BISHOPS this week defended the College of Bishops statement that the EU Referendum result should be “honoured”.
The declaration, which was drafted by a group of senior bishops and circulated late on Thursday last week in the name of all 118 bishops, contains the sentence: “In writing, we affirm our respect for the June 2016 Referendum, and our belief that the result should be honoured.”
Asked about this declaration on The World at One, on Radio 4 on Friday, the Bishop of Ripon, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, said that the Bishops had “come to a mind that a referendum took place. . . We seem stuck in the polarising debates which are preventing us from attending to the, how do we actually move forward on this.”
The Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, a former critic of Brexit, said afterwards: “We need to find a workable, consensus-based way to respect the referendum outcome coming up to three-and-a-half years ago, and avoid taking steps that could prove even more divisive in and for the UK.”
The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, argued: “There is a clear democratic mandate for leaving which needs to be honoured.”
By contrast, in an open letter published last month, 25 diocesan bishops warned that a no-deal Brexit could harm people who are “least resilient to economic shocks”, and “is unlikely [to] . . . lead to reconciliation or peace in a fractured country” (News, 30 August).
The Bishops urged political leaders to be “honest about the costs of political choices, especially for those most vulnerable”.
The main thrust of last week’s statement was that language used in debates, both inside and outside Parliament, had become “unacceptable”, and that the tenor of political debate was “not worthy of our country”.
“We should not denigrate, patronise or ignore the honest views of fellow citizens, but seek to respect their opinions, their participation in society, and their votes” (full statement below).
The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, said on Friday: “We must go the extra mile in trying to get inside the shoes of those with whom we disagree so that when difficult decisions are made we take real account of those who might be most hurt and most affected by that decision
“I don’t think it is helpful to point the finger at particular people making particular statements, but I do think it is helpful to make a general plea for a different sort of discourse and that is what the Bishops’ statement is aiming to do.”
Speaking in Westminster Abbey at the formal opening of the legal year on Tuesday, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, told assembled judges, including those from the Supreme Court: “For all the high points of British democracy, there are low points, too. Arguably our present situation is one of them. Filled with chaos and confusion, it is one in which wisdom is required.”
PAThe Prime Minister addresses the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester on Wednesday
Although the Bishops did not name him, many of the concerns about language were focused on the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, in particular his repeated reference to the Act that requires him to apply to the European Union for an extension if no deal has been forged by 19 October as “the Surrender Act” or “the Capitulation Act”.
Writing on his blog on Thursday of last week, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, said: “The Prime Minister has a particular and weighty responsibility in our current crisis to lead by example. A fundamental element of strong leadership, rooted in character, is to demonstrate humility. The language he is using is destructive and has caused distress. An apology would be in order.
“More importantly, he needs to lead a recalibration of language, mood, and relationship. What we are witnessing currently is the further corruption of our public discourse and the norms of democratic debate.”
As for Mr Johnson’s dismissive response to the Supreme Court’s ruling that that his prorogation of Parliament was unlawful, (News, 27 September), the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said in the House of Lords: “We need humility, repentance when necessary. and an approach that listens carefully to the views of others rather than simply ‘Attack, attack, attack’. . .
“I am not part of a political party, and I have no axe to grind. I simply want to reflect that this was terrible. It was shocking. It is not worthy. I am sorry.”
Mr Johnson appeared to dismiss concerns over language as “humbug” during a Commons debate last week, and on Sunday claimed that he had been a “model of restraint”. He also said that he did not regret using the term “surrender act”.
On Monday, a joint declaration by the political parties at Westminster was published, in which they pledged to “try to use moderate language”.
Those in powerful positions had a “duty to weigh their words carefully”, it said.
The statement in full:
“AS BISHOPS of the Church of England, we make this statement conscious of the great challenges to our nations and to their leaders. In writing, we affirm our respect for the June 2016 Referendum, and our belief that the result should be honoured.
“In the last few days, the use of language, both in debates and outside Parliament, has been unacceptable.
“We should speak to others with respect. And we should also listen. We should do this especially with the poor, with the marginalised, and with those whose voices are often not heard in our national conversation. We should not denigrate, patronise or ignore the honest views of fellow citizens, but seek to respect their opinions, their participation in society, and their votes.
“The teachings of Jesus Christ call for us to be generous and humble servants; virtues which are for all leaders, whatever their faith.
“We call on politicians to adhere rigorously to the rule of law and on all to respect and uphold the impartiality of the courts and our judiciary.
“Our concern is also for the structure and the constitution of the United Kingdom. To use the words of Jesus, we must renew the structures that enable us to “love one another”. Changes to our principles and values of government, if necessary, should be through careful planning and consultation.
“It is easy to descend into division and abuse — climbing out and finding unity again takes far longer. Further entrenching our divisions, whether from uncertainty or from partisanship, is not worthy of our country nor the leadership we now need. We are a body that understands from our own experience the dangers of division. It is our view and most solemn warning that we must find better ways of acting.”
Read more about the statement in our leader comment, letters page, and Andrew Brown’s press column