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Cummings and the Church: An opportunity to grasp?

26 May 2020

Professor Chris Baker reflects on the Bishops’ contribution to the debate about Dominic Cummings and wonders whether it heralds a more sustained vision for our national future.

I struggled with the title for this blog, as I digested the headline from yesterday’s Guardian: ‘Bishops turn on Boris Johnson for defending Dominic Cummings’. My gut instinct wanted to go with ‘Too little too late?’.

I wanted to signal my relief at the belated arrival of a Church of England perspective to cut through the current Dominic Cummings framed narrative of national crisis affecting the whole of the UK, but particularly England—the worst we have faced in 100 years. But yet, if I am to be honest, I was rather underwhelmed by the Bishops’ tweeted statements.

For one thing, this intervention has come rather late in the day. There have been over 60,000 excess deaths resulting from coronavirus since the first death was recorded three short months ago. Yet religion has apparently contributed very little to the contours of the debate about the future of our society.

Second, there was a lack of penetrating perspective. Rather than a statement of considered critique that set the news agenda, it was a series of what felt like hastily coordinated individual tweets that rode on the back of the moral outrage generated by the likes of Piers Morgan and normally loyal Conservative voters.

Third, a tweet doesn’t always convey the appropriate tone. An intervention such as ‘Johnson has now gone the full Trump’ by the Bishop of Willesden comes across as a clever political slogan rather than a powerfully calibrated statement conveying a political yet also theologically grounded critique that most of a nation can rally round. Let us never forget, for example, the disproportionate devastation this disease has had on our BAME communities and those already living within the grim orbit of austerity-induced poverty.

That being said, there were some punchy tropes that were picked up yesterday by the national media. These highlighted the perceived lack of moral integrity and compassion in the political life of our country at the time of its greatest need (one rule for you, one rule for me), and the inability of those in power to publicly apologise and accept the consequences of their actions. These factors, as the Bishop of Sheffield reminded us, undermine the trust and accountability that is required for public health campaigns to save countless lives. ‘The PM & his cabinet are undermining the trust of the electorate and the risks to life are real.’

But a salvo of tweets into the public realm is no substitute for a sustained, purposeful and national series of conversations that have religious, philosophical and secular ideals at their core. What should a new settlement between the government and its people look like? What are the social (as opposed to economic) priorities that the English nation should address that would allow for the flourishing of all? What is the role of the church, and religion in general, in helping to shape the brave new post-coronavirus era in the West in particular? What sort of leadership can the church offer in setting policy as well as spiritual agendas?

Luckily, these sorts of conversations can be curated quickly and cheaply by a series of regional or local webinars and co-produced workshops that can all be facilitated digitally and on a range of social media platforms. The rate of coverage and engagement will be much wider than traditional conferences. The Church of England can also commission its own data, and its own polling, as a key contribution to the debate. Faith groups undertake a huge amount of skilled social and community care and development. Much of it is also deeply prophetic. But does society understand this—or even care? At present, the dots are not joined up, and a coherent story that the public can understand about the nature of English society and the place of the established church and religion within it has yet to emerge.

Thus, alongside shaping the national agenda for adaptation to a post-coronavirus world, the Church of England needs to listen honestly to what people think of it, across regions, localities and sectors. What are positive attributes citizens associate with a national church? What are the negative ones? What would they like to see a national church do and stand for in the future? This information needs to not only set a policy agenda, but also a theological and missional one. Too often we in the church reflect from an internalised bubble and this leads to a distorted view—either an exaggerated sense of our own importance or an exaggerated sense of our own decline. The reality is, and will be, far more subtle and complex. Like all sectors of society, we need to radically re-imagine both the nature of our society, and what a church looks like that contributes meaningfully and insistently at its core.

So, I return to my unease at the implications of ‘Cummingsgate’ for the Church of England. Twitter fame emerges in 24 hours and dissipates just as quickly again. The Church must reflect urgently on how, and with what narrative, it intervenes in the public sphere. If not, then my alternative title will have been tragically accurate. It will have been too little too late.

Image (edited) from Flickr by Marco Verch (CC BY 2.0).

More blogs on religion and public life…

Review of ‘The Place of the Parish: Imagining Mission in our Neighbourhood’ by Martin Robinson

Pandemic & Pestilence: When We Almost Notice That Black Lives Matter Less by Sanjee Perera

On the Unfairness of Life, Death, and COVID-19 by Edward Hadas

COVID-19, Christianity and human dignity by John Loughlin

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3 Comments

Guy Whitehouse

26/05/2020 16:02

Personalised attacks are out of order no matter how strongly any church official feels about something. The evidence is that the church’s online and broadcast services have been well received and the numbers accessing them suggests this provides a great opportunity for outreach in the future. But this could be undermined by personal attacks which just make clergy sound like political/journalist hacks. Strongly worded statements on policy yes; direct attacks on individuals never.

Dr David Randolph -Horn BA: CQSW Revd

26/05/2020 16:02

I agree with the critique of the Bishops input to the Dominique Cummings issue but the William Temple Foundatiom might have taken us further to ask wwwt be saying now.
Would he have words for the future of the planet post Corvid19
A call to Local Authorities to provide charging points for electric cars
A call to churches to lead the way in buying electric cars,
A call to re-open railways lost under Beaching
A call to lengthen platforms to accommodate longer trains
A call to Appoint accountable government
A call to switch farming from meat and dairy production to vegetables and more.
Acall to Overseas Devt to demand production of Ppe not just for us but for vulnerable countries particularly former African Colonies. Ow part of something called commonwealth
As Jesus might have said “let’s go”
All this might come under the heading of a Spirituality for our times which are of course His times
All our grief all our struggles might yet be a moment of kingdom come where we claim kairos the in breaking of the power of God.
Dr David Randolph-Horn BA: CQSW Revd

Adrian Wait

26/05/2020 16:02

Believe it or not I am deeply saddened by the withdrawel of Church of England from our estates, from any social justice debates that actually reflect the threat of the growing chasm between the Church of England and working class communities. Communities that have been brutalised and crushed by the hostile environment policies of politicians, reinforced by the indifference of a church that wished to steer clear of ‘controversy’ or the nitty-gritty battle of being ‘bias to the poor’. The withdrawel of genuinely engaged and socially committed Christianity has been replaced by the banal disengaged, disinterested Bishops and Clergy who wish to tick every PC box, and avoid any conflict or challenging action of the abuse of power, status and wealth.
Bishops and Clergy have retreated from speaking truth to power, in favour of upholding ‘reasonable debates’ where no one is offended, challenged or held to account. Meanwhile, they appear to have turned a blind eye to the fact that the cost of injustice, the hostile environment and the impact of political austerity has been 130,000 premature deaths between 2017-2019 linked to the direct attacks of political policy. But, let us not offend such unaccountable power, let us not court controvesy by speaking up for the poor, and challenging the brutal, callousness of political choices, choices that the Church supports in its disgraceful silence, timid action and wreckless abandonment of Christs message. Heaven forfend if a Bishop/Clergy spoke out for the poor, the disabled and the homeless – we wouldn’t want to make it disagreeable my offending or holding to account such banality of evil – often for profit. Like the politicians who sat on concerns about firesafety – raised by residents – and ministers who rejoiced in a bonefire of red tape that lead to cheap cladding and an horrific bonefire of Grenfell Tower. But, let us not get angry lest we offend the status quo. So Churchianity becomes increasingly, if not terminally disengaged from communities has it bows the knee to power and the status quo.
Such disengagement has little or no idea how terminal their disengagement is viewed, how indifferent their internal squabbles have been over the past 25-30yrs… has the absorbtion into a middle-class cult of Churchianity – these are damning failures of self-absorbtion, of maintening a culture of disengaged patronage whilst busily downsizing its given mission (by Christ) to “Feed My Sheep”. Lost in the worlds ‘isms, conformed to an overbearing almost arrogant attitude that it serves best when the ‘estates’ adapt a more middle-class set of ‘norms and values’. Too little too Late indeed. – Adrian Wait.

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