This is the text of an article I wrote for the Yorkshire Post on Saturday 19 September 2020.

I have two images in my mind. One is the old BT commercial that told us in various ways, “It’s good to talk”; the second is the title of a book by the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks: ‘The Dignity of Difference’. Both run the risk of sounding good as long as we don’t get down to detail.

It is no secret that societies seem more fragmented today than they were a decade ago. We don’t need to identify all the changes across the world, but just use a word like Brexit and watch what happens. Differences have always been there, but the fissures seem more exposed these days, and the language more violent. Social media clearly don’t help; they draw people into echo chambers in which the temperature is raised and the room for mutual comprehension or compromise is, at best squeezed, and at worst eliminated. Every argument forces a binary choice – with me or against me. Families have been split over political identity; everything is something to be angry about.

On the other hand, we saw during lockdown how people came together to celebrate and thank our frontline workers – crossing otherwise powerful fault lines and encouraging people to make common cause in a common ritual of gratitude.

The big challenge for us all, however, is how we hold onto the precious experiences of connection and move on from some of the powerful drivers of division. We have a mutual interest in making things better – even if there are powerful voices that exploit chaos and profit from discord.

BT was right: it is good to talk. But, there has to be a relationship from which the conversation can flourish. Talking at is not the same as talking with. And we clearly need to find a vocabulary for talking together about hard choices and opposing opinions.

Jonathan Sacks, in the title of his book, hits on something powerful. As long as there are people – every individual unique and with a different view of the world and why things matter – there will be difference. But, difference is not the same thing as division. The question for us in the noisy autumn of 2020 is not to do with avoiding conflict or pretending to some false unity; rather, it is how to find ways of reconnecting with those from whom we differ in order to disagree well (unless we have the courage to learn, grow and – heaven forbid – change our mind).

Easy to say, but hard to do. How is our society going to find ways of rejecting mere acceptance that division has to follow difference and find the nerve to come together? As the Covid crisis develops and our lives have become less certain, how might we avoid deepening conflict and creating a genuine way of holding together in a common society? For the pandemic hasn’t created disunity, it has exacerbated it. But its consequences have also exposed wider tensions between generations, ethnic groups and degrees of affluence.

Well, like most things in life, the beginning of an answer won’t be found in grand political statements or even economic fixes. Community goes deeper than these social arrangements and power factors. It is rooted in relationships that are honest, humble and realistic.

I chair a new coalition that aims to find ways of encouraging just this and it is starting work in Yorkshire. Called /together, it has emerged from some of the country’s leading businesses, arts, media, politics, youth organisations, charities and faith communities getting together to look for practical ways of doing something – not just complaining about the problems. This is not, however, a top-down organisation aimed at do-gooders dropping their protected benevolence onto a grateful society; rather, it aims at listening, convening, encouraging and resourcing local initiatives for bringing people together in common conversation and common life.

One of the first initiatives, aimed at providing genuine intelligence, is a massive national conversation. Anyone and everyone can join in. We want to hear people’s real concerns and see where they see the potential for creating a kinder and closer society. An online survey, together with conversations with people across the UK, starting here in Yorkshire next week,will help us to understand where difference has descended into division – and where, together, we might begin to address this in a humane, intelligent and mature way. The survey can be accessed at www.together.org.uk and will not take long to complete. Every voice needs to be heard. Other initiatives will soon follow, shaped by what we find out.

Why start here? Simply because we won’t find any answers until we have identified the right questions. In other words, dialogue and conversation must always begin with mutual listening. Listening leads to hearing, and hearing might just lead to understanding … even if not to agreement.

Difference can be dignified. It needn’t be a threat. In fact, in my own Christian tradition Jesus chose friends who (the Gospels make clear) didn’t necessarily like each other. They had different personalities, experiences and priorities. But, their task was to hold together –sometimes despite themselves. They had to learn to love, to make space for each other.

Together must always be better than apart.

It barely seems possible that only 40 hours ago a young MP was murdered on the streets of a quiet West Yorkshire town known previously for science (Joseph Priestley) and the Brontes. I spent much of the last two days in Birstall, doing media interviews and trying to support the local vicar and church. I make the following brief observations not for the benefit of the wider world (as if…), but in order that I should not lose for myself the impressions of the last couple of days.

  • Jo Cox was an unusual MP because she represented the place she grew up in and the people among whom she grew up. She not only did not forget her roots in Yorkshire grit, she returned to live among them. Hence the emotional impact locally – she was one of them.
  • The thoughts that keep,me awake have little to do with politics and everything to do with her husband and children. This is a grievous loss – an unimaginable cruelty to them as well as to Jo herself.
  • The man charged has now owned in court his far right, nationalist motive: he gave his name as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. Although speculation about motive was unhelpful in the early hours after Jo's death, there was one observation that merited consideration: the political discourse in this country is poisonous – and recognised beyond our borders to be so. To put it bluntly: if the linguistic and cultural pool we swim in is poisoned day after day – with opponents in the Referendum debate being dismissed as dishonest, corrupt, abusable and our European partners being daily written off as corrupt, incompetent and (their real crime) foreign – then we shouldn't be surprised when some people, for whatever broken and destructive reason, push language to consequent action.
  • If you haven't seen it, watch the German film Die Welle ('The Wave').
  • I am so proud of the local church in Birstall and the vicar, Paul Knight, who, never having been faced by anything like this before, did what the Anglican Parish Church is there to do: created space for all-comers to come together and share shock and grief. But, this space was not empty space – the few words spoken by Paul, by me and by the Bishop of Huddersfield were intended to do two things: (a) offer a vocabulary for grief and lament, and (b) to offer a framework for living for a time with unspeakable reflection not only about Jo Cox and her family, but also about our own mortality and fragility. Civilisation is thin. But, it is not bishops who do this day by day in a particular place; it is clergy and their people who, confident that the cross speaks of looking the real world in the eye (with all its brutality, injustice and agony), make space for grief in the context of resurrection. This violence and appalling destructiveness do not and will not have the final word.
  • Many of Jo Cox's fellow MPs were there at St Peter's, Birstall on Thursday evening. I feel strongly for them. For several of them – young parents themselves – the fragility was clear. As I said in the vigil: MPs do not simply curse the darkness, but light a candle to dispel it. They commit themselves to a vision for which they then work amazingly hard. What they get from a public fed by a cynical media is abuse, suspicion and sneering resentment. This must stop. Social media do not help in this, but consideration must now given to the potential legal consequences for those who threaten and abuse on social media.

Enough for now. I have a family celebration to go to in Liverpool. And I am not insensitive to the poignancy of this.

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.)