Thinking Anglicans

Bishops comment on Parliamentary proceedings

Updated

The Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines  published this comment on the proceedings in the House of Commons yesterday: Language and leadership

The language used in the House of Commons last night is probably unprecedented. Drawing the name of a murdered MP into the fight was, at the very least, questionable. To describe the contribution of female MPs, pleading with the PM to moderate his language in the light of violence and death threats, as ‘humbug’ is appalling.

I am the bishop of a diocese in which Jo Cox is remembered with massive affection and in which there is great sensitivity to utilisation of her for political purposes. Her family are not just names to be traded.

Words are not neutral – they can become weapons. Words in the mouth of leaders can shape the language and behaviour of all sorts of people, and not always positively. The challenge of leadership is to lead, to behave like the adult in the room, to see the big picture, to hold the long-term perspective, and not to lose sight of the key issue…

The Church Times reported this as:  Baines challenges Johnson over ‘destructive language’

Premier Radio reported on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks in the House of Lords yesterday: Justin Welby says in House of Lords that parliament’s reputation has sunk “very, very low”.

The Church Times reported thus: Divisiveness is shaking the country apart, warns Welby

The Archbishop in fact made two interventions yesterday, here are the transcripts:

Does the Minister agree that Parliament has, justifiably or not, seen its reputation sink very low over the last few months and that one of the ways of dealing with that is transparency? Regardless of how many letters there may or may not be, will he therefore undertake that the Government will be completely transparent and honest in the spirit and not merely the letter of the law about the actions they take over the next few weeks in connection with an extension?

My Lords, this debate –for want of a better word–demonstrates, I am sure the noble Lord would agree, the total division across Parliament. It is only a shadow of the immense divisions across the country, which the bishops find at every level, as they are immersed in every local community. The divisions are shaking this country apart. They are shaking us apart in all our great institutions, whether it is Parliament or the courts, which are portrayed as having launched a coup d’état–a slightly unlikely idea–and it is causing serious damage to our economy. We are hearing in our debates the incapacity of Parliament not only to make a decision but to find any way through the deadlock. The divisions are so deep that we cannot expect, I fear, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, suggested, that cross-party work could bring a decision on what we do, but can we not at least ask the Government to look for alternative means of setting a path to making a decision?

At the moment, all we hear regarding a decision is that one side says it is definitely this and the other side says that. I am used to this in an organisation that is split at every level; I am well aware of division, so I am speaking from deep familiarity. The way forward must be, as we have done on numerous occasions, to work out how to get to a decision, because the present means of handling it through Parliament is not working. We need to draw on wider experience, on mediation and other forms, so that Operation Yellowhammer and the Statement that we have heard at least form part of a clear plan to arrive at a firm decision. Does the Minister agree?

The Bishop of Durham, Paul Butler, said this yesterday in response to the reading in the Lords of the Prime Minister’s statement:

My Lords, speaking on behalf of these Benches, I struggle to have to say that I was shocked as I listened to the repeat of the Statement. I could not believe that I was hearing it, from someone who knows that the nation is deeply divided and needs to find ways of working together. We need humility, repentance when necessary and an approach that listens carefully to the views of others rather than simply “Attack, attack, attack”. The Leader was not in the House earlier when my most reverend friend the Archbishop of Canterbury was here, but I encourage her to read his comments about the need for reconciliation–to find a different way forward to work together that is good for the nation. In one sense I am simply adding to the mood of the House as a whole, but I come at it from a very different point of view; I am not part of a political party and I have no axe to grind. I simply want to reflect that this was terrible. It was shocking. It is not worthy. I am sorry.

And today, Thursday. the Bishop of Southwark, Christopher Chessun, said this:

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement and for making and underlining the commitment that the Government will obey the law. May I test that a little further? It seems to me that, in the current very fractious debate, what is needed is to respect the impartiality of those institutions upholding the constitution and the law. Will the Minister counsel his colleagues to use language that is appropriate and not excessive and that reflects respect for our institutions, the taking of personal responsibility and a degree of restraint? When Prayers are said by Bishops in this House, we pray every day for the well-being of all the estates in this realm. We all have a duty to make our own contribution towards that.

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FrDavid H
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FrDavid H

The poisonous atmosphere seems to gave increased dramatically since Boris Johnson took office. As someone recently declared a law breaker, he has shown a total lack of humility by stating the law is wrong. No wonder parliamentarians are very angry in the face of such arrogance. Instead of mealy mouthed words from bishops, it’s time they came off the fence and condemned this man. Or do Old Etonians stick together?

Jill Armstead
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Jill Armstead

Of course it has! Parliament is going all out to stop Brexit and overrule the 2016 referendum. Don’t blame Boris – the electorate certainly are not – they see exactly what is happening and are very angry.

Susannah Clark
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Susannah Clark

I agree with the sentiments expressed by Nick Baines. I couldn’t believe what I was watching yesterday. It’s pretty obvious, at one level, that the conflict was being deliberately stoked to build a narrative for the future general election. However, on Justin’s comment: “At the moment, all we hear regarding a decision is that one side says it is definitely this and the other side says that. I am used to this in an organisation that is split at every level; I am well aware of division, so I am speaking from deep familiarity. The way forward must be, as… Read more »

Rowland Wateridge
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Rowland Wateridge

I hope that on this occasion TA readers will support the Archbishop and the Bishop of Durham. I did not see the proceedings in the House of Lords, but what I witnessed and heard from the House of Commons were among the most shocking experiences of my now 78 years. How have we, the British people, come to this. I accept that the Supreme Court’s unanimous judgment is controversial, but the criticism of it has been ill-considered and largely ignorant. The Supreme Court is only ‘new’ in the sense that it is the re-constituted Judicial Committee of the House of… Read more »

Rowland Wateridge
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Rowland Wateridge

I confess that I am disappointed to read some of the preceding posts. Can’t we, on TA, just for once, refrain from ‘bishop-bashing’ and introducing discussion of gender-related divisions in the C of E when the subject matter is our country facing a national crisis of disregard for the rule of law?

Rowland Wateridge
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Rowland Wateridge

May I add to my list, support for the further contribution today from the Bishop of Southwark.

John Scrivener
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John Scrivener

‘It simply crossed the road’. I think there was more to it than that. There were senior judges at the time who expressed forebodings – including Lord Neuberger, who himself later presided over the Supreme Court. the BBC reported at the time: ‘Lord Neuberger fears the new final court of appeal could assert itself in opposition to the government. He says there is a real risk of “judges arrogating to themselves greater power than they have at the moment”‘.
Lord Sumption’s recent Reith Lectures are to the point.

Rowland Wateridge
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Rowland Wateridge

I hoped that my comment might be helpful to some TA readers – I wasn’t putting forward a detailed or historical analysis. Certainly there has been misunderstanding about the Supreme Court in some of the media. However it’s worth making two further points: (1) Lady Hale was at pains to say that the present judgment was a “one-off” and unlikely to be repeated; (2) It was Lord Neuberger who presided at the hearing in January 2017 when the Supreme Court dismissed the Government’s appeal from the High Court in relation to Article 50, using the words “the Government cannot trigger… Read more »

John Scrivener
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John Scrivener

Well, I agree that Lord Sumption’s concerns about ‘Law’s Empire’ are not new – even a layman like myself has been aware of disquiet over the last ten or fifteen years – and I noted that Lord Roskill is quoted (from Council of Civil Service Unions V Minister for the Civil Service [1985]) on ‘prerogative powers which he thought could not be subject to review by the courts’ in the High Court judgement which the Supreme Court overruled. However I was simply querying (subject to correction) your suggestion that there was really nothing new about the Supreme Court – especially… Read more »

Rowland Wateridge
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Rowland Wateridge

Absolutely no offence intended, I don’t want to prolong this unduly. Whatever Lord Neuberger said or felt in 2009, in 2017 he, as President of the Supreme Court, effectively overruled HM Government when affirming that Article 50 could not be triggered without an Act of Parliament. The Court of Appeal decision in Council of Civil Service Unions v Minister for the Civil Service was overturned by the (judicial) House of Lords [1984] UKHL 9 – not the Supreme Court, which didn’t exist then. That, to my mind, reinforces my contention, put the other way round, that the House of Lords… Read more »

John Scrivener
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John Scrivener

You’re quite right, we shouldn’t prolong it – it’s rather off-topic for this site (though obviously interesting to us). I don’t claim to know enough to discuss in detail the differences between the SC and the old House of Lords in its appellate function, but was struck by Neuberger’s and Falconers comments, as also by Hansard’s record of the debates in the Lords in 2005. What seems to me indisputable is that the recent judgement represents a case of judges extending their territory in the way Neuberger originally feared, whether or not this is a result of the creation of… Read more »

Rowland Wateridge
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Rowland Wateridge

Thank you for the link to Professor Finnis which I will certainly follow up! I don’t think this subject is at all inappropriate for TA. Christianity is all about justice and truth. In the ‘good old days’ the House of Lords took longer in taking ‘time to consider’. This was a rushed job and, for my part, it was an impressive and reasoned judgment written jointly by Lady Hale and Scottish justice Lord Reed (who will succeed Lady Hale as President of the Supreme Court when she retires). For the benefit of other TA readers, Lady Hale was grammar-school educated… Read more »

Rowland Wateridge
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Rowland Wateridge

I have now read Professor Finnis’ piece. He is, of course, a distinguished academic lawyer. However, Lord Sumption, a former Justice of the Supreme Court, (notwithstanding his Reith Lectures) has condemned the prorogation in the strongest unequivocal language and defended the Supreme Court judgment. As reported in The Times, he clearly considers that the Court was justified and correct in its judgment. To stress, yet again, the circumstances were wholly exceptional.

John Scrivener
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John Scrivener

Thank you for reading the Finnis piece. I’m not sure how consistent Lord Sumption is being, from interviews I’ve heard, and his Times article is unfortunately behind a pay wall – it seemed to me that before the judgement he was deploring the prorogation politically but thought it ought not to be regarded as justiciable, which is the nub of the argument of course. My impression is that the SC has conferred on itself a power it did not have before – in fact is the only body in the constitutional nexus which has had its power enhanced by the… Read more »

Rowland Wateridge
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Rowland Wateridge

I think this must be my final word! Before the judgment I equally doubted that the prorogation would be held to be justiciable! But, like Lord Sumption, I was ‘converted’ by the extraordinary facts of the case and the cogency of the Court’s unanimous reasoning.

Kate
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Kate

Personally I am more comfortable with decisions taken in Parliament or the Supreme Court in front of cameras than those taken in secret within Number 10 or the Privy Council. Transparency is an important safeguard.

Marian Birch
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Marian Birch

Good for Nick Baines. He has told it how it is. What is happening is truly appalling and unprecedented.

peterpi - Peter Gross
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peterpi - Peter Gross

“Words are not neutral – they can become weapons. Words in the mouth of leaders can shape the language and behaviour of all sorts of people, and not always positively.” — Bishop of Leeds Nick Baines Or to turn an American schoolyard phrase on its head, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can be used to kill me.” Thank you, Bishop Baines. Words have killed Arabs and Israelis. Words have killed Catholics and Protestants, and Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Baha’i. Words have killed Blacks and Hispanics. Whether it’s Brexit in the United Kingdom, or the current… Read more »

Father David
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Father David

Our new and hopefully politically short-lived Prime Minister seems to have “weaponised” the English Language and transformed lying into an art form.

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[…] Whilst it is difficult to evince details of the College of Bishops meeting from the bland Press Release, since it preceded events in the Commons this week, the College’s deliberations were, presumably, of a more general nature. With regard to the proceedings in the Commons, more robust observations have been made by Nick Bains, Bishop of Leeds, in his blog Language and leadership, and the interventions in yesterday’s debate in the House of Lords, of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Durham, Paul Butler, and Bishop of Southwark, Christopher Chessun, conveniently summarized in Thinking Anglicans.  […]

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[…] of Durham, Paul Butler, and Bishop of Southwark, Christopher Chessun, (conveniently summarized in Thinking Anglicans), and by David Walker, Bishop of Manchester in  Rhetoric of a Playground Bully or […]