Government must show humility

Pic: Robert Scarth CC license

By Tim Maby, 26 May 2020

The government has to show “some sense of humility if they are going to restore trust”, according to the Anglican bishop at the centre of this week’s storm of protest at the prime minister’s defence of Dominic Cummings, his chief adviser.

Speaking in an online briefing for the Religion Media Centre, the Bishop of Manchester David Walker said that members of the government needed to restore a feeling that they were playing by the same rules they were telling the rest of us to follow.

Bishop Walker was one of 15 Church of England bishops who tweeted their fury in quick succession on Sunday night. He said that there had not been a “concert party” of bishops to criticise the government, but that several of them had individually decided to say something on Twitter.

He thought this had been important in persuading Mr Cummings to make his statement. Declining to repeat his call that Mr Cummings should be sacked, he said it was now up to the public to decide if that was sufficient explanation that the rules had not been broken: it meant not just keeping to the “outer limits of the law, but to the spirit of the law”, he said.

His plea for contrition was backed by the Rev Dr Barbara Glasson, president of the Methodist Conference, who said the government must show “some sign of repentance, of saying sorry when mistakes have happened”. Dr Glasson added that the issue was about privilege and elitism, since generally only the elite had the privilege of choices about what they did.

Peter Lynas, chief executive of the Evangelical Alliance, representing about 40 per cent of Britain’s churches, said Mr Cummings had stated his case and it was time for the police and others to make a decision. His members were saying that it depended on the prime minister now and his reaction. People in Northern Ireland and Scotland were not so interested anyway, and all were keen to move on to more important issues raised by the pandemic, such as the number of deaths within the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities and how we care for loved ones.

Rabbi Harvey Belovski quoted the Jewish comedian David Baddiel, who said Mr Cummings could have said simply that he had done things in good faith and deeply apologised for having upset people, but he had a lot to offer. That would have implied a degree of humility, which religious people would have liked to have seen.

Looking at the effect of this story, Dr Glasson said she had been disappointed when people in leadership were “not mindful of the needs of people that are broader than their own needs”. It was up to faith leaders to use their voice to ask questions.

The philosopher Dr Stephen Law felt very strongly that we had a duty of care towards each other, so we felt very upset when there seemed to be one rule for us and another for the government, which was when fury started to “bubble up”.

Mr Lynas argued that the story brought up the question of “values versus the law”. The country went very quickly into the lockdown and the government had used both the law and social pressure to persuade the public how to behave, which was why the present conflict had occurred.

Both he and theologian Professor Stephen Pattison, agreed that as the lockdown loosened, there would be many more such issues with the danger of unpredictable and ungovernable results. Professor Pattison explained that the stress on individual choice erodes the sense of sacredness — that we are in this together. And the problem about sacredness, he said, was that when it was attacked, it could unleash a huge sense of shame, anger and righteousness.

Mr Lynas expected there would be need for considerable social leadership as we move out of the lockdown, so he expected the churches to be sensible and not rush into it. They would “do the ministry”, meet online and in small groups, feed the vulnerable and be out on the streets. But it was unlikely to be before Christmas that they would gather together again to sing in churches, because to hold large gatherings with mixed age groups in confined spaces, was the highest-risk activity.