Lord Carey Dominic Cummings
Church of England

Lord Carey: Bishops exacerbate the “hysterical, coarsened and divisive nature of our debate”

Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey has publicly admonished those Bishops who decided to “speak truth to power” by joining the onslaught against Dominic Cummings. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Lord Carey said he had no idea why they chose to intervene, and he is scathing of the damage they’ve done to the witness and mission of the Church of England:

In choosing to express their disapproval on Twitter and joining a storm of hatred and controversy, I believe the bishops have done themselves and the Church a disservice. Some attacked the integrity, morality, leadership and character of the PM in highly personal terms. I have never seen such partisan pronouncements by church leaders.

These interventions will have done the Archbishop of Canterbury no favours. It is he who has regular meetings with Boris Johnson and his ministers, and will have to undo some of the damage that has been done. I ministered to three Prime Ministers, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair, and it was possible to have robust and polite disagreement – in public and in private. But I also had a pastoral relationship with them, and occasionally they would share difficulties and seek impartial advice.

A bishop can’t easily minister to the Prime Minister if he’s made it known that he believes him to be an “amoral liar“. And a bishop can’t easily say that the Church of England has a serious prophetic role to play in the life of the nation if he makes the Church-State partnership contingent on a political act: the sacking of Dominic Cummings (and ‘repentance’ for his having driven to Durham).

Did any of the Bishops ever demand the sacking of Alastair Campbell for his part in compiling and disseminating the ‘Dodgy Dossier‘ in 2003, by which UK involvement in the invasion of Iraq was justified? That was a grave matter of justice and truth, wasn’t it? It was a serious matter of life and death, wasn’t it? Did they publicly demand repentance from Campbell and Tony Blair?

‘Campbell’?

Did any of the Bishops ever disrespect Tony Blair’s chief advisor by publicly referring to him by his surname? Why, then, do they spit out ‘Cummings’? Isn’t Dominic Cummings (or Mr Cummings) worthy of episcopal good manners? Doesn’t he merit a little love and respect? Are the Bishops not familiar with Romans 2:4, which talks of the kindess and goodness of God which leads people towards repentance? Are the Bishops not supposed to be channels of this kindness and goodness toward Dominic Cummings, especially if they demand his repentance? Why on earth would he ever darken the door of his local parish church when he’s systematically bashed by so many bishops in unison, apparently loathed, despised and rejected?

Charles Moore offered his own rebuke last week, too:

Then consider the bishops of the Church of England. Leeds said the people “had been lied to”; Durham: “trust has been broken”; Worcester: Boris’s “risible” defence of Mr Cummings was “an insult to all those who had made such sacrifices”, Bristol: we are “a nation where the Prime Minister has no respect for the people”. And more of the same from Willesden, Manchester, Ripon, Newcastle, Sheffield, Reading, Truro and Penrith – more bishops than you can fit on their bench in the House of Lords. All condemned Mr Cummings without clear evidence and without recalling the famous words of the Sermon on the Mount, “Judge not, that ye be not judged”.

One might add, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him [or her] first cast a stone‘.

It is interesting that since the Bishops tweeted their judgment, it transpires that the testimony of one witness (which was broadcast far and wide) has been amended, apparently because he made up a sighting “as a joke“. But doubtless the Bishops believed this witness testimony without question. And Durham Police have issued a statement in which they make it clear that the journey from London to Durham was not against the law (or, indeed, the official guidance); and the further drive from Durham to Barnard Castle “might have been a minor breach of the Regulations”.

When has a bishop ever demanded public repentance from any politician (or their aides) for a “minor breach” of anything? When has a minor breach of any regulation justified the severance or suspension of Church-State relations during a moment of national (and international) crisis?

It has also since been discovered that Labour MP Rosie Duffield breached lockdown rules, and her reason wasn’t to arrange necessary childcare or some other altruistic act of human compassion, but to “go for a walk” (right..) with her married lover. So, a patent breach of lockdown rules commingled with adultery. Are the Bishops content that she has simply resigned as a Labour whip? Shouldn’t she step down as an MP altogether? She is, after all, an elected representative of the people, not a backroom aide. Are the Bishops going to make cooperation with Labour contingent on her being dealt with rather more robustly than simply resigning from the Opposition front bench?

They wanted Dominic Cummings to lose his job altogether, didn’t they? They wanted him to be deprived of his means of earning a living and providing for his wife and child, didn’t they? They wanted his work trashed and his career terminated, didn’t they? They were adamant that his conduct was undermining public morality and episcopal parenting.

But Rosie Duffield is Labour, and she voted to remain in the EU.

The chiefest problem with the Bishops’ intervention in this matter is that they have now established a touchstone, and so we eagerly await their next robust intervention in unison, so that we may discern the theo-political priorities of their ministries. Will they demand ministerial sackings and public repentance over moral failures in the realms of poverty, homelessness, abortion, crime, family breakdown… Or will they, as Lord Carey observes is their mission and vocation, continue with “reasoned, persistent, patient work on the issues”?

I would have liked church leaders to address with hope and faith our existential fears about this virus. Where has the Church stood on the effect of this crisis on vulnerable and chaotic families who have no access to outside space, or to online learning, or sufficient nutrition for their children? More important, what are the bishops saying about the character of a loving God who cares for his creation?

Instead of declaring infallible truth to power (which, it may be observed, is invariably a truth which happens to be anti-Tory and anti-Brexit), perhaps the Bishops might humbly consider that they presently see through a glass, darkly, as do we all. And perhaps they might reflect on the fact that the more they are drawn into the nitty-gritty of government business and the murky world of party politics; and the more they are swayed and carried by media narratives of secular judgment upon the political order, the more they lose their distinctive voice, sacrificing the essential mission of salvation on the altar of the lowest-common-denominator values of popular politics.