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.

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.

 

The timing is terrible. The furore over my letter to the Prime Minister has exploded on the day I begin a family holiday in a place with no mobile signal and intermittent wifi. Sky sent a satellite truck to the middle of nowhere and, so, got their interview (although I struggled to hear the questions in my earpiece and, therefore, probably sounded incoherent). Otherwise, it is almost impossible to do interviews.

I think one or two comments of explanation are due:

  • My letter is neither “bitter” not an “attack” on the Prime Minister. That was journalese. My letter simply tries to ask questions many people are asking, but to which we are not getting answers. I wrote reasonably and respectfully.
  • The Prime Minister is in a difficult position and I bet even Ed Miliband is grateful not to have to attempt to bring some order out of the chaos of crises around the globe this month. Prioritising cannot be simple, given the complexity of the issues to hand.
  • Asking questions of “coherence” should not imply that there is none (even if there isn't); it does ask for any coherence to be articulated. We are all implicated in our Government's decisions and should, therefore, be able to understand the big picture into which the reactive details fit.
  • There is no implied hierarchy of suffering in my letter. Asking questions about the lack of attention to the Chritsians in Iraq cannot imply a rejection of the focus on the suffering of others. It is a specific question about silence.
  • It has become clear that many people have written to their MPs (including ministers) about their concerns, and often not even had a reply. Perhaps giving these questions a higher profile might help.
  • I do not expect the Prime Minister or his colleagues to reply immediately to my questions. Indeed, I would prefer to wait and receive a considered response that indicates how these concerns are being addressed holistically than to get a reactive response that doesn't take us further.
  • The central point (backed up by some quoted military leaders) is that there must be some overarching vision about what we want to see happen in the Middle East – the “we” being not just individual governments in isolation from each other. The strategy is the 'plumbing' that gets us there. If a strategy is to be at all coherent, then it must serve the 'end' to which that strategy is the means. It is this that needs to be seriously debated and agreed – as we will then have to accept the price we are prepared to pay in order to make it happen. (For example, if it meant us staying in Iraq for thirty years, rather than ten, will we do it?)
  • I doubt if the Prime Minister will have me on his Christmas card list after this. But, the letter was not an attack on him; it was a questioning of policy and practice. There needs to be a distinction between the letter and the reporting around it.

This is the text of a letter I have sent to the Prime Minister and which will be referenced in national media tomorrow.

Recognising the complexities of such matters and the difficult role of the Prime Minister in them, I wrote the letter as a constructive stimulus to discussion of the wider questions provoked by what is happening in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Attempting to fix the immediate will prove costly in every respect, if we don't have a long-term, overarching and holistic vision for what we – along with other governments, agencies and partners (such as the churches) – need to achieve. The lack of clarity about such a comprehensive and coherent vision is being commonly remarked upon, and my letter seeks concisely and respectfully to elicit some response to these serious questions.

 

Dear Prime Minister,

Iraq and IS

I am conscious of the speed at which events are moving in Iraq and Syria, and write recognising the complexity and interconnectedness of the challenges faced by the international community in responding to the crises in Syria and Iraq.

However, in common with many bishops and other correspondents here in the UK, I remain very concerned about the Government’s response to several issues. I write with the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury to put these questions to you.

1. It appears that, in common with the United States and other partners, the UK is responding to events in a reactive way, and it is difficult to discern the strategic intentions behind this approach. Please can you tell me what is the overall strategy that holds together the UK Government’s response to both the humanitarian situation and what IS is actually doing in Syria and Iraq? Behind this question is the serious concern that we do not seem to have a coherent or comprehensive approach to Islamist extremism as it is developing across the globe. Islamic State, Boko Haram and other groups represent particular manifestations of a global phenomenon, and it is not clear what our broader global strategy is – particularly insofar as the military, political, economic and humanitarian demands interconnect. The Church internationally must be a primary partner in addressing this complexity.

2. The focus by both politicians and media on the plight of the Yezidis has been notable and admirable. However, there has been increasing silence about the plight of tens of thousands of Christians who have been displaced, driven from cities and homelands, and who face a bleak future. Despite appalling persecution, they seem to have fallen from consciousness, and I wonder why. Does your Government have a coherent response to the plight of these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others? Or are we simply reacting to the loudest media voice at any particular time?

3. As yet, there appears to have been no response to pleas for asylum provision to be made for those Christians (and other minorities) needing sanctuary from Iraq in the UK. I recognise that we do not wish to encourage Christians or other displaced and suffering people to leave their homeland – the consequences for those cultures and nations would be extremely detrimental at every level – but for some of them this will be the only recourse. The French and German governments have already made provision, but there has so far been only silence from the UK Government. Therefore, I ask for a response to the question of whether there is any intention to offer asylum to Iraqi migrants (as part of a holistic strategy to addressing the challenges of Iraq)?

4. Following on from this, I note that the Bishop of Coventry tabled a series of questions to HM Government in the House of Lords on Monday 28 July. All but two were answered on Monday 11 August. The outstanding questions included the following: “The Lord Bishop of Coventry to ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to resettling here in the UK a fair proportion of those displaced from ISIS controlled areas of Northern Iraq.” I would be grateful to know why this question has not so far been answered – something that causes me and colleagues some concern.

5. Underlying these concerns is the need for reassurance that a commitment to religious freedom will remain a priority for the Government, given the departure of ministers who championed this. Will the Foreign Secretary's Human Rights Advisory Panel continue under the new Foreign Secretary? Is this not the time to appoint an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom – which would demonstrate the Government’s serious commitment to developing an overarching strategy (backed by expertise) against Islamist extremism and violence?.

I look forward to your considered response to these pressing questions.

Yours sincerely,

The Rt Revd Nicholas Baines (The Bishop of Leeds)

 

 

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…)