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Letters to the Editor

11 October 2019

The College of Bishops’ Brexit statement, the state of prisons, and Simone Weil in Spain


The College of Bishops’ statement about Brexit

From Mr Simon Neale

Sir, — Your concern to heal divisions caused by the Brexit debate (Leader comment, 4 October) is laudable, but there are no grounds for addressing that by vitiating the result of a binary-choice referendum.

The choice given by Parliament to the electorate in June 2016 could not have been clearer. Evidence of lies’ being told is not evidence that people believed them, or that people who disagree with us are for that reason lacking in moral discernment.

The 1975 referendum on continued membership of the Common Market did not lead to the UK having only two-thirds full membership, on the grounds that only two-thirds of those who voted actually supported continued membership; nor can I recall any case being made for withdrawal because the majority of the population — even the majority of the electorate — did not express approval.

There are many things that can be done to address the very real concerns of those on the losing side of important votes. In this country, we have a tradition of respecting minority views, and — when we really rise to it — a pragmatic magnanimity in applying the results of big decisions.

The Church should be encouraging these. There was nothing different about the Brexit vote which renders it less valid and binding than others.

The Glebe House
41 Furners Mead, Henfield
West Sussex BN5 9JA

From Morag Lobley

Sir, — I write, in defence of the statement made by the College of Bishops. Honouring the result surely means just that. What else are the Bishops to say? If we don’t honour the result of a referendum to which the electorate subscribed, then where is democracy? Similarly, to respect the Referendum is to respect the process legitimately brought about.

I don’t see that the statement begins in a way that is “supremely party-political”, but in the way that the Church of England normally operates. If the Church had any doubts about respecting a referendum, then those doubts should have been expressed when the referendum was first posited. Likewise, if the result was not to be honoured, then again, that should have been made known at the outset.

Having made the statements they did, there seems no reason why the Bishops should not also offer a word of support for EU citizens who are feeling under threat. I can see no discontinuity in their doing so.

I am not writing from any extreme far-Right belief, far from it, and questions may be asked about the value of a vote that has split the population so evenly; but I cannot agree that the Bishops’ statement undermines due process and governance.

Mill House
Thorverton EX5 5LX

From Mr Nigel Wildish

Sir, — Your editorial reminded me of a comment made by the Archbishop of Canterbury in December 2016, in answer to a paper which the Conference of European Churches issued in May 2016, “What Future for Europe?”

The Archbishop made interesting comments in the light of the outcome of the June 2016 Referendum. He began by chiding the authors for not basing their thoughts on the gospel, and counted the references to Christ, the gospel, mission, and witness.

I found your editorial sadly lacking in such references. I would be happy to start with Jesus’s words “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s,” and the words in 1 Peter “Fear God. Honour the King.”

In times before democracy, the Church recognised that these commands referred to the autocratic ruler of the day. Today, in many countries, “Caesar” can be interpreted as the form of democracy practised there. In our country, our democracy looks to General Elections and the Government under the constitutional position of the two Houses of Parliament. In recent times, our Parliament has also ceded some decisions to referendums.

Let us remember that in our democracy, we accept the decision of the majority, whether it is in a General Election, a referendum, or a vote in Parliament. We do not require the winning majority to adjust their stance according to the size of the minority.

In the light of these principles, perhaps we could all reflect on our duty to render to Caesar that which is his, whilst as aliens in a foreign land (1 Peter 2.11) making sure that our prime calling is to render to God that which is God’s.

Fair City, 25B Ravensdale Avenue
London N12 9HP

From Mr Anthony Jennings

Sir, — There has been a referendum in which the country has voted to leave the EU. It behoves everyone to accept the result of a democratic vote, whatever their personal views. Despite that, influential people among those who voted to remain seem to be doing everything they can to prevent what the country voted for.

A number of correspondents have connived at those aims. One such correspondent (Letters, 4 October) even thinks the bishops were wrong to say that a democratic vote should be honoured.

Ironically, those who hold such authoritarian views describe the ordinary voters of this country as “far Right”. Now you yourself say that you are troubled by the Bishops’ expression of belief that the vote should be honoured.

What is going on here? No good can come of overturning a decision of the people.

Flat Z, 12-18 Bloomsbury Street
London WC1B 3QA

From the Revd Alan Fraser

Sir, — I think it says more about the Church Times than it does about the College of Bishops that the one issue that has prompted you to break out of your usual format and publish a nearly full-page editorial roundly condemning them is not safeguarding or climate change, but their Graces’ and Lordships’ suggestion that the result of a democratic vote held in this country be honoured.

I am surely not the only reader who found your repeated attempts to delegitimise the largest single vote for anything in this country’s history rather chilling.

In your haste to highlight the failings of the winners, you omit to acknowledge the equally misleading claims made by the losers: we were assured that a vote to leave the EU would lead to an immediate 20-per-cent fall in house prices, 350,000 job losses (rising to 800,00 after we actually left), and an emergency budget within days, cutting benefits and spending on the NHS — none of which has materialised.

Part of democracy is accepting the result even when we don’t agree with it. The College of Bishops’ statement merely acknowledges that fact, however grudgingly.

41 Hobhouse Close
Birmingham B42 1HB

From the Revd David A. Baker

Sir, — Your editorial is, if I may say so, a truly wonderful example of the precise reason why the Bishops needed to release their statement in the first place. In speaking of “betrayal” and “surrender”, the editorial fosters exactly the sort of attitude the Bishops were speaking out against. I, for one, am with the Bishops.

The Rectory, Gilberts Drive
East Dean, Eastbourne BN20 0DL

From Professor Ann Loades

Sir, — “We are a body that understands from our own experience the dangers of division.” One way of responding to the recent collective episcopal claim is to recall that the Church of England’s ecclesiology includes long experience of stifling dissent, at present expressed in aligning the Church with the Government based in Westminster.

The policies of such government over the past 30-plus years have resulted in intolerable life and work conditions for many citizens of the UK, in respect of which we need more dissent, not less. Moreover, I am not aware that we have heard from the episcopate analysis of the moral or spiritual issues integral to the discernment of the truths or falsehoods involved in the Brexit option, with consequences for how we vote, let alone how we are supposed uncritically to “respect” the outcome of our votes.

So far, government that is “accountable and accessible” (to quote Professor Richard Bauckham, Letters, 4 October) is hardly characteristic of the UK, not least given what appears to be the influence of the current “adviser” to the Prime Minister. To characterise the EU as government by those who are “remote, inaccessible, and largely unaccountable” (as Professor Bauckham does) might make an interesting point of comparison with the UK Home Office, to take one obvious example, but, that apart, requires some nuance.

So far as I know, the European Council is made up of the prime ministers of each member state, setting overall policy, while the elected members of the European Parliament both adopt legislation and are able to hold the EU Commission to account.

The Commission members are appointed for a five-year term by the governments of the member states, obliged to act in the interests of the citizens of the EU as a whole. If we do not know the names of who is responsible for what — as for many of us is true of the UK Government — it is up to us as citizens to find out: a not impossible task, given the ubiquity of the internet. Whatever the difficulties, the achievements of the EU are many, and a cause for much gratitude.

If distrust of “federalism” is an issue, that might suggest that independence for both Scotland and Northern Ireland (both of which voted Remain, as did Gibraltar) should follow as a result of the dissent over Brexit, which almost certainly will and, indeed, should continue for some considerable time, irrespective of the outcome of present negotiations.

The C of E’s episcopate rightly observes that “changes to our principles and values of government, if necessary, should be through careful planning and consultation”. Some hopes?

1A Grey Street, Tayport
Fife DD6 9JF

From Mr Richard Murray

Sir, — The Bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church last week issued a call to prayer for the Brexit situation and asked each congregation to open their doors on the weekend of 5 and 6 October. In the short statement by the Primus, he offered the Bishops’ hope that this would be an “opportunity for reflection on the continuing divisions that we see across the country as political upheaval continues to cause concern for many people”.

The Bishops had helpfully made some suggestions to inform our thinking and praying and help us to become more conscious of the width and depth of the implications of current political manoeuvring.

Here in Scotland, some of us experienced the strain on relationships produced by different views regarding the 2014 Independence Referendum; so we empathise with our sisters and brothers in the situation that they face in the rest of the country.

The Bishops were attempting to offer not answers, but simply the chance to pray and reflect. How disappointing, therefore, that the College of Bishops in England could contribute only more heat than light to a nation already in turmoil. The encouragement to pray is nowhere to be found in their statement.

Rowanbank, Kendal Road
Kemnay, Inverurie AB51 5RN

From the Revd Adrian Alker

Sir, — If there had been a referendum on reintroducing capital punishment, would the Bishops have endorsed that? That the College of Bishops sees fit to endorse a referendum result that has so divided the country, where political parties disagree profoundly about the possible result of a no-deal exit from the EU, and where many parish churches serve communities that will, according to most economic forecasts, suffer economic and social hardships by leaving the EU, have the Bishops taken leave of their senses? Will the Scottish Episcopal Church, in a nation where the majority of people voted Remain, issue a contradicting statement?

Surely, a wiser course for a national Church would have been a pastoral call to the people of these islands to take heed of Paul’s advice to the Colossians for us all to be clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. A wiser course, as seen in the statements of the Bishop of Leeds, would have been clear on what to call out: namely, belligerent language and a crude and dangerous attempt to polarise the debate as between “the people” and Parliament.

Your leader comment should, alongside the Bishops’ statement, be sent to all parishes.

Chair, Progressive Christianity Network Britain.
23 Meadowhead
Sheffield S8 7UA

From the Revd Donald Reeves

Sir, — The College of Bishops’ statement on Brexit missed an opportunity. Whatever happens, the outcome of Brexit will last for many years. Remain, and the UK will have to repair and build bridges to the European Union. Leave, and the UK will have to sort out the inevitable chaos. The House of Bishops needs to get together to undertake three tasks.

The first is to recognise that a lot of politics is happening locally about the state of schools, hospitals, local transport, dealing with lack of jobs, caring for the old, and all those at the edge of society. The list is familiar.

The second task is for the Bishops to instigate conversations with local politicians, and community and religious leaders to see how a reformed Parliament can become partners with local politics. Nothing is real unless it is local. Nothing. Even global issues such as climate change are born at street and neighbourhood level.

Third, they should prepare the way for a UK liberation theology, which emerges from taking the local seriously.

Director, The Soul of Europe
The Coach House
Church Street
Crediton EX17 2AQ

From Dr Henrik Schoenefeldt

Sir, — Last week‘s editorial resonated strongly with my own experience, in particular as it acknowledges the difficult situation of the three million EU citizens in the UK.

A German who has lived in the UK for more than 20 years, I went to the University of Cambridge, where I met my wife, and I am enjoying a fulfilling career as an academic, leading on a project in Parliament. Two years ago, I became a British citizen and have been recently received into the C of E as a first step in discerning a possible call to Reader ministry. As such, I am clearly well-integrated in society.

Under these circumstances, it could be argued, I should feel secure, accept Brexit as the outcome of the referendum, and get on with life. This, however, is not how I feel. Over the past two months, I have begun to feel a sense of regret at having taken these steps. This is due to unpleasant and confrontational encounters, within and outside my church community; but it was further reinforced by the message of last week‘s Bishops’ letter, which endorsed Brexit.

I am a part of the C of E, but I feel that I have no voice. I also ask myself how other EU citizens must feel who lack the privileges that I have. I am concerned about the silence on this issue. I feel that local churches could be more open and outspoken, instead of being afraid to rock the boat about the divisive issue of Brexit.

There is a need to engage with the question whether the Brexit project — in particular, its nationalist and xenophobic undertones — is compatible with Christian values, and if it is not right for church communities to speak out for those who feel oppressed by the alleged will of the people.

Senior Lecturer in Sustainable Architecture
University of Kent
Canterbury CT2 7NZ

From the Rt Revd Michael Bourke

Sir, — Thank you for your trenchant deconstruction of the College of Bishops’ statement on Brexit. Respect towards opposed views, and in the tone of debate, is indeed due on all sides. This includes respect, absent from the Bishops’ statement, towards those who believe that Brexit should be stopped.

Leaving aside the nature of the original Referendum debate and its divisive and destructive sequel, the most important reason for reconsidering Brexit is its implications for the future of the UK, and especially for Ireland. This dimension was not discussed at all in the 2016 debate, and it is lamentably absent from the Bishops’ statement.

Whatever consequences flow from Brexit for England and Wales will have to be endured, since we shall have made our bed and must lie on it. But why should Scotland be denied self-determination? And to force through Brexit by playing Russian roulette with the Irish backstop, and risk destabilising the fragile Peace Process, is utterly inexcusable.

After all that has transpired, the electorate surely has the right and responsibility to instruct our politicians whether this is the Brexit that they want. If the Bishops want a reconciling outcome, why do they not include reconciliation in Ireland as a priority?

The Maltings, Little Stretton
Shropshire SY6 6AP

From Mr Tony Richmond

Sir, — Congratulations on your superb editorial. Point by carefully justified point, it is by far the most careful and convincing article I have seen on the subject.

Brexit supporters failed to implement the Referendum result, and now it is anti-democratic for them still to be pursuing the impossible on the argument that it represents the “will” of slightly more than half the British people who voted more than three years ago. Time expired.

10 Withington Court
Abingdon OX14 3QB

The state of prisons and a C4 documentary 

From the Revd Paul A. Newman

Sir, — The current Governor and staff of HM Prison Winchester deserve overdue recognition and commiserations amid the improvisational challenges of managing the degrading, dysfunctional, and inhumane conditions witnessed in the Crime and Punishment series on Channel 4 (an independent broadcaster with a public-service mandate).

This ground-breaking series unsparingly reveals the plight of the most disturbed people in our society, whose mental/psycho-emotional vulnerabilities and multiple social deficits are undoubted crimogenic factors. These prisoners, and the multi-disciplinary colleagues responsible for their care and custody have, year on year, suffered the deterioration of regime quality and staffing reductions through budgetary contractions of 20 per cent across the prisons estate over nine years.

The government response may be credited to the inestimable Rory Stewart during his fleeting Ministerial responsibility prompted by prisoner push-back against the provocations of regime contraction. Despite our understandable hostility towards the damage, hurt, and suffering caused by criminal behaviour, amplified by punitive tabloid rhetoric, punishment by penal custody in Britain is primarily loss of liberty. Maintenance of the common good, with redemptive and reformatory purposes remain paramount, not punitive and retributive intentionality.

It was salutary many years ago to compare the average annual cost per prisoner across the estate with the annual fees of a place at Winchester College (a charitable foundation). An opportunity arose with a then College Chaplain during a pastoral call-out for a parent remanded in custody a few days before his son’s exeat. The current average overall cost per prison place across the estate is now £40,843; the annual boarding fees per place at Winchester College are £41,709. (As Americans say, “Go figure.”)

The condition of the entire criminal justice system continues to be disquieting, even unconscionable, as Michael Gove confessed in his 2016 Longford Memorial Lecture.

How this Channel 4 documentary avoided censorship by the Ministry of Justice press office, ever keen to protect responsible Ministers from embarrassment, is intriguing. It may be a measure of some internal exasperation with the serial side-lining of Chief Inspector and Independent Monitoring Board reports, public indifference, and lack of agency or public voice typical of the social positioning and abjection of many prisoners.

Sir David (now Lord) Ramsbotham (Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons 1995- 2001) memorably characterised “local” prisons such as Winchester as “the sharp end of the National Health Service”.

Addressing the House of Commons as Home Secretary on 20 July 1910, Winston Churchill said: “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.”

The annual Prisons Week in 2019 is 13-19 October, sponsored by a consortium of churches and Christian agencies (prisonsweek.org).

5 Cranworth House
Cranworth Road
Winchester SO22 6EJ

The ‘turning of the tanker’ and BAME vocations 

From the Revd Daniel Njuguna

Sir, — Canon Jeremy Blunden’s observation that great efforts made at ground level in encouraging vocation among Black and Minority-Ethnic (BAME) communities are not reflected at all levels is right (“BAME: the tanker turns”, Michaelmas Ordinations, 4 October).

It is frustrating that BAME people continue to be underrepresented in the senior ranks of the Church. There must be a willingness from all who are concerned for the “tanker” to deploy its capabilities in smashing the glass ceiling. This should be a matter of conscious choice that cuts deeper than the rhetoric of racial equality in society.

While the issue of race remains unquestionable, it must not end there. Members of BAME communities are individuals. Their gifts must be welcomed, nurtured, and deployed in the same manner as their White counterparts who make up the majority.

I am hesitant about the approach that puts BAME clergy who are born and raised here in the UK on one side, and those not born and raised in the UK on the other. Knowing that historical injustices may affect the confidence of those born and raised in the UK, I am, none the less, concerned that this could hinder the primary objective of reaching out to minority-ethnic people of all shades.

Additionally, as the political climate sows seeds of division in our communities, I stand with Canon Blunden in cautioning the Church not to appear to mirror what happens in the society.

As we seek to engage constructively with the Church’s process of discernment of vocation among the minority-ethnic, we must guard against any perception that one party merits a place in front of the queue more than another.

St Paul’s Vicarage
68 Wood Green Road
Wednesbury WS10 9QT

Simone Weil in Spain 

From the Rt Revd David Wilbourne

Sir, — I am sorry that my review of Rowan Williams’s Luminaries (Books, 13 September) included an inadvertent confusion of prepositions. The section on Simone Weil should have described her as fighting against (rather than in) Franco’s army.

Weil’s biographer, Richard Rees, makes it clear that it was fortunate that her service with the anarchist forces lasted only two months, and that it was in the early stages of the Civil War: “Later on, when attitudes had hardened, her critical forthrightness would have been suicidal.”

8 Bielby Close, Newby
Scarborough YO12 6UU

Biblical scholarship and correct Python history 

From the Revd Andrew Hunt

Sir, — Dr Henk Carpentier Alting’s letter (27 September) illustrates well the corner that the Church has backed herself into by largely failing to absorb and pass on the fruits of the biblical scholarship of the past 200 years, whether through laziness, ignorance, or plain stupidity.

It has been known for decades that St Paul did not write all the letters attributed to him for various reasons thematic, linguistic, and stylistic. But the writers of, for instance, 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastorals, etc., were neither lying nor trying to deceive: they were following an accepted literary practice of the day: that of pseudonymity, a common phenomenon in ancient literature. In the same way, we know that Moses did not write the Pentateuch or David the Psalms.

Writers attributed their works to others for a variety of reasons; so, for a deutero-Pauline writer, he may have been a pupil of the Pauline school, felt that he was writing in the tradition of St Paul, or wanted to give his text greater authority.

To read the scriptures literally or to reject them out of hand because of pseudonymity or other literary or historical devices is to miss the point: people did not write “history” as we write it today. We live in a post-Enlightenment age of scientific rationalism in which 2+2 = 4; they lived in an age when numbers such as three, seven, 12, and 40 were symbolic.

Because of our current mindset, some in the Church today are reading the scriptures literally, which is to misunderstand where they are coming from. Scholars have written helpful books such as The Use and Abuse of the Bible, The Bible without Illusions, and A History of the Bible, etc., to address this aberration. Unfortunately, much ignorance about the scriptures is still being purveyed by parts of the Church.

Knowing what we do today about the Bible does not destroy either it or people’s faith, but it does require us to ask questions of the texts and to know about their contexts, and this makes them more, not less, interesting. But it takes work, hard work, really to get to grips with the texts and understand them (and ourselves) better.

It seems to me that Dr Alting is a victim of parts of the Church’s inability or incompetence in wrestling with her principal foundation documents, but he doesn’t need to leave his Christian faith.

58a Cowl Street
Shepton Mallet
Somerset BA4 5EP

From Mr Greg Warren

Sir, — While I agree with the sentiments expressed in Canon Rachel Mann’s article on Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Comment, 27 September), I have to correct her. The discussion between John Cleese and Michael Palin against Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood was on Friday Night, Saturday Morning, screened late on a Friday evening. Various people hosted it, and on this occasion it was the unfortunate Tim Rice. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was a 1960s kitchen-sink drama starring Albert Finney, which was far from being a comedy.

Norfolk house
Yew Tree Lane
Harrogate HG2 9JS

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