The Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, does not like Brexit. He really doesn’t like it. Well, Bishop, that’s fine – we’re all entitled to our personal views.
What is not fine, however, is conflating your personal political view with your role and supposed authority as a bishop. Nor is it fine to imply that the ‘truth’ is what you think it is based on your political opinions. Even worse, it is disingenuous, to say the least, to suggest that your ‘truth-telling’ involves urging all those who disagree with you about Brexit to change their views on the matter as a form of ‘repentance’.
And finally, to liken the Church ‘staying silent’ over the current situation in the UK around Brexit to ‘staying silent over the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany just because there was a “populist uprising” in favour of it at the time’ is absolutely beyond the pale. Yes, folks, this senior bishop actually said that on the radio recently.
For those readers who missed it, Bishop Baines has been vocal on the BBC again and has also written an opinion piece in the Church Times in September about Brexit (one of his favourite topics). In the CT piece and on the radio he has made all of the above claims (https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2018/21-september/comment/opinion/at-a-moment-of-national-crisis-we-must-speak-up and BBC Radio 4) . Is this the way we want our bishops to speak out as representatives of our Church? Was there ever any better evidence presented to remove bishops from the House of Lords?
Let’s look at some of what he said in the CT article. See what you think.
Bishop: “This [condemnation of Brexit vote] brings us back to two questions: (a) Should the Church, or its bishops, speak up at a moment of national crisis in a controversial and conflicted matter? And (b) What does it mean to be “prophetic”?
Question: What does ‘being prophetic’ have to do with speaking up on Brexit?
Bishop: The first is simple: bishops and the Church have a responsibility to speak on controversial matters such as Brexit, whatever might have been the dominant vote in their particular diocese.
Comment: So there you go, folks – your bishops know better than you, especially if they are Remainers, apparently. I don’t think anyone is saying that bishops shouldn’t speak on controversial matters, but that does not mean foisting their political opinions on the church. It certainly doesn’t mean they should use their position to define what people should be voting for.
Bishop: I was told in the General Synod that the bishops were out of touch with poor people in the north [you don’t say] and should accept their suspicion of immigrants, resentment against established politics, and populist anger.
Question: Why not accept these fears as being real to some of the people in the church? Don’t you have a responsibility to listen to them and their fears? How about responding to them with some love and understanding? Got any practical experience of what it’s like to live in relative poverty in our northern cities, have you? But no, being largely white, not too poor and apparently, er, uninformed, Brexit-voters there are not from any trendy victim groups are they?
Bishop: Try suggesting that to bishops in 1930s Germany, or 1970s USSR.
Comment: Errr – what????!!! On what level is Brexit even in the same ballpark as the rise of Hitler, National Socialism, concentration camps, the Soviet Union and the gulags? To make such a comparison is an insult to the millions who died under these regimes. Besides, this comment about bishops in Germany is not supported by history – many of the German churches supported the state and went along with the Nazi view of Christianity as an anti-Jewish religion.
Bishop: Bishops are called to tell the truth [ ! ], regardless of what people think they want to hear. We might be wrong, we might be prejudiced, we might be simply misguided; but we must not be silent.
Question: I thought you said you were called to tell the truth? How can you therefore be wrong, prejudiced or misguided when you speak? Your whole point in this article is that you are telling the truth to everyone else who is misguided, prejudiced and wrong. If you think you may be wrong, prejudiced or misguided, you cannot be sure you are telling the truth, can you?
Bishop: We should be unafraid of arguing among ourselves about matters that concern the common good and the future of our world.
Question: Who is afraid? Don’t you think that ‘leavers’ are also arguing from that perspective? No? Why not? Do share your answer with us.
Bishop: The second question is tied inextricably in with the first. To be prophetic is not to foretell the future, but to speak openly, honestly, and courageously, trying to discern the truth about God, the world and us, and then to articulate this in a way that invites people to look and think differently.
Question: What’s not open, honest, courageous and discerning about thinking differently from you, Bishop? Care to explain? And why do you feel it is necessary to ‘articulate’ this to make people think differently?
Bishop: To be prophetic is to advise against action, language, or behaviour that is destructive, even if 100 per cent of the electorate favour it.
Question: Really? Who says so? Surely the only thing that Christians should be prophetic about is the message that all people need God? Are all Christians supposed now to vote the same and think the same?
Bishop: Equally, it is to speak for what is right and good and constructive, even when destruction colours the popular mood.
Question: So you get to decide what is destructive and what is constructive and ‘good’, do you? On what basis do you claim that authority? Are you saying that God is a Remainer? That is the logical conclusion from your argument.
Bishop: This is where we are now. The vocation for the Church is the same: truth-telling, the courage to change one’s mind (we call it “repentance”) [!], and the maturity [!] to take responsibility for the consequences of the decisions that we make collectively.
Comment: Ok, Bishop, please tell us why we are not already mature enough to take this responsibility. Go on, do. We’re waiting.
So there you have it, folks. I have absolutely no idea what the outcomes of Brexit will be, but neither does anyone else. None of us can see the future. There are experts lined up on both sides who each claim ‘right’ on their side. I voted one way, and many of my believing friends voted the other. I respect their right to vote according to their views. That’s democracy for you. We don’t need to fall out over it. Neither do we need to be told that Remainers (or Leavers for that matter) are on the side of ‘truth’, which is implicit in the whole of the Bishop’s article. Maybe they are, maybe they’re not. Only God knows.
What I find frightening in Bishop Baines’ article and in his radio remarks is the sheer arrogance exhibited and the view that somehow bishops are on a higher plane than the rest of us as ‘they know best’, even at the expense of listening to the contrary voices of church members in their own dioceses. A cynic could say that our bishops do not exactly have a shining history of ‘truth-telling’. Brexit cannot be aligned with ‘truth’ any more than a general election can. To imply that anyone needs to repent over their referendum vote says much about the state of our Church ‘leadership’ today. And as for the Nazi analogy (which he also rolled out when a daily paper referred to judges as ‘enemies of the people’ in 2016) – you couldn’t make it up.
Can we please have some bishops who just get on with spreading the gospel and leading people to faith? Or is that too much to ask?