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The Church’s Leaders Continue to Demonstrate their Inability to Speak Truth to Power

ngland are apparently characterised by “elites”, Reverend Joe Haward considers why those in positions of privilege and power within the Church of England are so reluctant to expose the right’s dangerous and divisive narratives

The Most Reverend Stephen Cottrell, during his enthronement as the 98th Archbishop of York, at a service of evensong inside York Minster. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Images/Alamy

The Church’s Leaders Continue to Demonstrate their Inability to Speak Truth to Power

Following comments by the Archbishop of York about how people who feel “left behind” in England are apparently characterised by “elites”, Reverend Joe Haward considers why those in positions of privilege and power within the Church of England are so reluctant to expose the right’s dangerous and divisive narratives

The Archbishop of York, in an article for the Telegraph, has called for “courageous and compassionate English people” to lead the way in “driving and unifying” a divided nation. “It is time,” he says, “to be proud to be English.”

Like many before him, Stephen Cottrell bemoans how “many English people feel left behind by the metropolitan elites”. Yet, he does not go on to describe who these “elites” actually are and how their power and privilege impacts democracy. 

Why, for example, did voters get behind the rhetoric of Nigel Farage during the EU Referendum vote, or give Boris Johnson’s Conservative Government an 80-seat majority three years later – when both men are the embodiment of an elitist system? Neither are mentioned in his article.

Instead, Cottrell speaks of “London and the rest”, without reference to the fact that the capital is not a single entity where wealth and privilege are ubiquitous. The tragedy of the Grenfell Fire showed us that poverty, injustice and the unremembered are as much a part of London’s story as anywhere else in England.

Cottrell argues that “English people want to know what has happened to their country” and have their heart cry heard without being “wilfully misunderstood or patronised as backwardly xenophobic”. Why, then, does he not address the mendacity by Vote Leave’s elites that served as a catalyst for anti-immigration sentiment as the cause of all their woes?

Cottrell’s role, the second-highest office within the Church of England, demands that truth is spoken without fear or favour. But this is something church leaders seem utterly unwilling to do.

Real Courage

The early Christian church was noted for its refusal to bow to the demands and desires of the Roman Empire – an unwavering commitment to the ethic and practice of non-violence, challenging infanticide within Roman culture, calling out oppression and injustice. Such a commitment came, quite simply, because it modelled itself on the life and teaching of Jesus. 

His speech and actions were unrelenting in their opposition to the oppressive systems he lived in, highlighting the hypocrisy of the leaders and elites who claimed to be the guardians of the community’s path towards eventual paradise – but who chose to “neglect justice” and “load people with burdens hard to bear”, refusing themselves to “lift a finger to ease them”.

In a particularly damning episode, Jesus asked the religious leaders to get out a coin and tell him whose face was on it. They said it was Caesar’s. To our modern ears, this might not seem like a particularly significant moment. But some scholars have argued that devout Jewish leaders would have only carried coins without an image so as to not break the commandments of idolatry and to worship Yahweh alone. To have a coin with the image of Caesar revealed their hypocrisy and allegiance.

Who are some of our current church leaders surrendering to, and could the desire to reverse institutional decline be shaping public statements and silence? 

Like Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cottrell has a position of immense privilege and influence, even in a society that continues to lose its faith in Christianity. Privilege like this brings responsibility, especially in light of who it is such figures claim to follow. Words have consequences.

Farage tweeted his support of Cottrell’s article.

In recent years, English identity has been hijacked by nationalists, determined to create ‘culture wars’ and division in order that such destabilisation might enable them to further their own agenda. The faux battles that continue to emerge around the EU, statues, the RNLI, taking the knee, as well as Coronavirus disinformation and xenophobic hate, have drawn lines of division within the national landscape. Right-wing voices claim that their interpretation of what it means to ‘English’ is gospel and law.

Cottrell argues for an English identity found within regional identity; a celebration of who we are regionally – thus creating greater equality as that feeds into a collective national pride. To that end, he suggests greater regional powers. It is an interesting vision.

Yet he says nothing as to “the increasing vulnerability of the democratic process to manipulation by unscrupulous digital operatives”; the awarding of contracts to Conservative Party associates and donors without competition; or how proposed changes to election spending, alongside constituency boundary changes and a new requirement for voter ID serves only the ruling party.

How can he claim any meaningful debate about Englishness and democracy if such things are not also called-out?


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English Truth and Pride

As a nation, we need to find ways to hear the voices of those who no longer feel heard, particularly people with disabilities, those living in poverty, the discriminated against, the abused and oppressed.

There is no doubt that vast swathes of our communities feel abandoned and forgotten. But the Archbishop of York does nothing to address such particular concerns – giving, instead, further (presumably unintended) legitimacy to right-wing voices that have directly contributed to that abandonment. 

An Englishness that we should take seriously is an honest assessment of our past (which Cottrell passingly acknowledges), and exposes the destruction of our communities by the very elites who have lied.

When England player Tyrone Mings called out the Home Secretary over racism, it represented an Englishness to be proud of. His team-mate Marcus Rashford’s work helping to feed the poorest children in our nation is also an example of the same.

England needs to recognise the problems and positivity within itself – not go further down the path of division and the scapegoating of ‘others’. And its religious leadership must be willing to be part of this change.

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