God, I loathe the bishops. Not Beth Rigby, Robert Peston and the other hacks who seem to be auditioning to guide the morality of the nation. I mean the actual bishops, who turn out to be even less use than these competitively incensed cross-examiners.
Most people in Britain couldn’t name a bishop if they tried. But Nick Baines is a name worth remembering. The otherwise utterly un-noteworthy Bishop of Leeds came to my attention in January 2019 when he gave a talk at Bradford Cathedral in which among other political interventions he referred to Boris Johnson (then foreign secretary) as ‘an amoral liar’.
Four months later the same Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds, could be found warning against the increase in ‘violent bile’ and lack of ‘political restraint’ in discussions around Brexit. Another three months later and the good Bishop could be found appending his name to a joint letter of Church of England Bishops calling for ‘national reconciliation’ and, er, warning about the potential consequences of a no-deal Brexit.
Now Bishop Baines can once again be found entering the political arena by howling that Dominic Cummings is guilty of a ‘do what I say, not as I do’ attitude. An accusation that of course could never be levelled against Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds.
I had assumed that my slight interest in the hypocritical Bishop was a private thing. So imagine my surprise when I learned how much media interest Bishop Baines and a few of his attention-hungry colleagues have been able to garner over recent days.
On the BBC, Sky and other channels, various presenters in need of something to talk about in this moment of national crisis have spent the last couple of days stressing that a number of bishops have come out as anti-Cummings. The views of the bishops have come up at press conferences and even the Guardian chose to report the thrilling news that ‘Bishops turn on Boris Johnson for defending Dominic Cummings’. If you care to read the Guardian or view Channel 4 News on a normal day you would be surprised to find them citing bishops in this manner.
Over recent years, the UK media has managed to get through many stories without once giving us the bishop-angle. The exception naturally comes when a handful of lefty bishops warn that as a result of the Prime Minister standing by Dominic Cummings these bishops may refuse to cooperate with the government in the pandemic.
It takes a certain something to turn me into an anti-clericalist, but this may prove to be the perfect storm. For months every Anglican church in the country has been shuttered: in many cases for the first time in more than half a millennium. I have seen officious little health and safety notices on a number of such churches informing people that God can be worshipped anywhere, but not here.
Now the nation is reopening and the Church of England still cannot manage to be any more relevant than it was at the beginning of this crisis. It has sat by while the nation’s garden centres have reopened and appears to be not at all bothered by this further relegation of its position in the nation’s life. As it happens I can think of a number of reasons why Church of England churches should have been the first buildings in the land to have reopened. Only the last of which is the fact that Church of England services have been practising social-distancing for years. Anybody who fears for their health but wishes to attend public gatherings should head to a C of E service first.
But what is so especially grotesque about the intervention of Bishop Baines and his fellows is not just the rancidly political nature of the intervention. It is the utter absence of any Christian ethic. What business is it of these bishops if Dominic Cummings takes a course of action to keep his family safe that the bishops would not have taken themselves? On Sunday (when he clearly has his feet up these days) Bishop Baines could be found 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.)’
I suppose that we’ll have to take it on trust that Bishop Baines is a responsible father. Certainly he is not a responsible bishop. For he sent out his weirdly furious political intervention before letting the father he was talking about give his account of himself. I should have thought that ‘listening’ and ‘trying to understand each other’ would be the sort of thing a god-bored bishop like Baines might at least still pretend to believe in. If not then perhaps there are other beliefs he might have held to before he left the ministry for full time political hackery. Such as – oh, I don’t know – ‘forgiveness’?
It would seem not. The Bishops of the Church of England are meant (like their counterparts in the other denominations) to have possession of the greatest truths ever revealed to mankind. They are meant to have a gospel of love which carries with it the meaning of absolutely everything: the purpose of the universe, the meaning of life and the cause of pain and human suffering. In the task of disseminating, or even preaching, these truths, Bishop Baines and his colleagues have proved historically incapable. They have overseen an era where there has not just been a fall-off in the number of people who listen to them, but an even steeper fall-off in the number of people who would ever want to hear from them. At a time when they have been needed, never in our national life has there been a time when they have been so irrelevant. If there is a reason for that then it comes in part from the fact that a group of bishops, privileged because their church claims to possess answers to the eternal mysteries, spend their days denouncing Dominic Cummings.