This is the text of an article commissioned by the Church Times and published last Thursday. I have been asked why I don’t target Jeremy Corbyn – the simple answer is that he is not the Prime Minister. Secondly, the article is not primarily about Boris Johnson, but about the future of our political discourse and the consequences of accepting that unethical language is to be normalised. It is a question rather than a statement.

The last couple of weeks have been extraordinary. A new Prime Minister, elected only by a miniscule minority of the electorate, loses his first vote in the House of Commons, threatens an election he has no power to call (without the assent of two thirds of the House), removes the party whip from 21 MPs. Democracy at work? Genius strategic thinking? Or a dog’s breakfast of political vindictiveness at a time of national crisis?

What we know is this: the Prime Minister is determined to come over as a strong leader. He talks tough, although seems not to realise that the people he speaks toughly about can all hear him. In the EU and further afield the astonishment no longer has anything to do with the referendum decision to leave the EU, but everything to do with the chaotic and destructive incompetence of the process since 2016. I think ‘incredulity’ is the word to describe competent onlookers who once respected the Mother of Parliaments.

We can probably predict with confidence that a general election will be held before too long. The terms on which that election will be fought are likely to be – certainly from the government’s perspective – “parliament versus the people”. And here we come to the heart of our problem: parliamentary sovereignty is not the same thing as national (or popular) sovereignty. If the referendum truly was about restoring parliamentary sovereignty, then that aspiration went out of the window a long time ago. The two systems have clashed and we now have the impasse. We have a parliamentary (representative) system that has been compromised by a popular vote that our parliamentary representatives are now to negotiate – not as delegates or puppets, but people elected to use their judgement on our behalf about the best interests of the country and all its people.

However, the real questions facing the country go beyond and behind the apparent challenges. One way or another Parliament will resolve its current crisis. If it goes well, this will happen via parliamentary processes and decision-making. It might not go well. But, the questions that will persist well beyond the immediate are fundamental to who we think we are as a country and to who we want to become.

I’m afraid it’s about language again. And about the relationship between truth and trust, for which language is essential.

When the PM announced the proroguing of Parliament he clearly had the power to do so according to the constitution. Why? Because the uncodified constitution depends on conventions and respect for the rules of behaviour, and these conventions can be ignored or set aside. However, at what cost? Once the PM did this (having lied repeatedly about not doing it), the cat was out of the bag. If his behaviour is acceptable, what happens when a far left PM decides “in order to get the job done” to suspend Parliament at will? The constitution is only as strong as the respect shown it by all parties; it must be sustainable in all circumstances, regardless of who holds the keys to Number 10.

I used the word “lied” – a strong accusation. But, the question about the PM is how anything he says can be trusted when he has lied and misrepresented so much. Leaving the red bus to one side (and his colleagues’ claims about “the easiest deal in history”), the latest was the deliberate confusing of “proroguing” with “recess”. Apparently, the prorogation of Parliament will add only a few days to recess, so what’s the fuss about? Well, the fuss is because in recess all the work of Parliament continues; after prorogation it ceases completely. They are not the same, and there is a democratic deficit in deliberately talking as if they are.

So, to echo Pontius Pilate’s question (which Jesus left him to answer for himself), what is truth? If we are close to getting a deal, why do those with whom we are supposedly negotiating apparently not recall the negotiations?  Are we totally resistant to looking through the eyes of our neighbours at who we are?

If the language of “getting Brexit done” is accepted, then what currency did the old promises have whereby this is “the easy bit”? Brexit will not be “done” by leaving the EU on any date. The easy bot will be over, but then the decades-long hard slog of re-relating will begin – and how well is that likely to go when we have demonstrated that we can’t be trusted?

Amid the parliamentary game-playing, does it matter that a defecting MP accuses the PM of “bullying, lies and manipulation”? What place do we give to ethics, honesty and integrity? Or doesn’t it matter?

None of this is new. These questions have been raised again and again during the last four years, but they have largely been ignored. They will demand a response at some point.

Let’s look at it this way: if the country finds it pragmatically acceptable that lying, manipulation and misrepresentation are acceptable in public life and political discourse, then we will need to look at the consequences of this.

Essentially, what we have seen in the current political tactics is a decision to enshrine utilitarianism: the ends justify the means. But, if we are to be consistent, we must allow that in the future the same ethic might apply and we will have little ground for objection. Is that acceptable morally or politically? If we think it is, then we must own up to the consequences for how democracy might run in the future when “getting the job done” is all it takes to justify playing fast and loose with the rules.

Allied to this is the fact that, as I articulated in the House of Lords a couple of years ago, lying has become normalised and our discourse corrupted. Maybe it is the loss of shame as a social check that lies at the root of this. There is an argument that once shame is removed and any social sanction discarded, we can lie with impunity … because as long as we achieve our end – obtaining and holding on to power – the lies we tell in order to get there simply don’t matter.

Or hypocrisy? How is trust in politics or in politicians to be recovered when five leading members of the government swear blind that they would not agree to the proroguing of Parliament and, within a month or two, (a) agree to it and (b) refuse to justify or explain that turnaround in public? It is possible that there is a strong and clear ethical justification for a change of mind; but, in public leadership there should be a right for the public to hear it. Otherwise, we are saying that commitments made in public that help shape the approval of an electorate can be discarded once inconvenient, and that’s OK. Is it?

Truth-telling lies at the heart of public trust in our institutions. And trust is a casualty of lying or misrepresentation (the point of the ninth commandment). Take the focus off the current spate of deliberate lying (proroguing is not the same as recess, and those justifying it as “adding just a few days to it” know they are lying) and it isn’t hard to see that the future of our politics will be shaped by what we agree is acceptable now.

These questions are not partisan. The answers to them will shape our political culture for decades to come. Once integrity has been diminished as an essential element of democratic discourse and behaviour, it won’t be long before we reap the fruit of our moral contempt.

A cursory glance at social media makes it clear that there is huge concern – across political and cultural divides – about the degeneration of public life, behaviour and language. It is not hard to see why.

Against the explosion of sexual harassment claims (which exposes decades of ‘normal’ behaviour that went unchallenged because of its normality), we also see an eruption of trial by media. I have little sympathy for those who find themselves caught out, but do worry about those who are innocent, but now find themselves tried and sentenced by allegation. There must surely be implications for what I am calling the integrity of the public discourse.

But, we now have a US President who is a proven liar, misogynist and sexual predator (by his own taped evidence), and he continues in power. The lying and misrepresentation does not appear to disturb those who would have strung up previous presidents for just one faux pas. Lying and misrepresenting have become normalised. And there is no penalty.

Yesterday the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, told a House of Commons committee that the 57 Brexit impact assessment papers do not exist. In October these not only existed, but went into what he described as “excruciating detail”. When Parliament demanded sight of them, a highly secretive bunch of papers was eventually submitted to a limited audience – deemed by readers on all sides to be statements of the obvious. This turn of events should, at the very least, be deeply concerning.

The question here is not about the apparent (or should that be ‘alleged’) incompetence of the government in driving the negotiations for the UK’s departure from the EU, but the fact that someone up there is misleading not only Parliament, but the British public. This is not about whether or not we should be leaving the EU; this is not about whether the government is going about its work in the right way or competently; this is not about democracy, parliamentary sovereignty or the legitimate confidentiality demanded by sensitive process; this is about the normalisation of corruption (which, in terms of language, is no less serious than in other ethical matters), the easy acceptance of lying and misrepresentation by a bewildered public, and the implications for civil society (as well as what we teach our children by word and example) of allowing language to be debased, facts to be dismissed in the face of ‘alternative truths’, and for this to be done with such casual impunity.

I have lots of conversations with concerned politicians and journalists about the corruption of the political discourse. I am less sure what to do about it other than to challenge it and try to demonstrate a different way. This goes deeper than “speaking out”.

Any ideas?

Having published on the Reimagining Europe blog (with a good opening joke) a somewhat exasperated post about the political discourse around the EU Referendum in England, I went on to read the latest tract published by the William Temple Foundation and found it addressing – more eirenically than I did – some of the central issues that lie behind our limited discourse.

Written by Craig Colhoun, Director of the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE), it is entitled Religion, Government and the Public Good. Commending the importance of imagination (imagining the world we wish to create), he identifies three problems for our contemporary political discourse, and they are pertinent to our current debates:

We live in an era that is shaped by three difficulties in being articulate. These are difficulties in saying things that we want to say but can’t quite get out, things that we know at some level but have trouble making explicit. Articulacy depends on language, on narratives, on the way we represent the world to ourselves. But we have trouble putting things properly in the focus of attention. We find it hard, I’d suggest first, to articulate a sense of purpose greater than instrumental self-interest. Second, to articulate a shared identity that is strong enough really to bind us to each other and at the same time capacious enough to recognise differences among us. And third, to articulate our relationship to history and the future, and thus to time beyond the most short-term, immediate and even ephemeral engagements.

Not a bad place to start. Or, to put it more pointedly, who is articulating a bigger vision for what the UK might become in the world of which we are inextricably a part – a vision that goes beyond mere self-interest or short-term utilitarian individualism?

Suggesting that the loss of a religious vocabulary has been harmful to our secular discourse – not primarily because it was religious, but because the imagination that fired it has not found articulation in any other vocabulary – he reflects on William Temple's social vision and invites us to constitute a new imagining of (and, therefore, commitment to) the world:

Religious traditions can be powerful shapers of such understanding. They influence how we understand not just God or angels or the power of prayer. They also influence how we understand moral obligation and social relationships. Religious imaginaries can make marriage more than merely a contract between two individuals because it is a sacrament and embedded in a community. They can impose a sharp differentiation between the sacred and the worldly. They can encourage a relationship of either stewardship or dominion in regard to the earth. This suggests why it is misleading to try to reduce religion to a set of propositions about the world that are either true or false. That misses the extent to which religious understandings, embedded in practice as well as thought, are constitutive of the world.

I doubt if Donald Trump will find his own social or economic assumptions reflected here. But, the questions Calhoun asks dig beneath some of the glib, shortsighted and purely instrumental (utilitarian) language that currently fires the passions of those arguing about our future in the European Union.

 

The Church of England is investing a huge amount of time and energy into re-shaping its agenda. Not in order to bolster the institution, but in order to get us back (amid a million claims on attention) to our core vocation: to make and nurture disciples of Jesus Christ; to grow disciples who pray into ministers who evangelise; to shape churches that give themselves away in serving their communities. Not simply growing churches for the sake of having big churches, but growing churches in all our communities – even and especially where it is tough.

I am working with lay and ordained Anglican disciples to shape a diocese that places worship, evangelism, nurture and service at the heart of our life. This will shape our priorities, how we raise and allocate our resources (of people, money and ‘stuff’), and how we shape and work our structures. We are attending seriously to growth, and to tackling the challenges of buildings, decline and discouragement. And I lead a team of bishops and other ministers – lay and ordained – who are determined, confident (in God, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Church – and especially the Church of England -, and the contexts in which we live and serve), and sacrificial in their exercise of this ministry.

And we are only one of 42 dioceses in the Church of England that are doing this.

You would never believe any of this from the communique issued following the meeting in England this week of the primates of what is known as Gafcon. According to this group – which, despite statements to the contrary and consistent with behaviour that is inexplicable – the Church of England has abandoned the gospel of Jesus Christ and is “unfaithful”. It is probably worth noting that the key words in the rhetoric of this conservative evangelical constituency are “gospel” and “faithful”. What is actually meant is that if you do not fit their narrow description of what the “gospel” is and who might be described as “faithful”, then you are fair game for being dismissed. (Assumptions about the meaning of key words matters here.)

For a long time I have wondered if the Church of England ought not to be a little more robust in countering the misrepresentation and manipulation (of reality) that emanates from Gafcon. I am not alone. But, I have bowed to the wisdom of those who (rightly) assert that we shouldn’t counter bad behaviour with bad behaviour, and that we should trust that one day the truth will out. I am no longer so sure about the efficacy of such an eirenic response. I think we owe it to Anglicans in England and around the Communion to fight the corner and challenge the misrepresentation that is fed to other parts of the Anglican Communion. (I was once asked in Central Africa why one has to be gay to be ordained in the Church of England. I was asked in another country why the Church of England no longer reads the Bible and denies Jesus Christ. I could go on. When asked where this stuff has come from, the answer is that this is what a bishop has told them.)

The Gafcon primates say:

We are uniting faithful Anglicans, growing in momentum, structured for the future, and committed to the Anglican Communion.

Which means what – especially when they claim ‘gospel values’ and speak and behave in ways that do not reflect values of honesty, integrity and humility? And on what basis is the bulk of the Church of England reported (within Gafcon circles) as being unfaithful? And who writes the stuff they put out? Who is directing whom – who is pulling whose strings? And what would be the response if I wrote off as “unfaithful” entire provinces of the Anglican Communion where there was evidence of corruption, love of power, financial unfaithfulness or other sins? Does the ninth Commandment still apply today, or only where convenient? Is sex the only ethical matter that matters, or does breaking the ninth Commandment get a look in?

The Gafcon primates get their information (and money) from somewhere. The ‘take’ on the Church of England reflects simply the perceptions of a few. I bet the wider picture is not represented. They insinuate that some clergy and churches (decidedly congregations and not parishes – and thereby lies another issue) feel marginalised or fearful – treated like ‘pariahs’ according to Gafcon – so cannot be identified. Really? How pathetic.

I was once at a meeting of evangelical bishops in England when three English Gafcon men came to meet us. They had stated that this was the case and that bishops were giving their clergy a hard time. We asked for evidence so we could consider it before we met. Bishop Tom Wright and I were just two who were outraged at the misinformation, misrepresentation and selective re-writing of history presented to us. When we began to challenge this, we were told that we shouldn’t get bogged down in the detail and could we move on. And they got away with it. I am not making this up.

The truth is that while all this nonsense goes on, the rest of the Church of England will continue to focus on being faithful to its gospel vocation and mission. We are doing it every day. We will not be distracted by people who selectively report, regularly misrepresent, manipulate truth and plough their own furrow. God bless them in their commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ; and God bless the rest of us in our commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We continue to support our fellow Anglicans all over the world, many of whom tell us that they have no time for Gafcon. Some face dreadful challenges and we stand with them. Some face real persecution and we stand with them. The great power of the Anglican Communion lies in these relationships of mutual prayer, learning, fellowship, mission and support – and they cannot be bought to promote the power games of a few.

Today I confirmed a number of new Christians in an ordinary and faithful West Yorkshire parish.

 

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.

 

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio4's Today programme.

A month or two ago I had a coffee in London with a friend who has her own business coaching high-level executives. Her speciality is resilience – helping business leaders to hang on in there and develop a long-term perspective on decision-making in a competitive and challenging world. I asked her what her basic approach was and she spoke about such things as realism, recognition, forgiveness, resolution, and so on. Listening to her explain this dynamic, I thought the concepts all sounded very familiar. And when I asked where this language came from, she said it was standard HR vocabulary. She seemed a little surprised when I suggested that it was born several thousand years before HR was invented and is profoundly religious.

To speak of a leader facing reality, re-shaping their understanding and view of the world, then moving on in a new light with a clear resolve, is what Christians mean when they use the old-fashioned word 'repentance'.

The Greek word from which it is taken – metanoia – means, literally, 'change of mind'; that is, to use a different metaphor, that we allow the lens behind our eyes – the one through which we filter our experience of the world out there and why it is the way it is – to be re-ground … re-shaped so that we look and see and think and, then, live differently.

Of course, it is social death to use the word repentance unless shouting it out through a megaphone at Oxford Circus – which, I suppose, is evidence of social death, anyway.

But, the word – or, at least, the concept it encapsulates – lies at the heart of a crucial political conundrum that, although it has an immediate application, is as ancient as human life itself. It is the conflict between society's need for long-term political thinking and planning and people's demand for instant gratification. And the Internet has exacerbated this conflict because we have got used to instant information, quick decisions and what might be called 'now-ism'.

I said this isn't new. The prophets of the Old Testament, speaking in the eighth and sixth centuries BC, countered the prevailing longing for the security of quick military and economic alliances with warnings that such short-term thinking can lead to long-term problems. Populism doesn't always represent wisdom.

In a very brave sermon preached in the wake of Kristallnacht in November 1938 in Berlin, Helmut Gollwitzer stated: “Where repentance stops, inhumanity begins.” As relatively few others did, he looked beyond the events of that initial pogrom and saw where short-term compromise might lead. OK, it's a dramatic example. But, it does show that the need to be open to changing our mind and thinking in the long term is vital in every area of life, not just HR or politics.

 

I am all for fixed-term parliaments and knowing when the next general election will take place, but we had better learn from other countries that have had them for years how to handle them.

Discussion at the Church of England's House of Bishops meeting in York during the last couple of days made it abundantly clear that, if we didn't know it already, we have already embarked on a very long election campaign. Yes, this week sees some local elections and elections to the European Parliament, but these seem a little like shadow boxing for the real thing in 2015.

We know how paralysing election campaigns are for the business of running the country intelligently, so this prospect isn't a happy one. We face a year of posturing and snarling. But, what are the fundamental questions we – especially, but not exclusively, the churches – should be putting to our election candidates?

Well, call me posh, but anyone can ask questions about unemployment, housing, welfare, banking reform, foreign aid, foodbanks, poverty, health and other important matters. Who is going to ask the questions that dig beneath the assumptions behind the likely answers the politicians will give us? These are not merely academic.

For example, quiz a politician about welfare, immigration or housing, and s/he will declare the appropriate party's policy. But what anthropology underpins it? In other words, what does he or she assume about why human beings essentially matter? What is his or her understandings of human value – as it is this that should give rise to the policy, and not vice versa. Yes, the policy might betray the value/assumption, but it is the latter that gives birth to the former.

So, why not ask every candidate what they think a human person is and why that person matters? This simple question, if pursued quietly and politely, will indicate whether the candidate is able to articulate the (what I would call) theological anthropology that shapes their world view. The answer to the question will indicate how they might, if consistent, think about social order, the common good and the value of the political process or discourse.

Of course, if anyone suggests that people matter because they do (which is frighteningly common), this should be seriously and humorously questioned. You can't get an 'ought' from and 'is', and mere existence cannot confer inherent value without some un-argued for assumptions being smuggled in.

This could be fun. And revealing. Bring on the campaign.