“My Lords, I always rise to speak in this Chamber with some fear and trepidation but never more so than today,” confessed the Lord Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev’d Dr Steven Croft, as he rose to address the House of Lords in their further debate on matters relating to Brexit, “not only because of the expertise, passion and conviction in this Chamber but also the jeopardy in which we find ourselves as a nation and a Parliament,” he added, perhaps referring to our ongoing Brexit purgatory: conspiracies and coups; the backstop and liberty; the ‘moral failure’ of ‘no deal’; the Prime Minister’s ‘moral mission’; the Speaker’s power; hell and betrayal; divine rights and sacred duties, and defections, divisions, tribalism and schisms. The Bishop understands tensions, tightropes and the occasional need for trade-offs:
My journey through the Brexit process is that for seven years until the referendum year, I was the bishop in Sheffield and south Yorkshire, where some of the communities voted by almost 70% to leave the European Union. I moved shortly afterwards to the diocese of Oxford, where the three counties, by and large, are significantly in favour of remain.
And then he moved his speech onto the spiritual plane; to contemplations of darkness and temptations of evil:
I suspect that historians will look back on this process and focus not so much on the calling of the referendum or even the referendum itself but on the long period of indecision and paralysis that has followed. I spent some time in Canterbury Cathedral some weeks ago and stood on the place where Thomas Becket was murdered. We were reminded in the cathedral of Eliot’s play “Murder in the Cathedral”. In his moment of great peril and jeopardy, Becket is visited by four tempters who, in the play, become his four assassins.
I think four significant temptations have grown in proportion to become dangerous assassins facing Parliament in the coming weeks. The first is to allow our course to be shaped by self-interest and personal ambition. This Brexit debate has been marred from the beginning, it seems, by the narrow calculation of those hoping to gain or retain high office. From the perspective of the country, nothing has undermined trust in our politics more than this untrammelled ambition, which is apparent to all.
At this point Lord (Peter) Lilley interjected: “Who is the right reverend Prelate accusing of this untrammelled ambition which is apparent to all?” he probed.
“I prefer not to name names,” the Bishop sparred, determined not to marr his Brexit speech with anything as base as a narrow calculation.
“Even though it is apparent to all?” Lord Lilley prodded further, knowing full well for whom the Bishops have a certain aversion and derision, if not contempt and loathing. Bishop Steven continued:
I do not single out a particular party or a section of a particular party. One of the dangers of our politics at present is that personal ambition is being put before the country and I think we need to draw that period to an end with great urgency, lest our politics and our confidence in democracy be damaged for a very long time. Conversely, nothing will restore trust in our politics more than putting the interests of the nation ahead of personal position.
Is Boris Johnson putting his personal ambition before the interests of the country? How does the Bishop of Oxford know this? Isn’t it wrong to judge motives? Aren’t all politicians ambitious, or is it only Tory Brexiteer types? Was Steven Croft ambitious to become Bishop of Oxford? Or was that a righteous ambition: ‘This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work‘? Who is Steven Croft to judge a politician’s moral urge to power? Don’t they all wish to succeed? Isn’t that success rather contingent on the welfare of the people and the country flourishing under their leadership? Don’t the vast majority seek to climb the greasy pole with vaulting ambition? As Jeremy Paxman observed in his book The Political Animal:
What we are really talking about, when politicians preview their lives, is ambition. It is true that, by their own accounts, there comes a point when some of them seem to have risen above so base a motive as the desire to get on. But even with those who sit in the grandiose rooms of the Foreign Office or the Treasury the worm continues to eat. Even in 10 Downing Street it is still alive. The most publicly venerated politician of the twentieth century, Winston Churchill, is also, perhaps, the most ambitious and untrustworthy of the lot. His life as a young man was driven by the absolutely ruthless determination to promote the noble cause of Winston Spencer Churchill…
Does he who sits in Christ Church Cathedral have a worm gnawing for Lambeth Palace?
Bishop Steven continued:
The second temptation is to allow yourself to be swayed by narrow party interests and the pursuit of or retention of power in the short term. The issues at stake here are much greater than the rise and fall of particular parties or factions. We need our MPs and Peers to act in the greater national interest and for national unity. I would argue that Parliament needs to come together if the nation is to come together and emerge from this long period of division and introspection.
There is a sense in which democratic politics is all about the short term: with four or five-year electoral cycles, all considerations are, by definition, short-term, and ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof‘. If politicians are not focused on retaining power in the short term, they lose it and are soon out of office. You can only shape the world of tomorrow by controlling the world of today, and in a representative democracy that involves iron sharpening iron and the rise and fall of political parties, who each believe in the virtue of their competing if not mutually-exclusive visions. They might even claim biblical support for their ethical concerns and herald a ‘new covenant’ of political reform. This may seem base or narrow (or even blasphemous) to a bishop, but they don’t have to worry about the ballot box. The path to political power may be paved with filthy rags, but let’s not pretend that the road to ecclesiastical clout is bathed in holiness and light.
Bishop Steven mused further:
The third temptation is nostalgia—a romantic attachment to the past. It is wrong to imagine that we can reverse the effects of one referendum by another or go back to a time before the Brexit debates began, when all was well, or go back still further to a different age of independence and imagined glory. We cannot. We must deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be, and steer our course accordingly; the leadership that we offer will be judged by this measure.
As politicians struggle against flesh and blood, bishops have an eye on principalities and powers. Perhaps if we had more politicians who were more mindful of principalities and powers we might have better leadership. Perhaps if we had more politicians with vision, the political order might seem less arbitrary and impotent. And yet, of course, it must be a vision of which Bishop Steven approves: we can’t be having any of that evil Thatcherite stuff. Or perhaps it is nostalgic even to evoke that name? Leaders must deal with the world as it is, but not all attachment to the past is romantic: if there is nothing new under the sun, leadership that seeks moral truth in social tradition is going to be in tune with divine authority. To be able to steer a righteous course demands not only personal survival but planned ascendancy.
And the final musing:
The fourth and final temptation is idealism: in a world of difficult choices and necessary compromise, holding on to an ideal which is no longer tenable, whether it is a particular kind of leaving or remaining or something else. This, it seems to me, is currently the greatest barrier to positive cross-party consensus. A coming together across Parliament is impossible without the willingness to compromise, and one of the encouraging features of recent weeks has been cross-party engagement.
As others have said, there are huge issues facing our world and our country: climate chaos, care for the poorest, increasing equality and opportunity, our changing relationship with technology, and the challenge of social care and health funding. We cannot allow our national attention to be diverted from these issues by prolonging still further a series of adjustments to our relationship with Europe. The nation is looking to its political leaders for a strong, compelling and united vision of the future that enables us to see beyond these debates in a way that brings unity and common purpose.
It is hard, if not impossible, for compromise to be found between leaving the European Union and remaining in it: there was a binary referendum, and Leave won. Why is it an ‘ideal’ to desire simply that the result be given effect? What consensus is to be found between ever closer union and ever further separation? ‘What fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial?‘ In a polarised parliament perched somewhere between leaving and remaining, what exactly is this half-pregnant vision which will magically bring unity and common purpose? Might Bishop Steven attempt to expound it, perhaps drawing on the success of the positive, cross-factional compromise he is leading in his Diocese over matters of LGBT inclusion, sexuality and marriage?
He concluded his speech to the assembled Lords Spiritual and Temporal:
The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has spoken in this House about the vital importance of reconciliation in these debates and the protection of the poorest in society. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York has written of the need to preserve trust and confidence in our democratic institutions through a time of significant national jeopardy. I hope and pray that, in the midst of these difficult debates, we will be able to turn aside from those four temptations, seek meaningful compromise and act for the common good. I underscore the request to the Minister to lay out for us the ways in which the Government will continue to foster cross-party collaboration and listening, move towards a positive consensus and work to draw Parliament and the country back together.
In a world of suffering and strife, enmity and division, the bishop’s task (indeed, the Bishops’ task) is to be a focus of unity and reconciliation. The true moral life of the Christian community is love, and that love is unintelligible except as participation in the life of the One who reveals himself to us as Love. Isn’t it strange that not once did the Bishop of Oxford point Their Lordships’ eyes heavenward?