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Love one another, Bishops urge politicians

27 September 2019


Dominic Cummings, senior adviser to the Prime Minister, who defended Boris Johnson’s use of language on Thursday

Dominic Cummings, senior adviser to the Prime Minister, who defended Boris Johnson’s use of language on Thursday

THE language used in debates both inside and outside Parliament has become “unacceptable”, the Church of England’s bishops have said in a joint statement.

The College of Bishops published a statement on Friday which argues that the tenor of the political debate is “not worthy of our country”.

The declaration, which was drafted by a group of senior bishops and put out in the name of all 118 bishops, reads: “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 statement was released a few hours after the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, joined calls for the Prime Minister to apologise for his “destructive” language in the House of Commons on Wednesday evening.

Writing on his blog on Thursday, Bishop 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.”

Concerns have been raised that Boris Johnson has stoked hatred of Parliament by his use of language, in particular his reference to the Act that forces him to apply to the EU for an extension if no deal has been forged by 19 October as “the surrender Act” or “the capitulation Act”.

On Thursday, Mr Johnson refused to apologise for his remarks, and repeated his claim that “the fact of the so-called Benn Act is that it surrenders our powers”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, told The Times on Thursday: “The foundations of our unity and way of life are being challenged. There needs to be a cooling of tempers on all sides in order to enable people to try to come to an agreement to see what solution can unite the country and do what has to be done.”

The College of Bishops statement also contained a thinly-veiled criticism of those, including Mr Johnson, who have questioned the Supreme Court’s judgment that it was unlawful to prorogue Parliament.

The statement said: “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.”

It continued: “The teachings of Jesus Christ call for us to be generous and humble servants: virtues which are for all leaders, whatever their faith. . .

“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.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the statement is its opening paragraph: “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.”

This will be interpreted as support for the Government’s efforts to force Brexit through. Many bishops, however, are known to favour a second referendum, and believe that Brexit, even with a deal, is likely to worsen relations with Continental Europe and harm the livelihoods of people in the UK, particularly the poorest.

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”.

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