Bishop Tom's Thought for the Day

The script of Bishop's Tom's Thought for the Day on Radio 4 (8 May 2014), with reference to a former Bishop of Bradford and the abdication crisis of Edward VIII.

A recent Science festival was a sold out success.  The subject Tipping Points is perhaps best illustrated by grain after grain being added to a stable pile of sand.   There comes a point when one extra grain will make the whole pile unstable  and a mini-avalanche occurs.  The same phenomenon occurs in climate change, computer science, banking and politics - tipping points can unexpectedly be encountered in all of them, sometimes with dramatic results.

We came across an episcopal tipping point a couple of weeks ago.  On Easter Day a new large diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales was created from three former smaller dioceses.  In closing down the office of the bishop of Bradford a mini-archive was unearthed, the papers relating to Bishop Blunt, Bishop of Bradford in 1937 at the time of the abdication crisis of Edward 8th.

Stories of the affair which the king was having with the American divorcee were being carried in newspapers all over Europe and America, but there was a news embargo in the British media and nobody was breaking it, so the British people were in ignorance of the biggest news story of the day.   Then Bishop Blunt delivered a sermon to a church conference.   The theme of the sermon was Grace.    "We are all in need of God's grace"' he said, "including the king with his many responsibilities," then, the Bishop went on, warming to his subject, "some of us wish that the king showed more awareness of this."

Those simple words proved to be the media tipping point.   The press believed that the bishop had breached the embargo on the kings affair and so they were free to do likewise, and so the constitutional landslide gathered pace with stories in every newspaper and the king, locked into an unwinable dispute with prime minister and archbishop, eventually being forced to abdicate.

The uncovered archive relates the vitriolic letters which the bishop received, and his diaries reveal that he was both surprised and hurt by them, for he always maintained that when he prepared his sermon he knew nothing of the king's affair, he was merely meaning to be mildly critical of the fact that the king didn't always attend church on Sundays.      Be that as it may, those few words changed history in a way totally unintended by the bishop.

I guess there's a moral in this for public figures including bishops.   Words meant to be prophetic often fall on deaf ears,  whereas simple words can have  unexpected and sometimes catastrophic consequences - everything depends upon whether they are spoken into a situation near tipping point.   It should be called the bishop blunt effect.


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