by Lord Blair of Boughton, cross bench peer, former Metropolitan Police Commissioner and parishioner in the Diocese of Oxford
As a newcomer to this site, my task in writing a first post has not been made much easier by looking over some of the recent posts. I could not agree more with the Bishop of Manchester on the extraordinary outburst of unpleasant language in the Commons after the Supreme Court Verdict on prorogation. Then I found a fellow traveller in the post before that by Helen King, quoting from my favourite hymn, Faber’s ‘There is a wideness in God’s mercy’.
These posts cover just the kind of subject about which I thought I would be writing: pleas for decency and tolerance in a country more deeply divided than I have ever known it to be.
I am going to cover some of the same ground but thought I would do so perhaps from a slightly different and hopeful angle, although I particularly want to commend the Bishops and Archbishops for writing their letter of protest. I have no truck with any suggestion that the Church should not have a voice in politics in ordinary times, let alone these Brexit-filled days.
I want to reflect a bit on the nature of time, dividing it into those two Greek words, Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is what we think of as sequential time, with Kairos being a moment of indeterminate time in which something momentous happens.
These last few years have seen the breakup of many old certainties, whether of standards of behaviour in public life or the questioning of multi-national entities from the United Nations to the EU to NATO, together with the rise of populist leaders, irrespective of and sometimes not corresponding to left or right. Who would have dreamed of ministers of the Crown musing as to whether the Government needs to obey the Rule of Law: who would have dreamed of a US president allegedly pursuing a domestic political rival through the intervention of a foreign government?
And yet and yet, the Supreme Court did rule, unanimously, that the Prorogation was null and void, effectively had not happened. Impeachment proceedings against a sitting President have begun. In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party has lost the election and fallen out of government: ditto, Matteo Salvini and the Northern League in Italy. The refugee boats are landing again.
We live in Chronos but maybe, just maybe, there is some hope that a tide begins to turn. Maybe Kairos is just around the corner. This is a thought that has been growing on me since a visit my wife and I made to Canterbury Cathedral in August. We went to Morning Prayer at 8 am and then had a wonderful half hour, almost alone in the Cathedral, before the general public came in.
The Precentor very kindly guided us to the memorial altar to Thomas a Becket. I had not been there for years and it was a revelation – here is a photograph, with its crucifixes made of swords.
Murdered beside his altar, the death of Becket must have been the darkest of dark times for the Church and for people of good will. And yet. Thomas a Becket’s canonisation was one of the fastest in Christian history. Within two years, King Henry II, apparently responsible for Becket’s murder, had had to choose to walk barefoot into Canterbury and to suffer public and physical humiliation. The name of the saint was one of the most famous in Europe.
I am making no parallel between Becket and Brexit (probably the first time those two words have been put together!) but some parallel emerges between the feeling of helplessness in the 12th century and now, as bad events and unpleasant behaviours seem to gather unrelentingly. However, we do not know what the future holds and what God’s purpose might be.
It seems to me that we need people of good will, including churchmen and churchwomen to be outspoken, not necessarily in support of one or other of Remain and Leave, but for the common weal, the common good, in support of decency and truthfulness and respect between us all. And that is on both sides.
In the great Commission at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that he is with them until the end of time. I know that he is in both chronological time and eternal time and that the outcome of our difficult issues may surprise us all. I can certainly conceive of it being surprisingly less bad than the outcomes to which the chronological sequence of events seems to be pointing. Pandora may emerge out of the box. The long history of British decency may prevail.
And those who appear ready to sacrifice decency in public life and language, may themselves not succeed. In the same chapel as the Becket memorial altar, the Dean and Chapter have placed four large ceramics, shaped rather like vases, to represent the four knights/tempters, who appear in TS Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’. What transpired after the murder was the complete opposite of what the king hoped and the knights sought to accomplish. In that chapel, I noticed was it was difficult to tell whether the ceramics depicted knights or pawns. Who knows?