A joint letter from five Archbishops should be a thunderous moral pronouncement, but instead it was a string of worn clichés and basic errors, factual and political, which exposed them all to ridicule. This does not assist the mission of the Church.
Led into a new Babylonish Captivity of the Church, a profound reformation may be needed to rescue the Body of Christ from its misled leaders. It is not the ill-considered letter itself which provokes such consideration, but what it demonstrates about the mindset which has come to captivate those entrusted with authority, when seen along with the actual moral questions which year by year they refuse to address.
It was not to The Times that they wrote but to a formerly respected publication, the Pink ‘Un. There the respected Archbishops of the Church of England, Church of Ireland and Church in Wales, and the president of the formerly Christian episcopal church in Scotland, all thundered like mice.
There is a difficulty of where to start. It is appropriate for a prelate to prate on moral matters and on political issues where morality or theology is concerned, or to expound from his wisdom on subjects which lesser intellects may find too hard to grasp in the round. He is always prone to error, as are we all, which is why a collective letter by five minds is so solemn an undertaking, and such an step must always be undertaken with solemn consideration of all facts and arguments in a balanced manner; in failing to do so, all parties are discredited. It should not have been done.
We can leave assign the grating reference to “the four nations of the United Kingdom”, when for three hundred years we have surely been one nation. That is a common modern crassness. It is the substance that concerns me. They state boldly:
“The bill represents a profound shift in how trading relationships within the UK will be regulated and governed. This will not be a return to a trade regime that existed before UK joined the EU; it will be an entirely novel system, replacing one that evolved slowly and by careful negotiation over decades.”
This is plain falsehood. Over centuries there has been complete freedom of trade across the nation, and what is this “careful negotiation over decades”? Can they point to a single one affecting domestic trade within the nation? Surely this alone, as an allegation of fact, should have borne some examination?
For years we have been lectured by bishops on the moral necessity of unity and the avoidance of all division. Now it seems that they are demanding divisions in the nation. This is disquieting.
The answer to the mysterious mispronouncements may be hidden in plain sight: they have taken in the observations of the politicians in Holyrood and Cardiff Bay, and not subjected these to critical analysis. It affects they say “the principles and the effect of devolved policymaking”, but in no place does it withdraw power from these devolved bodies, as the powers in question hitherto resided in Brussels. Had they but read the material, this would have been clear, but by listening to the rhetoric of dishonest politicians they are willingly misled.
Then again, what business is it of the Archbishops to determine the exact powers given to different limbs of the state? If Westminster were to abolish the devolved assemblies and provide complete equality between all citizens, that is for Westminster to choose, and there is no moral position either way that concerns the clergy. Yet the politicking of local politicians has held them, but no representation from the government has. Why not, I do not know and would have to ask a bishop, if he will tell me.
There is a technical word for this behaviour: “prejudice”, which is to say in its proper sense prejudging an issue without balanced consideration. It is exactly what a senior clergyman should not do, and it is exactly what the modern spirit of confrontation encourages.
There are reasons this blog has recently carried articles quoting Hobbes on ‘Madnesse’. His analysis is not clinical but perhaps more insightful than that, as going to the heart of the causes, and finding those same causes to produce folly in those who are on the surface wise. The next section of his discourse in Leviathan is very much to the point here:
This opinion of Inspiration, called commonly, Private Spirit, begins very often, from some lucky finding of an Errour generally held by others; and not knowing, or not remembring, by what conduct of reason, they came to so singular a truth, (as they think it, though it be many times an untruth they light on,) they presently admire themselves; as being in the speciall grace of God Almighty, who hath revealed the same to them supernaturally, by his Spirit.Leviathan
I fear that much the same has gripped our senior prelates. In those circumstances the judgment of the learned Primates is no better than that of certain other primates I could mention.
In the grip of this Private Spirit, and prejudice, it no wonder that the letter then ranges over accusations unsupported by the text before them about departing from the Good Friday Agreement or the European Convention on Human Rights: indeed it has been observed that the Bill they have recently rejected supports the Good Friday Agreement against attack from the European Union, but in the grip of fixed prejudice there is no reasoning.
The final observation of the Archbishops’ letter is one which would have Hobbes guffawing at it follow:
“If carefully negotiated terms are not honoured and laws can be “legally” broken, on what foundations does our democracy stand?”
The humblest workman in his parlour knows what democracy is. Democracy entrusts the making and unmaking of laws, and the supervision of government, to elected representatives. That is a plain definition. Its foundation stands on free voting and acceptance of the system. It has nothing whatsoever with international treaties, and those treaties are not law, as I have observed before, nor can they be, as Hobbes observes. A treaty, however solemnly negotiated and signed, is a thing made without the involvement of the House of Commons – it is in effect then a negation of democracy, and if democracy had its hands tied by a treaty signed by the government or its ambassador, then democracy is castrated.
Invoking the name of “democracy” to support a political proposition is a form of idolatry. There may be a moral element to keeping to treaties, as there may be a moral cause for departing from an ill-starred treaty, and there may be a word for it that the bishops can choose – it may be ‘honorificabilitudinitatibus’, but it is not ‘democracy’.
For the errours of Definitions multiply themselves, according as the reckoning proceeds; and lead men into absurdities, which at last they see, but cannot avoyd, without reckoning anew from the beginning; in which lyes the foundation of their errours. … in the right Definition of Names, lyes the first use of Speech; which is the Acquisition of Science: And in wrong, or no Definitions’ lyes the first abuse; from which proceed all false and senslesse Tenets;Leviathan
To mend this follies amongst senior clergy will not be easy. They are too deep, and re-enforced by the collegiate habits of office. The Archbishop of Canterbury is a profoundly intelligent man, but I venture to say is prey to the same failings as any man, and to write this I am aware of my own failings in that way too.