Bishop Nick has called on Christians to model a different way of conducting public discourse.
In his Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod on Saturday, Bishop Nick referred to what he termed ‘the corruption’ of public debate around current issues such as Brexit, migration and the US Presidential election. He said “Christians need to be engaged in cleaning up the nature of public debate . . . [we need] to refuse to collude with or be corrupted by what is swilling around in the media."
He said that the response of some newspapers to the recent High Court ruling was an example of something that should be contested: “The legal clarification sought in the High Court was entirely reasonable. . . The rule of law should never be taken for granted. It is hard won and can be very easily lost. So, even if you think Brexit is the right move for Britain, you should be very alarmed at newspapers referring to judges as ‘enemies of the people’ [or suggesting] that we should get rid of judges who don’t do what certain politicians want and replace them with ones they do . . . Isn’t this precisely the sort of sovereignty that Brexit was supposed to guarantee to the UK in the first place? When we accept our judges being labelled “enemies of the people” for doing their job, then we will be inviting the Law of Unintended Consequences to apply – where civil society is corrupted bit by bit because we can’t be bothered to contest it. Europe has been here before.
"[And in the USA] we see the final throes of a presidential election that has been reduced to an abusive slanging match that is hardly going to commend ‘democracy’ to those countries we so often think should be compelled to enjoy it."
He said that Professor Brian Cox and Professor David Wilkinson at the diocese’s recent clergy conference had modeled “how to have substantial conversations about things that matter. They did this in relation to science, in a way that took us beyond the sort of nonsense prejudicing and name-calling we see between fundamentalist religious people and fundamentalist atheists.
“How we speak to, with and about one another matters far more than we might wish to think. We need to speak differently, refuse to collude with or be corrupted by what is swilling around in the media and on social media, and hold to account those who threaten the nature of our discourse by what they choose to say or print.”
He called on the synod, as it goes about its business of shaping a diocese “that reflects the nature of the Christ we serve”, to “pay attention to how our discourse might offer a different model to that which we see in parts of our media and our political world".
The full text of the address is below:
Presidential address, Leeds Diocesan Synod, 5 November 2016
The fifth of November. The day we remember how we used to burn Roman Catholics in this country.
Last Monday I preached in the church where Martin Luther became and served as a monk. The Augustinerkloster in Erfurt looks today much like it did when Luther prostrated himself before the altar and took his vows. I was there with a group from this diocese, having been invited to preach on the 499th anniversary of Luther (allegedly) nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche in Wittenberg. Last Monday kicked off the year of celebration and commemoration of the Reformation and will conclude on 31 October 2017.
The Reformation divided Europe and changed the world for ever. Yet, when the German monk decided to challenge what he saw as ecclesiastical perversions of the gospel and church order he did not intend to create a new church. He wanted to heal the church and return it to its proper form and role. Yet, he discovered quickly that it is easier to set off destructive events than it is to stop or control them. The Law of Unintended Consequences led to civil uprisings, religiously-inspired violence, civil war and political settlements that exist to this day in Germany. The Reformation marks the recovery of the primacy of God’s grace as revealed in Scripture; yet, it also calls to memory some dreadful passions, all-too-human rejections of grace, and Christians who could no longer see each other as belonging to the same church.
The legacy was the rise of the Enlightenment partly as a reaction against religious power and the violence of the Thirty Years War. It is significant that in Germany the Reformation Jubilee is being marked by a huge degree of ecumenical partnership, with the Pope even launching the year in Sweden last weekend. It has taken 500 years and we are not there yet. It is easy to divide – hard to reconcile. And yet we are a church fired by a gospel of reconciliation, committed to a ministry of reconciliation, needing to be very careful that the decisions we make do not deny that gospel or ministry itself.
I mention this this morning for several reasons. First, because our diocesan link with Erfurt is one we wish to strengthen. In the light of Brexit, our European links take on an even greater importance. Secondly, and as I said in my sermon in Erfurt, we need to learn our history and learn from it. If we do not know where we have come from, then we cannot know who we are. Thirdly, our reading of Reformation history should provoke in us a humility that comes from recognising that we are firmly placed in this world while being fired by a vision of another world, but that our this-worldliness can easily lead us to behave in ways that deny the nature of the Christ we are called (by the Apostle Paul) to imitate.
However, my other reason for starting with the Reformation and last week’s Erfurt visit is that every generation faces its unique challenges and choices. One of the challenges we face in the UK in 2016 is the slow corruption of our public and political discourse. It is not coincidental that the former Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, a committed Roman Catholic now running media in New York, has just published a book titled ‘Enough Said’ in which he – correctly and possibly prophetically in my view – names the currents of bile, destructiveness and dehumanising contempt that colours the public discourse in Britain, across Europe and in the United States. I offer you Brexit, migration and the US Presidential election.
Like charity, let’s start at home. Whether you voted in the June Referendum to remain in or leave the European Union, the fact is that the vote went the way of Brexit. Not overwhelmingly – we now live in a very divided country. The referendum, however, was advisory and did not legally or constitutionally bind the government (or Parliament) to deliver on the decision – this in contrast to the AV referendum that was binding. Hence, the legal clarification sought this week in the High Court was entirely reasonable and, it could be argued, entirely necessary. The question of who, in a representative parliamentary democracy and following a non-binding referendum, has the right to trigger negotiations that then lead inexorably to a radically different constitutional settlement, is a very important one.
The courts ruled this week, and immediately allowed an appeal by the government to the Supreme Court. That is how the rule of law, based on an independent judiciary, is supposed to work in the sort of parliamentary democracy we rightly celebrate and value in this country. The rule of law should never be taken for granted. It is hard won and can be very easily lost.
So, even if you think Brexit is the right move for Britain and you want to see it happen quickly, you should be very alarmed at newspapers referring to judges as “enemies of the people”. Several newspapers suggested yesterday that we should get rid of judges who don’t do what certain politicians want and replace them with ones they do. Now, does that sound familiar? And do you spot the serious risk to the rule of law. And isn’t this precisely the sort of sovereignty that Brexit was supposed to guarantee to the UK in the first place?
As racism, intolerance and violence increase across Europe, it is probably just as well we can look to the Land of the Free to keep us sane and safe, isn’t it? Oh. So, even there we see the final throes of a presidential election that has been reduced to an abusive slanging match that is hardly going to commend ‘democracy’ to those countries and people we so often think should be compelled to enjoy it.
But, it is the threat to the public conversation that is so dangerous and potentially poisonous. How we speak to, with and about one another matters far more than we might wish to think. Christians must speak differently, refuse to collude with or be corrupted by what is swilling around in the media and on social media, and hold to account those who threaten the nature of our discourse by what they choose to say or print.
When we accept our judges being labelled “enemies of the people” for doing their job, then we will be inviting the Law of Unintended Consequences to apply – where civil society is corrupted bit by bit by bit because we can’t be bothered to contest it. Europe has been here before.
Now, you might be feeling a little morose at this point. You should be. However, as someone once said, “don’t shout at the darkness – light a candle”. How might we respond positively to this challenge?
Since this synod last met the clergy of the diocese – 400 of them – convened at Liverpool Hope University for the first clergy conference since we were created at Easter 2014. One of the highlights of the three-day event was a presentation and dialogue between Professor Brian Cox and Professor David Wilkinson on the theme Science, the Cosmos and Human Meaning. After each had presented – and boggled most of us with stuff we didn't always understand (but still tried to look as if we did) – I moderated a dialogue between them. Brian needs no introduction: an agnostic with a huge media as well as academic presence. David, a Methodist minister with experience of inner-city ministry in Liverpool and a gift for Radio 4's Thought for the Day, has doctorates in astrophysics and theology (which is a bit greedy) and is Principal of St John's College, Durham.
After lunch – which was dominated by students wanting selfies … not with me – clergy asked questions of both guests and the conversation continued. It was interesting, intelligent, informed, generous and completely riveting.
But, why did we do it?
One of the things Brian Cox is concerned about is how to bring public institutions and disciplines together to model how to have substantial conversations about things that matter and to offer an alternative to the appalling public – mainly political – discourse we are subjected to during these difficult and uncertain times. In fact, that is why I invited the two professors to come in the first place. Clergy, lay people, bishops, the church need to be engaged in cleaning up the nature of public debate, and one way to help do this is to model it. David Wilkinson and Brian Cox did this in relation to science, but in a way that took us beyond the sort of nonsense prejudicing and name-calling we see between fundamentalist religious people and fundamentalist atheists. Brian and David explored the differences between the ‘how’ questions and the ‘why’ questions of human existence.
We are now looking at how to take this forward. If you can get to any of Brian Cox’s live shows (currently touring the UK), do enjoy what this looks and sounds like. Here we see an agnostic and a Christian both begin in the same place: looking at the enormous beauty and complexity of the multiverse and wondering what matters in the life of it. It is not unusual to have a common existential or intellectual starting point.
(We are now looking at a Lay Conference one day in early 2018 – it has not proved possible to get a suitable day at a suitably large venue in 2017.)
So, today we as a synod continue to work at shaping the nature and mechanics of our internal discourse as a church. Standing Orders might not be words that float everybody’s boat, but they provide the parameters in which we can then conduct our internal synodical conversations and decision-making. How we speak with one another will say something about whether how we speak outside the church will have any credibility. We will discuss deaneries and deanery synods – again, not words that inspire martyrdom in the minds of many people. Yet, the purpose of deaneries and their synods is not simply to order the life of the church, but to set us free to pay attention to our mission of reconciliation in the world and how we go about it. Structures are there for a purpose, and the purpose is not simply to perpetuate a structure as an end in itself. We will look at the vital matter of education and what sort of people we want our children and young people to grow up to be. Education is not an end in itself, but a means to an end: nurturing good and godly human beings, neighbours, citizens, who live and work for the common good. Safeguarding is a vital part of our common duty to ensure that our churches are safe places for all people, especially children and vulnerable adults.
In other words, our agenda might look a little inward-focused at first glance. It isn’t. It is part of the work we still need to do in order to enable us to be the church our region needs us to be for the sake of God and his kingdom.
Brothers and sisters, I trust we will speak with one another in love, and speak of the church in love – offering mercy and generosity in the place of suspicion and mistrust. Together we can continue to shape a diocese – and its communication by word and deed – that reflects the nature of the Christ we serve and serves the world for whom we are called. Together we might pay attention to how our discourse might offer a different model to that which we see in parts of our media and our political world.
And let us remember that, as Martin Luther discovered in such a revolutionary way, in the end it is all about grace.