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Were the bishops right to intervene in the Dominic Cummings debate?

Were the bishops right to intervene in the Dominic Cummings debate?

Two members of the team discuss whether the Church of England bishops responded well. 27/05/2020

No – Paul Bickley

Sometimes what seem like the most important issues are just a distraction

Dominic Cummings is a controversial government advisor who was also the Director of the Vote Leave campaign on the European Union referendum. On 27 March, he drove to Durham while his wife was exhibiting COVID–19 symptoms in order to ensure access to family help with childcare should he also fall ill (he subsequently did). There was then a trip to Barnard Castle before he returned to London on 13 April. Mr Cummings disputes further reports that he was seen in the Durham area on 19 April.

I neither hold a candle for nor have an axe to grind when it comes to Mr Cummings and can add little to the debate around his compliance or otherwise with government guidance.

I am, however, interested to see a Psalter (a collective noun for Bishops) criticising not so much Mr Cummings as the Government’s defence of him. Said Vivienne Faull, the bishop of Bristol: “Day 61 #livingdifferently in a nation where the PM has no respect for the people. The bonds of peace and our common life (which had been wonderfully strengthened during the testing by CV–19) have been dangerously undermined this evening”.

The Bishops’ views on this matter have attracted significant interest, and people have asked whether this was a proper intervention. I passionately believe that faith belongs in the public square, including through the interventions of Bishops on all sorts of issues. But on this occasion, my answer to that question is ‘no’ – or, I think that the bishops are politically right, but methodologically and theologically wrong. 

First, the political: the longer the story runs the more it puts government policy – and the government itself –  into disrepute. As some of the bishops pointed out, trust is important and the ‘lockdown’ or other measures will only be effective so long as they’re credible, and their credibility relies on fair application. Whether Mr Cummings technically broke lockdown rules is, on one level, irrelevant. There is often a tipping point to such sagas when it’s clear that the minister/adviser/political appointee is preventing the government from achieving what it wants to achieve. I suspect he will end up having to resign (though to be honest, I would have suspected that would have come before he ended up giving press conferences). To the extent that the Bishops have been making an argument about public trust and compliance, I can’t but agree.

Second, the methodological: I agree in substance with many of the bishops, yet disagree that they should make such commentary through social media, especially when it gives the appearance of them joining an all–too–familiar Twitter pile–on. I’m sure that these decent, charitable human beings did not see themselves as participating in such a thing, but these days we all do have to be conscious of what individual behaviours are when acted out by a crowd. Twenty–six bishops have the privilege of a public platform in the House of Lords. They use it on many issues, bringing their theological wisdom, pastoral experience and institutional heft to bear. They may attract more attention by sounding off on Twitter, but I would say that they’ve merely added heat, not the light of novel or interesting Christian perspectives.

Finally, the theological: Jesus was once confronted with one of the most divisive political question of his day – was it right to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? He was essentially being asked to declare if he was in favour of insurgent tax revolts – but of course the question is intended to trap him, forcing him to declare how he saw his movement. If he said no, then he was a rabble rouser liable to Roman suppression. If yes, then he was a compliant to the imperial regime, and liable to lose the energy of popular support. Jesus’ famous response involves them bringing a coin (their possession of such implying that they had already made their call) and saying that they should give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.

As Nick Spencer shows in our very first report, this text has often been wrongly used to imply that Jesus was disinterested in politics. How could his project to inaugurate the Kingdom of God be anything other than deeply political? But Jesus does refuse the distraction of the seemingly pressing political controversies of the day, which could only be resolved by a decision for the stale categories of subversion or compliance. Jesus was interested in neither, knowing that his task was the introduction of a new possibility. The coin held Caesar’s image, give it to him. If you think you bear God’s image, then give yourself to him, and honour his image in others

In an oppositional political system most political debate is boiled down into either or options, each championed by one or another team. Brexit – the epitome of binary partisan conflict – looms in the background of the Cummings affair. It’s not that it is wrong to support this or that option, or that the political questions of the day are unimportant, but the work of the Kingdom transcends and goes beyond them. It seems to me that the Bishops have jumped feet first into a trap that no one set, leaping from the high ground into a political gutter–fight that will be all but forgotten in a few months. At best, they’ll have caught the (angry and suspicious) public mood. At worst, they’re wasting their platform – at a time when the nation is surely eager to hear more from spiritual leaders – on mundane and arguable matters which will sort themselves out without their assistance.

 

Yes – Hannah Rich

For three reasons, I think the Church of England bishops were right to use their public voices to criticise the handling of the Dominic Cummings affair this weekend.

Firstly, in doing so, they reflected the anger of the millions who had made huge sacrifices in complying with lockdown – not attending funerals, visiting dying loved ones or meeting new babies, for example. Much of the anger towards Mr Cummings stemmed from the perception that the public had been asked to make these difficult compromises while those in charge had not followed suit.

Secondly, the bishops have a stake in the conversation in their own right, as the leaders of an institution that has itself made sacrifices during lockdown. At a time of intense national bereavement, clergy have been asked to turn away funerals from within their own congregations. The complete closure of church buildings throughout lockdown in a perhaps over–zealous interpretation of the government guidance provoked fierce debate and consternation within the church.

The bishops have personally borne the brunt of much of this and have been called upon, including by many of their own clergy, to defend their decisions. They have done so under the impression that they were acting in both the spirit and letter of the national effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. It is understandable that they might therefore feel aggrieved at the suggestion that there was some leeway for individual judgement in the regulations after all. If that had been acknowledged as the situation, any one of the clergy might have reasonably used their own judgement, as Mr Cummings claims to have done, in scenarios just as emotionally wrought.

Throughout the pandemic, the Church of England has placed its trust in the government to the same extent we all have as individual citizens, and the sense in which that trust has been undermined is equally personal.

Thirdly, there is a bigger issue at play than the intricacies of Mr Cummings’ travel itinerary: one of tone. Paul describes the whole matter as a ‘distraction’, but it seems to me that the basic integrity and trustworthiness of those at the heart of politics is of critical importance. The partisan identity of those involved is almost irrelevant; their unwillingness to apologise is not.

Many of the bishops responding spoke about it as a moral rather than political issue, one of the advisor’s attitude not just his behaviour. The Bishop of Newcastle expressed a readiness to forgive poor judgment but also said that forgiveness requires a degree of openness and acknowledgement that was not evident in Mr Cummings’ reaction. This is the message of the Christian gospel; that nothing and no one are beyond forgiveness, however far up the A1 they may have driven, but that repentance and humility matter.

Perhaps some of the bishops were unguarded in the language they used, but given that several of them have reported receiving death threats following their intervention, it is evidently not something they took lightly. However, in calling out the absence of – and need for – the core values of integrity and humility, the bishops demonstrated the very best ‘salt and light’ embodiment of Christianity in the public square.


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 Image: Cubankite/shutterstock.com

Paul Bickley and Hannah Rich

Paul Bickley and Hannah Rich

Paul is Research Fellow at Theos and Hannah is a researcher exploring the relationship between church growth, social action and discipleship, together with Church Urban Fund.

Posted 27 May 2020

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