Posts

The Referendum Result: a Reflection

“God is our refuge and strength
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore we should not fear, though the earth should change
Though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea”

Psalm 46 has a special resonance today…  The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union.  This will be good news for some people but a genuine disappointment to others.  The coming years will be marked by uncertainty and change.  What does it mean and how should we respond?

A clear outcome

The outcome of the Referendum is clear.  52% of the electorate has voted to leave, 48% to remain.  Every English region outside London had a majority to leave.

The vote in the city of Sheffield was close but still 51% in favour.  The vote across the rest of the Diocese of Sheffield was even clearer (Doncaster 69% leave; Rotherham 67%; Barnsley 68%; East Riding 60%).

It is a more mixed picture in the Diocese of Oxford (where I become the bishop in a few weeks time).  Some local authority areas have clearly voted to remain, others to leave but the balance in the region is still for leaving.

How should we interpret the result?

I watched the television coverage up until 1.30 am and again from 5.30. The politicians were interpreting the outcome in different ways: as a protest against particular parties or politicians, as a comment on the state of the NHS or immigration.

I’m cautious about all of these interpretations. I may be wrong but I believe that such a large number of people voted Leave for two reasons.  First they genuinely want Britain to leave the European Union and to assert the right to self determination.  52% of the population in effect set the right to self governance above short and medium term economic prosperity.

Second 52% of the population voted for fundamental change in our country going forward even if that change brings some instability.  Those left behind by current economic policies and politics clearly believe they have most to gain from new beginnings. That should tell us something very important.

The ongoing debate

Three vital questions came into focus during the long campaign.  The result did not resolve them.  We need more reflection and public debate on each.

The first is global migration.  We heard again and again that “immigration” was an issue.  But for the most part, the campaign was framed in the language the 1970’s and 1980’s.  The issue for 2016 is not simply immigration but global migration.  We are living through and will live through the greatest migration of people in human history.  This movement of peoples is likely to increase through the effects of climate change, population growth, global inequality and armed conflict.  We need a comprehensive, deep conversation about how Britain and the world will respond.

The second is identity.  What does it mean to be British in 2016? We need leaders of vision able to articulate an inspiring vision for Britain and its future.  That positive vision did not emerge in the campaign from either side.

The third is a new kind of politics.  The murder of Jo Cox MP was an immense tragedy.  The response of politicians on all sides helped us see again how many good, honest people represent us in Parliament.  We need a style of public discourse which is more honest, more humble, more gentle and more kind.  This will take more than self-discipline on the part of those in public life.  We need some new symbolism.  Over the next ten years, the House of Parliament are to be refurbished.  Will we have the courage, I wonder, to reshape the chamber of the House of Commons to be less adversarial, less binary, more collaborative, seeking wisdom from every part of the community?

How should the Church respond?

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have issued a statement this morning calling for humility and courage.  They say “Unity, hope and gentleness will enable us to overcome the period of transition that will now happen and emerge confident and successful”.

http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/5743/eu-referendum-statement-by-archbishops-of-canterbury-and-york

The Church will respond with prayer for our government and Parliament and for all sections of our society.  We will respond by entering into hopeful dialogue with people on all sides of the debate with courtesy and kindness.  We will respond by cherishing the poor and the vulnerable and renewing our efforts to build a safe, just and peaceful world.  We will continue to welcome the stranger and show mercy to the needy here and around the world.  We will continue to build bridges and bonds of friendship across Europe and across the whole world.

In the words of Psalm 46, we will not be afraid though our world may be shaken.  We will take time today to pray, to think, to love and to speak gently in God’s name.

+Steven

 

The darkest valley: a reflection on this week in Parliament

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me”

These words from Psalm 23 have been in my mind this week following the atrocities in Orlando and the terrible murder of Jo Cox yesterday.

I’ve been in Parliament for my final week of duty there as the Bishop of Sheffield.  It’s been a sombre week.  The House of Lords kept a minute’s silence on Monday afternoon before prayers for the victims of the Orlando shootings.  On Monday evening I walked through Soho on the way to meet my son.  I was moved by the powerful display of solidarity by the LGBTI community there and across the world.

On Tuesday morning I attended the National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast in Westminster Hall with around 750 guests including 150 members of both Houses of Parliament.  Again we kept silence and prayed for the victims of Orlando.  The address by Bishop Angelaos of the Coptic Church was on the suffering of Christians throughout the Middle East.

On Wednesday I took part in a debate in the House of Lords on the European Union’s response to the global migration crisis and particularly, the role of Operation Sophia, the mission to disrupt people smuggling from North Africa to the coast of Italy.  There were powerful and compassionate speeches but, of course, no easy answers.

So it had already been a week of difficult news by Thursday when I heard first that Jo Cox MP had been attacked in Birstall and then, when I arrived home, that she had died from her injuries.  There has been a public outpouring of  prayers and vigils for Jo and for her family and friends.

The tributes  have been very moving and Jo will clearly be greatly missed. We do not yet know or understand the reason for the murder.  It is hardest to bear for her family of course, but hard as well for all Members of Parliament on every side of the House of Commons.  As has been said, the ordinary work of MP’s in meeting their constituents every week is seldom newsworthy but it is the very core of our democracy and a vital part of British life.  I join with those who have called for appreciation and thanks to be extended to those who represent us.

This has been a week for reflection on a series of tragedies.  In each of these, and all the others, I draw comfort from the words of Psalm 23:

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me”.

God is with us even in the depths and the darkest places and God is with those who suffer, in part through all of us extending our love and care and support to those who are hurting most.

We remember God’s love and we pray for those who mourn, for the injured, for the persecuted, for those in danger on land and sea.

But we must also be stirred by these events to engage afresh with the great challenges of our age: to work towards a world which is safe, secure and just for all peoples irrespective of sexual orientation or faith or ethnicity or the place in the world where you are born.

I am struck again at the end of this week by one of the prayers from the funeral service. In the face of such suffering it is vital for all of us to live our lives with purpose and with meaning:

Grant us Lord, the wisdom and the grace to use aright the time that is left to us here on earth.  Lead us to repent of our sins, the evil we have done and the good we have not done; and strengthen us to follow the steps of your Son in the way that leads to the fullness of eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Let’s make sure we use our vote….

I hope you have appointments in your diary on Thursday 5th May and Thursday 23rd June.  There are opportunities to vote on both days and it’s vital to use them.

On 5th May, people across South Yorkshire will vote in local elections and to elect the Police and Crime Commissioner.  These elections really matter.  Last time we voted in local elections less than 6 in 10 people turned out.  Last time South Yorkshire elected Police and Crime Commissioners, only 15% of people bothered to vote.

On 23rd June the whole of Britain will vote in a European Referendum.  Whatever your views, this is a hugely significant question.  It will affect the future direction of our country, our unity, our place in the world and our economy.  We all know that opinion polls sometimes get things wrong. The polls are predicting a low turnout on 23rd June on perhaps the most important national question we are facing in many years.   The polls are also predicting that the outcome will be close.  Your vote and mine will make a difference but only if we use it.

faithleaders2016On Wednesday morning I did what I do every year at this time.  I gathered on the steps of the Town Hall in Sheffield with faith leaders from across the city for a photocall and so that we can make a statement together to encourage everyone we can simply to use their vote: young and old, rich and poor.  No-one has to travel far.  It doesn’t take long.  You can take your family and friends with you and encourage them to vote as well.  Democracy gives to all of us the power to shape our society in the people we elect and in helping us to decide the great questions of our age.

It seems a small thing to go to a polling station, take a ballot paper, place a cross in one box or another and put the voting slip into the box.  Yet for many generations before us very few people were able to vote at all.  To vote you had to be male and wealthy: one of a fortunate minority.  Many people the world over do not live in a democracy and have no say or influence over their own government. We do – yet many of us will not use those votes in the next few weeks.

Having a vote means discovering the arguments: digging below the rhetoric, coming to your own point of view.  The Church of England has set up a web page to help you explore the issue.

Christians should set the pace and take the lead in all of our engagement with politics and many do.  Long ago the prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles in Babylon.  You can read the whole letter in Jeremiah 29 but here is the key verse:

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare”.  (Jeremiah 29.7).

In a democracy to seek the welfare of the city means to be involved, to be informed, to discuss and ask questions and above all to use the votes we have been given.  Reserve the dates now.

+Steven

The Sustainable Development Goals

As churches across the Diocese prepare to celebrate Harvest it’s worth pausing to think about a momentous event in world history which took place last week at the United Nations.

World leaders gathered from every continent at the United Nations in New York.  The purpose of the meeting was to agree the new Global Goals, or the sustainable development goals for the next 15 years.goals

The media didn’t give the occasion that much attention.  ITN led that night with Pope Francis’ visit to the 9/11 memorial rather than his time at the United Nations.

But it was a really significant moment.  Fifteen years ago, the United Nations agreed the Millennium Development Goals.  They were shorter, simpler and very effective. The MDG’s have had a huge impact in helping to reduce extreme poverty, improving health and education and in helping women and girls across the world.

The new Global Goals have emerged from an international three year process of listening.  The UK government, led by the Prime Minister, played a really key role.

There is huge ambition here.  According to the UN document: “Never before have world leaders pledged common action and endeavour across such a broad and universal policy agenda”.  And again, “We can be the first generation to succeed in ending poverty just as we may be the last to have a chance of saving the planet”.

The goals are more comprehensive this time.  There are 17 goals and 169 targets.  They are therefore less catchy but much more realistic.  They recognize that all kinds of things are interconnected in tackling poverty.  They are also goals for every country not simply for the developing world.  The British government has promised to implement them alongside governments in Africa and Asia.  There is a much stronger emphasis on building strong, honest, robust governments and institutions as well as on aid and generosity.  There is a strong slogan which focuses on helping the weakest so that no-one is left behind.

There is now a massive challenge ahead in bringing the new Global Goals to the attention of the whole world.  I hope parishes and schools across the Diocese will play their part in that process.

As we celebrate Harvest together as Christians, we give thanks to God for the good things of the earth.  We will focus on sharing what we have and on the care of creation.  It is a good moment to remind each other of the new Global Goals and this common vision to end poverty once and for all.

For more information see https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org

+Steven

Response to the refugee crisis in Europe

How are we to respond as human beings, as Christians and as a Church to the plight of refugees and migrants across Europe?

The pictures on our screens over the last few days have been heart-rending.  Many of us will have been moved to tears.  But how do we translate this outpouring of compassion into action and help others to do the same?  What should we do?

One of the deepest truths in the Bible is that God blesses people so that those people in turn can become a blessing to others.

God calls Abraham in these words: “I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing”.  God calls Jacob with this promise:  “All the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring”.

When God blesses us it is not for our benefit alone.  When God blesses us we are not to feel special.  We are not to hoard those blessings and keep them to ourselves.  We are blessed so that we might bless others – all the families of the earth.  Everyone.

As a country, we have not been blessed with peace and security and wealth and peace for our own benefit alone. Safety is given so that safety and a future can be shared.  We are called as a country to be open handed, open hearted, to give a home to those in greatest need, to carry relief and fresh vision to countries whose heart is ripped apart by war.  We are called to find room.

There has been an outpouring of compassion following the tragic deaths of Aylan and Ghalib Kurdi on 2nd September.  In response the Prime Minister announced yesterday plans to take in 20,000 refugees from the camps in and around Syria over the next five years.

This is a good beginning and a significant shift. It is in addition to the immense contribution Britain is already making to relief in Syria.  But it can only be a beginning to Britain’s response to this crisis.

David Cameron refers to the extraordinary compassion of the British people.  I don’t believe the Prime Minister has yet understood fully the extent to which people want Britain to play its full part in addressing the situation in Europe.

I met last night with Faith Leaders across the city of Sheffield and this morning with church leaders of different denominations.  Our communities are united in compassion for the plight of the refugees.  We are united in the belief that Britain can and should do more.  The faith communities stand ready to help in partnership with local and national government in welcoming those who find a home in our communities whatever their faith and country of origin.  Sheffield was the first City of Sanctuary in Britain and remains in the front line of welcoming strangers.

I have written to the Prime Minister today, urging him to offer leadership in two ways: to support Britain playing its full part in offering sanctuary to those now on the move in Europe as part of a European wide settlement and to encourage new international initiatives to resolve the conflict in Syria which is the root cause of this migration.

Many Christians and local churches have already begun to do more.  I’ve listed below some of the local charities and national agencies which are channelling help to refugees.

Please translate this outpouring of compassion into action through gifts and support for some of these initiatives.  There is no need to wait until a new wave of refugees arrive.  Charities in the region are already hard at work helping people in need here and across Europe and the Middle East.  Please encourage local and national government that, as a country, we support a bigger, more generous response still to one of the great crises of our age.


  • Christian Aid – Giving practical aid and support to refugees and asylum seekers www.christianaid.org.uk
  • Oxfam – Supporting refugees in the Middle East and also in Italy and parts of eastern Europe  www.oxfam.org.uk
  • Secours Catholique-Caritas France – A French Roman Catholic agency specifically supporting refugees in Calais www.donenligne.secours-catholique.org
  • ASSIST Sheffield – Helping refugees and asylum seekers in the Sheffield area; welcomes both donations and volunteers to help in this work including conversation clubs in Sheffield and Doncaster www.assistsheffield.org.uk or 0114-275 4960
  • Project Paddington – “Children helping children” – initially set up to send teddy bears to children of refugees; also accepting donations in co-operation with TEAR Fund. Web-site under construction. E-mail: projectpaddingtonuk@gmail.com
  • Rotherham Cares – Collecting clothes and other items at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Herringthorpe Valley Road, Rotherham www.facebook.com/rotherhamcares
  • Calais People to People Solidarity: Action from Sheffield – Organising and facilitating solidarity from Sheffield to Calais www.facebook.com/groups/CalaisMigrantSolidarityActionFromSheffield
  • Sheffield Aid to Refugees – Organising aid to refugees in Kos and Lesvos www.facebook.com/groups/708657839266597
,

Advising Mr Cameron: lessons from an ancient kingdom

The Prime Minister will not be short of advice as he appoints the Cabinet and prepares the Queen’s Speech.  There is a particular bible story about accepting and weighing advice that I would suggest it might be helpful for him to read and ponder in the first days of the new government.

It’s a story about transition.  King Solomon has died.  All the tribes of Israel have gathered to make his son, Rehoboam, the new king.  But there is widespread discontent.  A delegation comes from the northern tribes, requesting an easing of their burdens.

Rehoboam has a choice to make and he asks for three days to reflect.  He consults two sets of advisors.  The first group, his father’s counsellors, advise him to listen to the people, to be their servant, to reach out to the disaffected and lead from this foundation.

The second group, his own contemporaries, give opposite advice.  Discontent should be met with harshness.  The burdens on the north should be increased still further.  The new government should start as it means to go on.

Reheboam makes his choice.  It is a fateful one.  He listens to the younger, harsher, more strident voices.  A few years later, the kingdom is divided, at war, impoverished and in chaos.

I have no doubt that David Cameron will receive both sorts of advice in the coming days.  There will be those who counsel him to reach out to the whole nation, to connect with the disaffected, to listen to the people and to be their servant.  But there will be those who see the Conservative majority as a mandate to fulfill and go beyond the manifesto commitments, blind to the risk of increasing the burdens of those who already bear the heavy load (of sickness, disability or the struggle to find sustainable employment).

The Prime Minister’s speech on the steps of Downing Street on Thursday moved clearly in the first direction.  David Cameron spoke of one nation and sought to connect more deeply with those who had voted for other parties, with the people of Scotland, with the regions.  He promised to bring our country together, to help working people and give “the poorest people the chance of training, a job and hope for the future”.

Much of this rhetoric is encouraging but now it needs to be supported and backed up with action.  That action needs to be taken swiftly to begin to draw the United Kingdom back together again and begin to build for the future.  The choices made in the next few days about priorities and plans for legislation in the next year are critical.

So here are some suggestions for a big, open offer from Mr Cameron to every part of the United Kingdom, and especially to those who voted for other parties.

  • Make an early, concrete and clear commitment to safeguarding the environment and to leadership in the key climate conferences this year through the appointments you make and in the Queen’s Speech.  Action on climate change is integral to economic growth.
  • Abolish the bedroom tax.  It hasn’t worked.  It has generated more resentment than revenue.  Repealing it would demonstrate a capacity for change and to think again.
  • Promise an early review of benefits sanctions as part of the ongoing reform of welfare.  Sanctions cause massive hardship.  They are responsible for a significant number of people needing foodbanks.  They are tangential to the main welfare reforms.  In the meantime suspend sanctions for families with children and people suffering from mental ill health.
  • Encourage the Living Wage as part of growing a sustainable, strong national economy.
  • Take a long view of constitutional reform.  Acknowledge the concern revealed by the election outcome.  Entrust it to some kind of independent commission which has time and space to think.  Don’t rush the key decisions which will affect the whole future of the United Kingdom.
  • Revisit the Big Society ideas, if not the language.  Place active partnership, between national and local government and the faith and voluntary sector, front and centre again, not as a replacement of government initiative but complementary to it.  Make sure there is clear leadership for these ideas at Cabinet level.
  • Accelerate the provision of truly affordable housing and prioritise this as part of investment in the future.  Protect and strengthen social housing provision to ensure that everyone has access to a decent home at a price they can afford.
  • Reach out to the English regions as well as to Scotland in swift and tangible ways.  In particular make investment in the northern powerhouse a key priority for the first two years of the new government.

The word Minister means servant.  A Prime Minister is called to be one who serves the whole nation.  If Reheboam had listened to different advice the whole story of Israel would have been different.  I hope that David Cameron will take a moment to read and ponder his story: to listen to all the people, to lighten burdens, and to build one nation, for the benefit of all.

+Steven Sheffield

(The story of Reheboam’s choice is told in 1 Kings 12)

Who is my neighbour?

whoismyneighbour-pages-1Less than two thirds of the population cast their vote in the last General Election in 2010.  Less than half of under 25’s turned out to vote.  People feel detached from politics.

Our society needs fresh vision.  We face different threats and problems at home and across the world.  An election campaign is an opportunity for us to think hard, to debate and to have a conversation about what kind of world we want to build, about what kind of society we want to see.

On Shrove Tuesday, the House of Bishops issued a Letter to the People and Parishes of England for the General Election 2015.  The full text is available online here: Who is my neighbour? Alternatively, click on the image to the right.  I want to commend it for careful study and reflection in every parish.

The purpose of the letter is not to tell people how to vote.  The purpose is to encourage all Christian people to engage with the election and to use our votes thoughtfully, prayerfully and with the good of others in mind.

The letter is also an appeal to politicians of all parties to raise the quality of the debate.  We need our politicians to be people of integrity and to offer real leadership in uncertain times.  Politics needs to rise above a series of promises to one or other part of the electorate to deliver a slightly better deal to some in terms of wealth creation, welfare or tax relief.

There are big issues at stake in this election: Britain’s role in Europe and in the rest of the world; the fairness of our society; the protection of the vulnerable; the size of the state, our care of the environment and the role of public services.

There are 16 Parliamentary constituencies within the Diocese of Sheffield including the seats of two of the current party leaders.  The churches and other faith communities form a significant part of the electorate.  We are present in every single community, we are engaged with urban and rural issues, with rich and poor, together we are making a vital contribution to the common good.

I will be writing to all the candidates in every constituency in the Diocese with a copy of the Bishop’s Letter and encouraging them to engage with the churches and faith communities and the issues they bring.

Please pray for the candidates and for the General Election.  Please engage with the debate and conversation which the Bishop’s Letter has begun before and after 7th May.  Please vote and encourage everyone you know to vote as well.

The Bishops’ Letter asks the question: “Who is my neighbour?” and holds out a vision that we will not build a society of strangers but a community of communities. That vision for our world is at the heart of the scriptures.  Jesus himself teaches us to pray: “Your kingdom come”.  Let us not neglect our responsibility as citizens and as Christians to engage with the debate around us.

+Steven Sheffield