the carnage in Westminster? Well, it happened. It is impossible to have total security. The Palace of Westminster is about as intimidating as you can get: armed police everywhere, security checks at every entrance and exit, concrete blocks and solid railings surround the buildings. But, there is no such thing as total security. Determined people, lone-wolves set on murder and mayhem, will not be stopped by barricades. It is the responsibility of everyone to be alert to danger.

And now life must carry on. Parliament resumes and I shall lead Prayers at 11am on Thursday. We will express our grief, shock and sadness – especially for those killed, injured, bereaved or traumatised by the events of Wednesday. But, then we shall carry on and do our business in the two Houses of Parliament. Democracy will not be damned by this violence.

The murderer would have been disappointed to find that he didn’t stop the world – he just got off while we carry on.

The beginning of wisdom, says the Book of Proverbs, is fear of God. This means simply that when we acknowledge our own human fragility, weakness and accountability to more than ourselves, we begin to live with humility, generosity and carefulness. It might sound a bit deep, but it is this wisdom that emerges from Westminster today: that we might reflect the mercy of God in how we serve one another – especially where innocent blood is shed.

 

Before resuming debate on the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill the House took four oral questions. Lord (Norman) Tebbitt, commenting on emissions of nitrous oxide from cars in London, was invited to “get on his bike”.

OK, you had to be there…

The final straight of the Brexit debate then resumed. I cannot speak in the debate because to do so I would have had to be in the chamber yesterday as well as today. (In a listed debate you have to be there for the beginning and the end of the debate, and this one is taking two full days – 184 speakers.)

Many speeches have been informed, passionate, realistic, pragmatic, principled and intelligent. Read the record in Hansard. But, the consensus is clear: the UK must leave the EU and the Government has to be given the power to trigger Article 50. However, there is not consensus about whether or not the House of Lords should allow itself to be intimidated into ducking its responsibilities under the constitution to scrutinise legislation that comes from the House of Commons. Threats to abolish the Lords if they dare to do their job is not worthy of a mature democratic discourse.

I think Lord Birt probably summed up what even many Brexiteers in the House believe, however reluctantly, when he began his speech last night as follows:

My Lords, I was a passionate remainer but I will vote to pass this Bill without a moment’s pause for we simply must respect the people’s choice. However, we are woefully underprepared for the gigantic challenges ahead.

There is no sense here – despite the slurs to the contrary – that peers wish to delay the inevitable, or that amendments are being put down in order to frustrate the “will of the people”. Assertion (that all will be well) is not the same as argument (for how best to ensure that it may be well). Amendments are intended to ensure that debate is had and questions addressed.

It is clear that the Lords will not stop Article 50 from being triggered. But, the central plank of the Brexit campaign – that parliamentary sovereignty be restored to “the people” of the UK – surely means that this parliament should be encouraged to do its job as part of the democratic process.

Does anyone really think that had the referendum gone the other way, the Leavers would have declared, “Well, the people have spoken and we must shut up, accept it and embrace membership of the EU without comment, demur or debate”?

“The people” include not only the 48% who voted to remain in the EU, but also those younger people who have (or will have before the two-year negotiation period is concluded) reached the magic age of suffrage – and will endure or enjoy the consequences of “the deal” that is done on their behalf. The people have spoken, but the concerns of nearly half of them also need to be heard as together we build the new country and settlement chosen by the majority in the referendum.

Despite all the bold assertions, “we are woefully underprepared for the gigantic challenges ahead”.

Yesterday was an odd one. It was Yorkshire Day here in … er … Yorkshire – the annual celebration of the White Rose counties just south of 'Desolation'. It was also Swiss National Day – which caused me to say, at the start of an address in Skipton, that we should tip our hats to Toblerone and recognise that William Tell would never get a clean CRB for shooting a crossbow at an apple on the head of some kid.

But, if moving elegantly – if bizarrely – from lessons learned in my last two years in Yorkshire (including when it is unwise to go anywhere without a 'priest' and a 'condom') to the human vocation to be generous to outsiders (it all has to do with Deuteronomy 26, never forgetting your origins as homeless people, and making space for the strangers) seems odd, then have a look at today's news.

The US Secretary of State has called the military coup in Egypt “restoring democracy“. So, whatever we might think of its behaviour and policies in office, a democratically elected government is ousted by the armed forces and this is “restoring democracy”? Forgive the rest of us simpletons for having trouble with this notion – which sounds like it came out of 1984. This has nothing to do with Morsi's credentials or the Muslim Brotherhood's real intentions, but a lot to do with principles. How many other 'democracies' might be overturned by the military because they don't like who got freely elected – only to find this approved by the USA?

On the other hand, the US administration is furious at Russia's decision to grant Edward Snowden one year's asylum in their country – not one renowned for upholding human rights or freedom of information. But, if a Russian exposed what the Russian secret services were doing to bug the world's communications systems, would the US simply return him to Russia at Putin's request? 'Our' spies are always traitors; others' spies are always courageous heroes. And isn't there something profoundly undemocratic about a surveillance state harvesting electronic communications indiscriminately and without the sanction or knowledge of those who elected them?

However serious we need to be about having an intelligent and informed debate in the UK about immigration, the current output of the UK Government on Twitter (@ukhomeoffice) on the matter is disturbing. The feed regularly updates the number of people being arrested and where they are. You don't have to be a defender of illegal immigration to find this sort of reporting by a government department as worrying. If, for example, the Zimbabwean Government did a similar thing, would we find it acceptable – or deliberately intimidating? Campaigns of fear are questionable at best.

Which brings us back to the irony of Deuteronomy and the injunction to have rituals whereby we compel ourselves to remember where we have come from and that we are all transient in one way or another. I spoke at the service today in Yorkshire, a county that owes much of its industrial growth in previous generations to immigrants (in Bradford's case, from Ireland and Germany) and much of its entrepreneurial development now to newer generations of immigrants (from South Asia and beyond).

The terms in which we currently 'debate' immigration in the UK cast a dark moral shadow. It is a strange world we live in.

(And a 'priest' is the wooden thing you hit a fish with when you have caught it; a 'flying condom' is a spinner, apparently – although I erroneously called it a 'fly'. Just proves I am at heart a city boy.)

 

1. What do governments (and the rest of us, for that matter) think intelligence/espionage services really do with their time… and is there a clue in the title?

2. Was there a sadder face at Wimbledon than Laura Robson's today?

3. Is Edward Snowden so desperate that he thinks for one minute that Russia – the mighty, ruthlessly pragmatic and politically unsentimental Bear – might be a safe place to seek asylum from the USA?

4. Why were some of us dismissed when, during the Arab Spring, we urged a longer-term view (before declaring, as a US President once did, “Mission Accomplished!”) and suggested that pulling an existing system down is quicker and easier than establishing a viable alternative one?

5. What is the point of setting up an independent review body to determine MPs' pay, only to diss it on grounds of populist ideology?

 

I have been out all day visiting clergy and parishes in Airedale. Time was tight and I wasn’t able to get stuck in to the Rowan Williams media frenzy – although I did manage to do two quick radio interviews in-between meetings. Having read the actual article in the New Statesman, I am wondering if the media are actually feeding from the wrong menu. If Rowan wanted to attack the government, he could have done it better than this. But this isn’t the purpose of his article. It clearly suits the agenda of the media to look for conflict where there is only debate.

First, it is clear that some commentators haven’t actually read the original article, but are responding to the second-hand articles produced by others. Good for a story and venting a little spleen, but not terribly useful.

Second, whatever answers people want to give to the questions he articulates, is anyone seriously suggesting that the questions aren’t the right ones?

Third, aren’t some of the attacks on him simply a form of distraction therapy for people who find his questioning embarrassingly on target?

One of the more bizarre elements of this business is the suggestion that the Archbishop of Canterbury shouldn’t interfere in politics. That view assumes that either politics is the preserve of those who think they have a right to occupy a fantasy ‘neutral’ space or that politics has nothing to do with real life. At least David Cameron acknowledged the right (if not the imperative) for the Church to speak out on such matters. However, his response seems to be to reporting on the Archbishop’s article rather than the content of the article itself.

It is worth noting also that the article is the leader written by Rowan as guest editor of this edition of the New Statesman. It introduces articles by several politicians who go on to address the questions raised in ways which the Archbishop might find unconvincing. In other words, the leader has to be seen in the context of the whole and read as an introduction to what is intended to be an intelligent discussion of the very themes the Archbishop thinks should be raised more widely.

I would love to ask some of the screaming commentators when they last trod the pavements of some of the poorest communities in our cities and rural areas. When did they last encounter people who are genuinely bemused by what is going on with the economy, education or the NHS? When did they last listen to the stories of those who constantly lose out and for whom the future looks hopeless?

David Cameron (interestingly) was heard to say that he disagreed that people whould be paid to stay out of work. I have no idea to which question that was deemed to be a relevant answer. Identifying the consequences of economic and other policies on poor people is not to say that they should be kept in perpetuity by the State. But it is to ask what sort of society we wish to shape, how we will cope with the dispossessed or the disaffected (who won’t simply disappear quietly into the ether), and which values should run through that society. Indeed, the Archbishop is asking politicians – not just the government, but those failing to state a credible alternative – to articulate the values and philosophical assumptions underlying their  determined policies.

Why is that request deemed inappropriate or odd? Do we not think that our democracy is impoverished if we simply accept electoral apathy, political disconnectedness or lack of engagement with the public discourse on those values that will shape us – wittingly or unwittingly? Do we really not need a more diligent and intelligent debate about which values we wish as a society to espouse – or do we just accept uncritically the notion that pragmatism should be unchallenged? Shouldn’t the electorate have been given an opportunity to know where any potential goverment might take education or the NHS – or are we just to accept that elections are to be seen as a sort of shadow boxing after which the lights can be changed and the shadows ignored in favour of some other substance?

When the frenzy has ended and the calmer commentators are picking over the bones of this matter, I dare to think that the questions and challenges put by the Archbishop will be seen to be the right ones – prophetic in the best sense of the word. As he says towards the end of his article:

… a democracy capable of real argument about shared needs and hopes and real generosity: any takers?

I have been wondering (a) if and (b) how to post responses to two matters this week. I sometimes feel that the dominant language of some public issues is one that belongs to a different ’empire’ from the one in which reasonable people should feel at home. I fear this won’t be brief, but it will be too brief to avoid a backlash.

The first matter was the media coverage of Dr Maggie Atkinson‘s questioning of the Jamie Bulger case. Dr Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England, questioned whether the murderers of Jamie Bulger should have been tried in an adult court and, therefore, whether some children are too young to be considered in the same way as adult criminals. (Phil Ritchie blogged on this recently – well worth a read.) Jamie Bulger’s mother hit the headlines with her call for Dr Atkinson to either resign or be sacked. Fortunately, Dr Atkinson’s position was defended (rather meekly) by some politicians who recognised that it is precisely her job to ask such questions. 

It is impossible not to have sympathy with Jamie Bulger’s mother for the appalling loss of her son in such grievous circumstances. But that loss does not legitimise anything Denise Fergus says about the subsequent case or issues associated with it. A society cannot make law simply to satisfy those who have been through terrible injustices. Presumably the Foreign Office doesn’t consult Ken Bigley’s or Margaret Hassan’s families when deciding how to counter/handle the Taleban, Al Quaeda or Iraqi insurgents?

So, why is Denise Fergus’s opinion considered important enough to report as a headline item? I guess one response will be that it will get people to read the story. But, her grievance does not make her views about penal policy any more intelligible than those of anyone else – however awful the experiences that led her to them.

I remember voicing a view such as this on another matter and being castigated that I – “as a bishop” – am out of kilter with public opinion. That response was even more worrying. Yesterday I sat in a room in London where Dietrich Bonhoeffer had ‘gone against the grain of public opinion’ both in England and Germany and taken the Christus Kirche into the Confessing Church in Germany. Sometimes it is vital that people resist public opinion: being a majority does not make you right.

The second issue that has bugged me is the campaign by Ekklesia to embarrass the 26 bishops in the House of Lords into backing a 100% elected second chamber. Inundating the said bishops with emails has been proclaimed some sort of victory, but this is bizarre, even for an organisation not known for underselling its self-regarded achievements. For starters, the numbers of people joining in the campaign (purely electronic) is open to a range of interpretations and readings and cannot be seen to exemplify mass conviction about the place of bishops in the second chamber.

Secondly, I for one do not support a 100% elected chamber – and I do not sit in the House of Lords. (For the record, I have neither desire nor expectation to do so.) But, I have operated in a number of countries around the world where different systems of representation are applied. I have not seen one where the election of a second chamber does not lead to the same sort of short-term partisan political game-playing that we see in the House of Commons. One of the recognised glories of the House of Lords is the ability of experienced and learned people – many of whom would never stand for election – to contribute intelligently and fearlessly to important legislative debate. To sacrifice this on the altar of some narrow and naive assumption about what makes a society ‘democratic’ would be absurd – like cutting off your nose to spite your face. It feels a bit like being led by inverse snobbery.

Bishops might either stay or go in the inevitable reforms of the House of Lords. It is also possible that if they stay their numbers will be reduced. I doubt if we will weep either way – we’ll just get on with it like we always do. But I would still argue that bishops of the Church of England are often better informed and better experienced in the realities of all levels of our society than almost any elected politician or unelected Lord. They have representation on the ground in the parishes of the country and know the realities that the clergy and churches live with every day of every week of every year as they serve their local communities. That knowledge – not subject to any electoral advantage – gives a voice in our legislature to all sorts of people who otherwise have no voice. Ekklesia doesn’t like that – doesn’t like bishops and has some weird axe to grind about them.

This isn’t a fundamental reason to retain bishops in a reformed second chamber. But it is worth recognising the potential loss, especially if the rationale for getting rid of them is rooted in some ideological silliness that can only imagine one way of doing things.

Which brings me on to the article advocating a Robin Hood Tax by Rowan Williams and Richard Curtis in today’s Sunday Times. Spotting an opportunity for helping the world’s poorest people and redeeming the bankers at the same time, they conclude with the following:

Are the politicians and financiers ready to commit to reconnecting banking with real life and real need? Are they ready to affirm that we are still, as a society, focused on the development goals spelt out 10 years ago and on eradicating poverty at home? Are they willing to lift their eyes beyond short-term problems and to imagine a world in which those most at risk can be assured of the best resources we can offer them?

The key word in that paragraph is ‘imagine’. I once suggested to a group of City financiers that stochastic modelling is ‘an exercise in imagination’ – positing a range of different scenarios in order to see what emerges from them. The word ‘imagination’ caused some disquiet – I think because it was heard as an ‘exercise in fantasy’. But imagination is not fantasy; rather, it is the ability to conceive of a different way of being and ordering and having the courage to see if we can make it happen. Imagination is a crucial element of the prophet’s psyche, the poet’s vision and the planner’s potential. Lack of imagination condemns us to repeating the same old models of doing things – even if they haven’t always served us as well as we like (romantically) to think in retrospect.

The criminal justice system might need to have the courage to think imaginatively about how to treat children who commit appalling crimes: to refuse to ask the questions for fear of public scolding is to cave in to a very unhealthy sort of power. Campaigners for democratic change might like to think out of their ideological boxes and imagine more than one way of squaring the circles that bother them. Bankers and governments will need courage to think creatively about re-shaping the global financial relationships according to different values.

It might not come as a surprise that Jesus asked for a ‘repentance’ – literally a change of ‘mind’ – from those who might imagine a differently-shaped world. This went down so well that they crucified him. Public opinion might not always ‘get it’, but an imagination such as ‘the Kingdom of God’ seems to have been going for a very long time and certainly longer than the empires that tried to kill it off.

Morgan-TsvangiraiIran is in a turmoil that was inconceivable even a month ago. Today Morgan Tsvangirai, Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, was shouted down at Southwark Cathedral whilst urging expatriates to return to their homeland despite a lack of reassurance about their personal safety or prospects for the rule of law. In just over one week I will be back in Kazakhstan for a global inter-religious congress – a country that has moved in under two decades from being a disastrous republic of the Soviet Union into a successful and competitive world player – where admiration for British democracy might be a little tempered by the goings-on at Westminster in recent weeks. And the joyful humiliation of MPs continues in the UK, watched with incredulity from outside and embarrassment from within.

And here I am, at my desk, with Bruce Cockburn angrily singing his critique of western political and militarysupport for dodgy Central American regimes in the 1980s: They call it democracy.

Apparently, everybody in the UK is furiously angry with our profligate, dishonest and greedy politicians. That might be true – in the same way that everybody in the UK is a ‘loyal subject’ of Her Majesty. Maybe I just mix in the wrong circles (ordinary people in ordinary places – this morning with a group made up largely but not exclusively of pensioners), but I don’t see the anger we are being told we are feeling. I do hear expressions of wishing we could move on and wondering about who is doing the really important political stuff at Westminster while the feeding frenzy continues.

ParliamentNow, I realise that I will be told (very firmly and without hint of possible contradiction) that I am out of step with the public mood. Again, that might be true – but who says? And how would they know? If I am out of step with the ‘public mood’, then I am not going to apologise. I hadn’t realised until recently that the ‘public mood’ was the ultimate arbiter of morality and public truth – that to dissent from the ‘public mood’ was to be, by definition, wrong and suspect.

The ‘public moood’ would have lynched suspected paedophiles in Portsmouth a couple of years ago. The ‘public mood’ voted Hitler into power in the 1930s. The ‘public mood’ is probably the least trustworthy guide to moral decision-making that could possibly be found. Ask a random sample of the public if they are angry with MPs and there is little alternative but to concur; ask what people think or feel about MPs and the answer might be a little bit more nuanced.

I am worried about all this, not because I think MPs have behaved well or deserve special treatment outside of normal financial ethics. Abuses of expenses are indefensible – but so is inaccurate and sensational pillorying of particular MPs without adequate explanation of the criteria being cited. For example, do we really expect to be well served by MPs without providing them with office back-up (PA, secretary, stationery, phones, etc)? Yet when these figures are deducted from some of the huge numbers featuring in reports, the figures look less offensive. I object to being told that an MP is ‘a scandal’ for claiming half a million pounds in ‘expenses’ over the last five years when the charge is made in complete ignorance of what is needed by way of office support for our elected representatives to do their job. This is mere sensationalism.

I said I was worried. I am. I am worried about the effects of all this on the sort of people who might now put themselves forward for public office. (There is an awful lot of smug self-righteousness around in propsective parliamentary candidates right now.) Are we going to get the best quality of people (of ability and integrity) to put themselves forward for an office that will evoke scorn, suspicion and potential humiliation?

Is now the time for MPs to have their expenses scrutinised by an independent body, be asked to repay any anomalies, commit to investigation by the police any criminal activity – and then let Parliament get back to doing what we need it to do: govern the country and have MPs scrutinising legislation rather than scrutinising their expenses sheets? Hasn’t the feeding frenzy now gone far enough?

women violenceOr is it just easier to be part of the baying mob, directing our imputed ‘anger’ at someone else, prolonging the embarrassment of ‘privileged’ people and ignoring the consequences to our democracy and its institutions?

Oh, and by the way, is there not something ‘morally dubious’ about my local ‘newspaper’, The Croydon Advertiser, standing on its moral superiority in relation to MPs while taking advertising money from pimps engaged in trafficking women and exploiting them for sex? Just asking…