This is the text of a commissioned article published today in the excellent Yorkshire Post.

Anything can happen. A statement of the obvious, maybe, but it is also the title of a song by Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn in which he runs through some of the disasters that might hit if you as much as walk outside today. It also seems to be the dominant feeling around the country as we enter another week of political life in which what looks clear at breakfast is redundant by teatime. Things are moving quickly, and anything can happen.

However, there is one thing about which we can be fairly confident: there will be a general election some time during the autumn. If, like me, you are trying to organise a diary around so many uncertainties and unknowns, you will understand the anxieties this state of affairs can generate. We have no idea when the election might come, but we still need to prepare for it.

The first thing is to get people to register to vote. In a parliamentary democracy the people exercise their political preferences by voting in an election and putting in (or removing) their representatives in the House of Commons. As we have seen during the last three years, this moment of choice – whatever our particular convictions about the issues of the day or the content of a political manifesto – matters to the proper functioning of decision-making and the right ordering of society.

But, given the heat (if not light) ignited by Brexit, Boris Johnson and current political events, there are wider issues to be addressed in advance of any election. How, for example, is the campaign to be conducted? How far will we interrogate political statements and promises, not only from those we might instinctively oppose, but also from those we might naturally support? And what language will we use as the election campaign drives on?

These aren’t just hobbyhorse questions. Language goes to the heart of communication and we know how words can be deployed to distort, dehumanise and distract – either deliberately or incidentally. Truth matters and facts matter.

A couple of examples. When we are told that the proroguing of Parliament simply adds a few days to recess, so there is nothing to fuss about, what are we to think? Well, it isn’t a party-political dogma to insist to the electorate that this is a deliberate misrepresentation of reality. When Parliament goes into recess the work continues, the committees continue to meet, the scrutiny of government goes on. When Parliament is prorogued, everything stops. There is a fundamental difference, and the implications are clear (and serious). So, the public ought to be clear and then be able to challenge both the statement and the motive behind its iteration.

Secondly, and somewhat randomly, if a politician waves a kipper and tells us that the EU forces us in the UK to present it on a bed of ice – a shackle that must be cast off by leaving the EU – then we ought not to fear asking whether or not this is true. Of course, it isn’t.

I accept that these examples are easy and recent ones. However, they help to make the point that the public need to question political statements for their factual basis or truthfulness without resorting to ad hominem attack. Yes, having judged that we were told a fib, it is then reasonable to go on to questions the ethics of the person who said it. But, the first response should always be to the truthfulness of the statement or promise.

This is serious. In response to things I have written on current political phenomena I receive a quantity of negative reactions. That is the point of writing in the first place – to start or contribute to a debate during which I might learn something new or even change my mind. But, what interests me about most of the negative stuff I get is that it doesn’t address the points made; the abuse is directed at me as a person. It doesn’t usually worry me, and I don’t waste time on it. It does worry me, however, that demagoguery thrives on emotive attacks on people who say uncomfortable (or wrong) things without addressing the basic issue.

The great Christian apologist CS Lewis once said that if Christianity is true, then it is true because it is true; it is not true because it is Christianity. And he was exactly right. It can’t be true because it ‘works for me’ or ‘makes me feel better about myself or the world’; it can only be true if it is true. The same will apply when we get to an election.

The ninth commandment forbids misrepresentation (bearing false witness) of my neighbour. If we want light and not just heat, then we need to pay attention to this.

A billion words have been written about the general election and its aftermath. The best and funniest I have read was pointed out to me by a friend, and comes from the New Yorker. It can be read here.

Well, it made me laugh.

Well, it’s probably pushing it a bit to describe the current same-old-same-old game as feverish. The bandying around of numbers remains as tedious and pointless as ever – as we learned from the EU Referendum last June, nothing promised will matter for one second past the result being announced.

It is this sort of sense that sparked the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to publish a pastoral letter to the Church of England yesterday, rejecting both apathy and cynicism, and encouraging Christians in particular to be responsible citizens and vote. Many of us are experts at complaining endlessly about government, politics and politicians whilst not actually bothering to engage in the democratic process.

The text speaks for itself, so, for those wondering what it says, here it is:

The season of Easter invites us to celebrate and to renew our love of God and our love of neighbour, our trust and hope in God and in each other. In the midst of a frantic and sometimes fraught election campaign, our first obligation as Christians is to pray for those standing for office, and to continue to pray for those who are elected. We recognise the enormous responsibilities and the vast complexity of the issues that our political leaders face. We are constantly reminded of the personal costs and burdens carried by those in political life and by their families.

Our second obligation as Christians at these times is to set aside apathy and cynicism and to participate, and encourage others to do the same. At a practical level that could mean putting on a hustings event for candidates, volunteering for a candidate, or simply making sure to vote on Thursday 8th June. The Christian virtues of love, trust and hope should guide and judge our actions, as well as the actions and policies of all those who are seeking election to the House of Commons and to lead our country.

This election is being contested against the backdrop of deep and profound questions of identity. Opportunities to renew and reimagine our shared values as a country and a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland only come around every few generations. We are in such a time.

Our Christian heritage, our current choices and our obligations to future generations and to God’s world will all play a shaping role. If our shared British values, that is, what life in Britain has taught us to appreciate most, what we see as fundamental to one another’s happiness and prosperity, and what we believe ourselves called as nation to stand for in the world – if these values are to carry the weight of where we now stand and the challenges ahead of us, they must have at their core, cohesion, courage and stability.

Cohesion is what holds us together. The United Kingdom, when at its best, has been represented by a sense not only of living for ourselves, but by a deeper concern for the weak, poor and marginalised, and for the common good. At home that includes education for all, the need for urgent and serious solutions to our housing challenges, the importance of creating communities as well as buildings, and a confident and flourishing health service that gives support to all – especially the vulnerable – not least at the beginning and end of life. Abroad it is seen in many ways, including the 0.7% aid commitment, properly applied in imaginative ways, standing up for those suffering persecution on grounds of faith, and our current leading on campaigns against slavery, trafficking, and sexual violence in conflicts.

Courage, which includes aspiration, competition and ambition, should guide us into trading agreements that, if they are effective and just, will also reduce the drivers for mass movements of peoples. We must affirm our capacity to be an outward looking and generous country, with distinctive contributions to peacebuilding, development, the environment and welcoming the stranger in need. Our economic and financial systems at home and abroad should aim to be engines of innovation, not simply traders for their own account. The need for a just economy is clear, but there is also the relatively new and influential area of ‘just finance’, and there are dangers of an economy over-reliant on debt, which risks crushing those who take on too much. Courage also demands a radical approach to education, so that the historic failures of technical training and the over-emphasis on purely academic subjects are rebalanced, growing productivity and tackling with vigour the exclusion of the poorest groups from future economic life.

Stability, an ancient and Benedictine virtue, is about living well with change. Stable communities will be skilled in reconciliation, resilient in setbacks and diligent in sustainability, particularly in relation to the environment. They will be ones in which we can be collectively a nation of ‘glad and generous hearts’. To our concern for housing, health and education as foundations for a good society, we add marriage, the family and the household as foundational communities, which should be nurtured and supported as such, not just for the benefit of their members, but as a blessing for the whole of society.

Contemporary politics needs to re-evaluate the importance of religious belief. The assumptions of secularism are not a reliable guide to the way the world works, nor will they enable us to understand the place of faith in other people’s lives. Parishes and Chaplaincies of the Church of England serve people of all faiths and none. Their contribution and that of other denominations and faiths to the well-being of the nation is immense – schools, food banks, social support, childcare among many others – and is freely offered. But the role of faith in society is not just measured in terms of service-delivery.

The new Parliament, if it is to take religious freedom seriously, must prioritise working with religious leaders, the media, and the educational profession to address the improvement of religious literacy. More immediately, if we aspire to a politics of maturity and generosity, then the religious faith of any election candidate should not be treated by opponents as a vulnerability to be exploited. We look forward to a media and political climate where all candidates can feel confident that they can be open about the impact of their faith on their vocation to public service.

Religious belief is the well-spring for the virtues and practices that make for good individuals, strong relationships and flourishing communities. In Britain, these embedded virtues are not unique to Christians, but they have their roots in the Christian history of our four nations. If treated as partners in the project of serving the country, the churches – and other faiths – have much to contribute to a deep understanding and outworking of the common good.

Political responses to the problems of religiously-motivated violence and extremism, at home and overseas, must also recognise that solutions will not be found simply in further secularisation of the public realm. Mainstream religious communities have a central role to play; whilst extremist narratives require compelling counter-narratives that have a strong theological and ideological foundation.

Cohesion, courage and stability are all needed in our response to the continuing national conversation about migration and refugees. Offering a generous and hospitable welcome to refugees and migrants is a vital expression of our common humanity, but it is not without cost and we should not be deaf to the legitimate concerns that have been expressed about the scale of population flows and the differential impact it has on different parts of society. The pressures of integration must be shared more equitably.

These deep virtues and practices – love, trust and hope, cohesion, courage and stability – are not the preserve of any one political party or worldview, but go to the heart of who we are as a country in all of its diversity. An election campaign, a Parliament and a Government that hold to these virtues give us a firm foundation on which to live well together, for the common good.

We keep in our prayers all those who are standing in this election and are deeply grateful for their commitment to public service. All of us as Christians, in holding fast to the vision of abundant life, should be open to the call to renounce cynicism, to engage prayerfully with the candidates and issues in this election and by doing so to participate together fully in the life of our communities.

In the Name of our Risen Lord,

+Justin Cantuar +Sentamu Eboracensis

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.

I led a clergy study day in Leeds this week on the theme 'Theology of Hope'. I wanted to help us think about our ministry in terms opened up by the theologians Jürgen Moltmann and Walter Brueggemann. Inevitably, I dropped in my concise summary of Christian motivation – that we are drawn by hope and not driven by fear.

Driving over to an event in Ben Rhydding (Ilkley) this afternoon, I heard a political commentator on BBC Radio 4 say that the current UK general election campaign is not about hope, but about fear. Which, incidentally, is what the bishops were drawing attention to (and warning about) in the pastoral letter we put out ahead of the campaign.

I didn't catch who the commentator was, but she is right. The rhetoric – amid the daily eclectic throwing out of new and disparate 'offers' in what sounds like a playground competition – represents not a proclamation of vision or an awakening of (prophetic) imagination, but a play on fear. It basically comes down to: vote for X and terrible things will happen to you; vote for me and you will be 'safe'. The politicians clearly think that we will vote out of self-interest to avoid negative terrors, rather than vote for a positive vision.

The trouble is: they are probably right. Sadly.

 

Happy New Year!

I hope.

Here are some (unedited) preliminary thoughts on Day One.

Of course, for most people on the planet it promises to be no more happy than the last year. The horrors of persecution of minorities – especially Christians – on some parts of the planet show no sign of abating; and some countries in the sophisticated liberal west show no sign of offering hospitality to those doing the suffering.

In the UK we face a general election within a few months. The political parties still dance to a first-past-the-post tune when the reality of political allegiance sounds a coalition melody. Unlike other European countries which shape their rhetoric and policy making around coalition inevitabilities, our parties will play an unconvincing game of macho posturing before then having to “do a Lib-Dem” later in May. How many elections might it take before the realities impinge on the rhetoric and the electorate begins to be treated as intelligent (as well as politico-media literate).

The big challenges ahead include: the role of xenophobia or racism in the general election; whether hospitality is offered to refugees and asylum-seekers from places where loss and suffering have become intolerable; public ethics are to be shaped by more than populism.

At the root of all this lies a fundamental question – one that should be put to every candidate in the May election: “What is your theological anthropology?” OK, not in those words. Try: “What is a human person? Why does a human person matter? How do you know?”

These aren’t merely academic philosophical questions. They go to the heart of that from which all policy commitments will follow. For example, if we state that every human being has value (and rights – although the possession of rights cannot be simply derived from existence), how does that shape our policy with regard to letting Africans drown in the Mediterranean Sea, Yezidis freeze on a mountain, Christians get butchered in Syria, or wealth lie in the hands a handful of people in the rich world. I think we will find that policy is disconnected from stated anthropology – or that the stated anthropology is assumed rather than argued for.

This isn’t easy stuff. A Christian anthropology begins in an acceptance that each human person is made in the image of God. Everything stems from that. It goes on to face the reality of human failure (‘sin’) and the power of redemption. This is why Christian hope is not rooted in wishful thinking or a rootless optimism in the progress of human nature, but in the person of God who refuses to let violence, death and destruction have the last word. You may disagree with this anthropology, but at least it is clear why a Christian thinks people matter. And this stuff isn’t easy because, having taken this on board, we still have to work out in an imperfect world how to establish in a contested political space policies that might command support as well as compromise.

It seems that, despite the evidence of the centuries, there is still a widespread assumption that human beings are on an upward trajectory that will eventually lead to world peace. Hegel’s dialectic is somewhat attractive as a descriptor of historical development, but it still assumes that there is an end-point at which the dialectic ceases and we remain static in a state of wonderfulness. On what basis does this assumption rest other than wishful thinking or a blind prejudice that persists in the face of all the evidence? Christians prefer ‘hope’ to optimism.

So, the election campaign ahead of us will be challenging – for a host of reasons. Fundamental questions need to be asked about the anthropologies and moral bases of political judgement and policy – rather than us settling for the usual suspects playing the usual games and indulging in the usual point-scoring rhetoric that is demonstrably leaving most of the electorate cold.

In the context of these macro questions and challenges other realities have to be addressed in 2015. Top of my list is the fact that 2015 is the first full year of life for the Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales. This time last year we still had four months to go before the Appointed Day (the day – Easter Day – when the three historic dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds, and Wakefield would cease to exist and the single new diocese would begin life). We still did not know who would be the first diocesan bishop of Leeds – and I didn’t know if I would have any job in the Church of England after Easter. The future was full of uncertainties.

We go into 2015 with a full team of bishops and a clearer administration. The clergy and churches have been remarkable in continuing their mission in parishes and institutions amid so much continuing uncertainty about future shape and direction. We have begun to grasp nettles – and to identify which nettles need to be grasped, and by whom and when. We now face a year of establishing new governance and structures, focusing on evangelism, nurture and growth, whilst taking seriously our responsibility to serve our local communities in all their diverse complexions. The priority of the poor stands at the heart of all this.

However, the press of priorities has itself to be prioritised. We have to hold our nerve and retain our discipline as we tackle each element of diocesan life, vision, purpose and means in turn. We have to be systematic. We will make mistakes in all this, but they will be honest mistakes. And I am confident that we can renew our confidence, build our capacity (and face the cost of doing so) and ‘inspire by being inspired’ as we shape our future.

So, I look forward to 2015 with hope, faith and realism. No romanticism or vague aspirational optimism. My guess is that it will be a complex year, and that prioritising will not be easy at any level for society, politics or church. But, we can go for it with a theological anthropology that provides parameters within which to live: that the God who has made us in his image sets us free from fear, compels us to love our neighbour as ourself, promises us nothing other than a cross for doing so, and captures our imagination with a vision that takes the world seriously (what Christmas is all about – God opting in to it) whilst placing it into the context of eternity (where death is refused the final word).

I don’t have a very good memory for poetry, but there is one line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth which has been playing on my mind in the days since the inconclusive General Election:

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself,
And falls on th’other. . . . (Act 1, scene 7, 25-28)

Macbeth intended to kill Duncan, the King, but lacked a motive. The Prime Minister’s ambition tells a different story.

Gordon Brown is leaving office (and, if reports are accurate, politics) amid a mixture of respect and scorn. He craved the top job for so long and yet has only been able to hold on to it for three years. It seems that his dark resentment against Tony Blair blinded him to the limitations of his own abilities. Rather than being content to fulfil his potential in the roles that were suitable for his gifts, his ambition compelled him to manoeuvre his way into a post for which he has always appeared ill-equipped.

Therein lies the tragedy of a good man whose ambition o’erleaped itself and led to a sad departure. Gordon Brown is one of the most eloquently ethical politicians I have ever heard. Intelligent, informed and articulate, he was on his best ground when addressing socio-economic realities through a framework of powerful moral (even biblical) ideals. Those who heard his impassioned appeal to the bishops of the Lambeth Conference at Lambeth Palace in July 2008 will forget the prophetic urgency of his speech – urging the bishops to take seriously their commitment to hold governments to account in relation to the Millenium Development Goals. He was honest not only about the political contraints on politicians, but also about the moral force of bishops (and others, of course) who should keep reminding governments of the commitments they had made.

The best line of the post-election game has been the one about us moving on from the Lib-Lab Pact of the 1970s to the ConDemNation of today. The shenanigans of recent days will soon resolve into some sort of government for next few months. But I suspect that one day the history books will be kinder to Gordon Brown than are the media this week. His policies (under Blair and subsequently) brought many people out of poverty, gave parents a better start and, amid some of the not-so-great elements, treated international aid seriously. He had his weaknesses – but he also had his strengths and these should be recognised.

Perhaps for the first time, he might now get a family life before offering his huge skills and experience to the world in a different capacity. In the meantime, we will no doubt be entertained by other politicians whose ambition is no less than Brown’s. It won’t be an edifying spectacle.