Whatever you can say about the Catholic bishops during the pandemic, at least they have shown that they possess a degree of that valuable commodity, common sense. They haven’t rushed to judgment on the Dominic Cummings affair, which all by itself sets them apart from the bishops of the Church of England, at least a dozen of whom have been extraordinarily precipitate in their haste to join those queuing up to give the Prime Minister’s adviser a good kicking for taking his family to Durham from London. A less edifying spectacle from Christian pastors is hard to conceive.
Way before Dominic Cummings made his statement about the reasons for his actions – his wife fell ill, he felt increasingly unwell, and he wanted to know their child would be cared for if they were both unable to stand up – Pete Broadbent, the bishop of Willesden, had tweeted (a bad medium for a bishop) that Boris had “gone the full Trump”. Nick Baines, the bishop of Leeds, observed that “People across the country have sacrificed hugely in order to obey both the spirit and word of government advice. People have missed being with family members who have died. But, now we learn that there is one rule for the people and another for No 10 and the elite.”
Well no, actually, bishop. The rules for everyone, not just Dominic Cummings, allow for exceptions. The guidelines issued back in March say specifically that “if you have children…we are aware that not all these measures will be possible.” Further, the assistant chief medical officer in England observed the day after lockdown, that “if you have adults who are unable to look after a small child, that is an exceptional circumstance.”
In other words, the Stay Home, Save Lives rules could be interpreted in the light of practicality, common sense – and compassion, that defining Christian virtue. Yet it didn’t stop this bishop from tweeting: “The question now is: do we accept being lied to, patronised and treated by a PM as mugs? The moral question is not for Cummings – it is for PM and ministers/MPs who find this behaviour acceptable. What are we to teach our children? (I ask as a responsible father.)”
Right, as a responsible father, what if his wife were ill with coronavirus, he felt (correctly) that he might be coming down with the same illness, and there was “no one I could reasonably ask to look after the child”. What would he have done? Handed the little boy over to social services, just to save face? It is at least arguable that Dominic Cummings did the responsible thing, certainly the rational thing, and took his child to Durham where he could isolate with his family and where he knew his nieces could look after the little boy if he and his wife couldn’t.
Even if you think Cummings stretched the spirit of the law, it is unquestionably a complex case. That didn’t stop the bishop of Manchester, David Walker, from observing: “Unless very soon we see clear repentance, including the sacking of Cummings, I no longer know how we can trust what ministers say sufficiently for @churchofengland to work together with them on the pandemic.”
It’s arrogance of that kind which would make me, if I were Mr Cummings, resolve to have as little to do with the bishops of the Established Church as possible. Certainly, it has alienated at least one Anglican I know, who messaged me to say: “And THIS is how the CofE spends its time on the airwaves? Pathetic. It’s just unchristian. Full stop.”
If I were the bishops I’d have counted to ten before piling in. John Inge, the bishop of Worcester, who tweeted at the weekend that “The PM’s risible defence of Cummings is an insult to all those who have made such sacrifices to ensure the safety of others”, now says that he wishes Cummings had given his explanation earlier. But why didn’t the bishop wait until he knew the full story before rushing to condemnation? That’s what discretion involves.
The bishops might believe they’re speaking for the people, but they are in fact diminishing their moral capital by making no attempt to discern what is either true or just about their judgment. They may find they alienate thoughtful people who like bishops not to stoke anger, but to be reflexively charitable. It’s worth observing in this context that one reason Dominic Cummings didn’t want to remain in London was that his house was under siege from protesters: as he said, “my home had become a target”. Do the CofE bishops have anything to say to those protesters who try to intimidate individuals within their own homes?
Thank God for the Catholic bishops, who have, in this instance, kept silence rather than taking sides in this nakedly partisan fashion. Those gifts of the holy Spirit – wisdom, understanding, counsel – are sometimes discernible in what you don’t do as much as what you do.
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