Those misfiring bishops! I want to believe I am being too harsh.
Assuredly the nation is in fine spiritual health, in spite of all we have heard and seen on the streets, for the bishops of the Church of England have stayed silent on spiritual matters and now they have spoken, they have addressed Brexit instead. We must assume that there is no need for their input in spiritual matters, or they would surely have made that a priority.
The open letter from 25 diocesan bishops published this week begins on the issue of a No-Deal Brexit, which they assert (against the prevailing evidence) will have a “massive impact” on the poorest (with not a word for the entrepreneurs). It is not certain whether they mean “no withdrawal agreement”, which is the immediate political issue, or “no free trade agreement”, or whether all those who signed appreciate the distinction between the two. The admonition in the letter is directed at the Government, which again is puzzling, because the government is trying to do a deal: it would be better addressed to those who have pledged to oppose any deal which the government brings back from Brussels.
Is it any wonder that this studiously politically balanced letter comes out, to some eyes, as anything but that?
The main issue for the bishops, surely, is the second issue, thrown into the bullet points at the end, namely the quality of public discourse. That is a spiritual matter.
“Political polarisation and language that appears to sanction hate crime: the reframing of the language of political discourse is urgent”: there no Brexiteer will differ for we have for the last three years been constantly insulted, shouted down, belittled, slandered, threatened and in some cases even been pursued by vexatious law-suits. Remainiacs have been targeted too where they have stepped beyond decent behaviour. That is a moral failing. They have not suffered anything like the relentless campaign suffered by even moderate Leave-voters. Do the signatories mean the local, personal persecution of Leave voters equally with Remoaners, or are they just looking from a distance, without dirtying their hands, at depersonalised social media?
The worse threat is not electronic words but real-world confrontation. The face of screaming self-justified hatred is horrifying.
There is a spiritual sickness in the idea a man may conceive that his ideas and only his are valid and acceptable or intelligent, and all others are dehumanised crud. Bishops are right to address this. That is their proper role. Regrettably, some of their number (not necessarily those who signed the letter, though certainly one of them) have fallen victim to the malady themselves.
“The ease with which lies can be told and misrepresentation encouraged: leaders must be honest about the costs of political choices, especially for those most vulnerable.” You should not argue in favour of lies and misrepresentations, but then it is yoked to honesty about the costs of political choices, which in the context of the no-deal Brexit concerns is zinged at the current Cabinet. Is that wise? The belters in this post-referendum period have emerged from the LibDem machine. They deserve at least a mention.
Are the signatory bishops then accusing Boris Johnson of lying in this matter? He has a history in his personal and professional lives of exaggerating, through his teeth on occasion, but in this context there is no falsity, only interpretation. It is a moral failing to lie; it is also a moral failing to accuse others unjustly of lying.
There follow platitudes. This is as expected. I am though puzzled by the last: “Attention must be paid not only to the Union, but also to the meaning of Englishness”. The meaning of Englishness is a mystery to me. It ceased to have a meaning centuries ago as the nation discovered its completeness as we became Britons. The Church of England is left alone caring for a snippet of the wider nation. Once the church had a worldwide vision, now too localised. Perhaps a world-spanning vision from a Brexit born through such unexpected struggle.
In this then we have a letter which is right in its words but wrong somehow in its conception or giving the impression of being so.
When at last we can get Brexit over the line, the vision of healing a fractured society for which the bishops plead may be able to take a step forward. Achieving that break must be a priority for the healing of the nation. Then churchmen and laymen can together work to diagnose the sickness and cast it out. We must bring the nation to its knees, in prayer.
- Fixing the Withdrawal Agreement
- The Withdrawal Agreement: a commentary
- Treason, stupidity, recklessness or hypocrisy?
- Westminster in the exit endgame
- For the Record by David Cameron
- All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class by Tim Shipman
- Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union by Harold D. Clarke, Matthew Goodwin and Paul Whiteley
- Brexit: How the Nobodies Beat the Somebodies by Sebastian J. Handley
- Brexit and Ireland: The Dangers, the Opportunities, and the Inside Story of the Irish Response by Tom Connelly
- Beyond Brexit by Vernon Bogdanor
- From Partition to Brexit: The Irish Government and Northern Ireland by Donnacha O Beachain
- Brexit: Its Necessity and Challenge by Tony Kosuge
- Rising Tides: Facing the Challenges of a New Era by Liam Fox
- By Boris Johnson: