Archbishop writes in the Sunday Times

22/12/2019

The Archbishop writes today in the Sunday Times newspaper. The article follows in full...

Groucho Marx defined politics as "the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.” Does that analysis explain why 31% of those entitled to vote in this month’s General Election chose not to do so and why 28% of the electorate shunned the 2016 Referendum? Or was it just lethargy? Or a sense of personal insignificance? Whatever their motives, the non-voters bear a shared responsibility for the results. As Rabbi Abraham Herschel aptly said, ‘We must continue to remind ourselves that in a free society, all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, all are responsible.'[1]  Nevertheless, it should leave us feeling uneasy that nearly a third of our neighbours turned down the invitation to play their part in the democratic process.  

We are left with a polarised society, where some feel triumphant and others despair. Some are relieved, others are full of fear.  These are raw divisions which will not be cured by ignoring them. Nor can we simply agree to disagree. Some Scots are eager right now to exchange their membership of the United Kingdom for union with the rest of Europe.

English people are bewildered by the political aspirations of their neighbours. They had supposed their Scottish, Welsh and Irish cousins to be reflections of themselves, rather than nations with distinctive cultural identities. That’s not surprising, since Englishmen have found it difficult to define ‘Englishness’, other than by singing ‘Jerusalem’!  As far back as 1975, the Welsh Theologian Daniel Jenkins warned,” Most English people identify being British with being English and find it hard to treat distinctive Scottish or Welsh nationality as anything but an amusing or tiresome eccentricity.  Scots and Welsh people bitterly resent this.” He continued, "The English, the Scots and the Welsh need the best of each other to bring out the best in themselves.  This in no way minimises the right of each to assert their own identities.”[2]

There is an urgent need for the United Kingdom to discover subsidiarity and apply it.  ‘Subsidiarity’ is the notion that a central authority should have a secondary role, performing only those tasks which cannot be dealt with at a more local level.  It became known after Pope Pius XI used the term in 1931 and was paralleled by the neo-Calvinist construct of ‘sphere-sovereignty’.  Agreement between those two authorities is itself noteworthy!

Respect for national identities must lead to the greater devolution of decision-making across the UK. Regional identity must also be honoured.  As an adopted Yorkshireman, I have been facilitating discussions about devolution – One Yorkshire with an elected mayor. Other regions are doing the same.

That is not to say that all our problems can be solved by new structures.  Political Utopia is the atheist’s pipe-dream.  Leave God out of the equation, and chaos will ensue.  W B Yeats’ poem, ‘The Second Coming’, which was a gloomy analysis of the world he inhabited in 1919, is being quoted for its uncanny significance a century later.  Here’s an extract:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere 
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats envisaged some monstrous apocalypse just round the corner, with no recognition of God’s purposes.

It would be unfair of me to quote Professor Richard Dawkins in support of my beliefs, but he recently voiced a fear that if religion were abolished it would "give people a licence to do really bad things".  Saying that security camera surveillance of customers appeared to deter shoplifting, he thought people might feel free to do wrong without a "divine spy camera in the sky reading their every thought”.  Of course, he didn’t warm to the idea and nor do I.  God isn’t a cosmic CCTV operator, surrounded by banks of screens which record our sins.  

But God does hold us accountable.  It’s put concisely in the New Testament: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”[3] There’s an unspoken view that this will apply only to subscribers, as though the formula, “But I don’t believe” will earn immunity at the Last Judgment.

Perhaps we in the Church became too complacent when the majority in this country claimed to be at least nominally Christian. We had forgotten that each generation needed to be converted afresh.

The commemoration of Christmas reintroduces each of us – believer and non-believer – to the astonishing picture of a powerless baby as the closest representation of the Almighty Creator that human beings could bear to contemplate.

Grow with this child as he grows, day by day.  Let your conversation be transformed by the knowledge that he is close-by, willing you to heed your better self.  Get to know all that he said and did and invite his personality to transform yours.  That’s my Christmas prayer for us all.

 

[1] (Robert McAfee Brown, Abraham Heschel and Michael Novak, Vietnam: Crisis of Conscience (New York: Association Press, 1967); also Evelyn Wilcock, Pacifism and the Jews (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Hawthorne Press, 1994), p. 169.)

[2] The British, Their Identity and Religion, Daniel Jenkins 1975, SCM Press

[3] 2 Corinthians, Chapter 5, verse 10