Believing in the Public Square

The Roscoe Lecture, given at the invitation of Liverpool John Moores University, in the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, June 11 2019.

Believing in the Public Square; the place of faith in England today”.

I’m very grateful to Sir Jon Murphy and to the University for the opportunity to give this lecture, and for the events that surround it – the chance to share a discussion with members of staff, and to share food and company with you all and with others later.

As a faith leader I stand on giants’ shoulders at this podium – religious and spiritual leaders from the Archbishops of York and Canterbury to the Dalai Lama have lectured here before me, as the convening power of the University has brought great wisdom to our city. 

I also stand on giants’ shoulders as Bishop of Liverpool, conspicuously of course Bishop David Sheppard and Bishop James Jones, whose work when they were in this role made sense of the title of my lecture – believing in the public square – and established a platform for the work of the church in the city which we still try to inhabit today, following the tradition of our civic leaders including of course William Roscoe. 

More than anything else we honour Roscoe for the public work he did for the city, as an abolitionist, as a politician and as a Patron of the arts and the sciences. And we remember him as a man of faith. So for example we read this about Roscoe: “To make public statements [on abolition] was to go against the tide of public opinion as well as question the means of acquiring wealth of so many of his fellow citizens, numbers of whom sat with him in church every Sunday. His attack on slavery was rebutted by the City Council who paid a clergyman to write a theological answer to Roscoe’s arguments.” (D Steers: ’William Roscoe, James Irving and the Liverpool Slave Trade’)

Here we see the Council and the church on the wrong side of history. I hope and believe it is not always so. I hope and believe it’s not so now. 

The title of my lecture is “Believing in the Public Square; the place of faith in England today”. I chose it because we live in chaotic and disruptive times, where the very existence of a public square where we can talk to gather and share ideas about our common life – where that very idea is in question, and where there are those whose business it is to destroy the public square, and to manipulate the fragments so as to devalue and ignore truth and to bewilder people so as to grasp power. It’s a dangerous time, and it’s a time that demands vigilance and commitment on the part of all those who seek the common good and who believe that we may have values in common that will enable the flourishing of all people.

I’ll speak about faith communities; I mean that in the wide sense, and I’m honoured to stand alongside my sisters and brothers of all faiths and of all traditions within the faiths. But I’ll also speak of the Church of England since that’s my Church, and in a sense I’ll use my church as a case study.

The secret of the Church of England is in the name – we’re a church, and we’re in England. England is part of Great Britain, and Great Britain is part of the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom is – still – part of the European Union, and the European Union is part of the West, and the West is part of the world. But as a Bishop of the Church of England it is England in particular that I’m called to serve, and to which I’m called sometimes to speak. When I speak to my colleagues in the Diocese of Liverpool I say that the two matters we’re concerned with are God and England – with God who never changes, and with England which changes all the time. And as a person of faith I must understand this complicated England if I’m to try to be helpful here.

The Church of England is established by law. It’s not a state church like some of the churches of Northern Europe, where the church takes a proportion of the income tax and where the clergy are paid by the state. But it is established by law, it is – literally – part of the establishment. So when you become Bishop of Liverpool, before you can minister publicly, you have to visit the Queen and swear an oath before her in the presence of the Lord Chancellor, or modern equivalent. My own oath was administered by Chris Grayling when he had that job. I make no comment on that, I simply share it with you as a fact. In theory, faith remains central to the nation, and the Church of England remains central to that theory.

And yet in my own lifetime the place of the Church in England has changed radically. I was born in 1953. I went to church because my parents did. I went to church on Sundays in the morning and in the evening and in the afternoon I went to Sunday School, and scores of kids came to Sunday school who never came to church, because their parents wanted them to know about the Christian faith and were willing to bring them along every week. Now that number has almost vanished. The only kids who go to Sunday school are the children of churchgoing parents.

In the early 60s if you went into hospital and you were asked to fill-in a form which included your religion, the majority of English people put “C of E”. Now the majority will put “None”.

That doesn’t mean religion has vanished. Even leaving aside other Christian denominations, including significantly of course in this area the Roman Catholic Church, about a million people go to church each Sunday across the Church of England. In this Diocese of Liverpool, where the population is 1.6 million, about 22,000 got to church on Sunday and a further 6,000 or so go at different times in the week. We have 119 church schools with 33,000 young people. We constitute a significant presence in the community beyond the establishment. 

And yet we’re much further on the edge of English life than we were fifty years ago. When I preached my first sermon as bishop here, in our Cathedral along the road, I said that in the past the C of E was in the middle and at the top, as befits a church where you kneel before the Queen when you become bishop; but now, I said, we’re on the edge and underneath. Pushed to the edge, standing with those in every community who are on the edge.

(While I’m on about my inaugural sermon, this is the first of two opportunities in this lecture for me to plug my book, “The Table”, which is based on that inaugural sermon and which is available from all good bookshops, including our Cathedral bookshop of course. I’ll talk more about the image of the table in a few moments. Meanwhile, £12.99 and worth every penny.) 

A couple of years ago, working with the Archbishop of Canterbury,  I commissioned some research in Liverpool City centre among young people 18-30, who were down in Church Street doing their shopping. Our researchers asked a whole bunch of questions about church, and about Jesus, and about God. The answers were interesting, and of course the facts are always friendly. Most of the people we spoke to didn’t know much about the church and didn’t like much of what they knew. The church was perceived by many as a toxic brand, seen as being homophobic and misogynistic, as being irrelevant and outdated. I don’t want to comment on these views at the moment except to say that I can see why these young people thought so, and I’ll be happy to explore any aspect of that further in the questions and answers afterwards.

It’s my privilege to know Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US, who preached the sermon at the Royal Wedding of Harry and Meghan just over a year ago. He spoke there about the power of love to change the world. The secular media were entranced by the things he said and the way he said it, but at least one newspaper described his sermon as an “unorthodox message of love…” 

We have a problem, we Christians who proclaim the name of the prince of peace and the God of love. And we heard that here in Liverpool from the mouths of scousers in Church Street. 

But alongside all that, two or three things emerged from the research that give a clue to what the people themselves see as the place of faith in England today. 

First and foremost, those who were interviewed said that they were glad to see people of faith involved in caring for the poor. 

I have oversight of 200 parishes in this Diocese of Liverpool, 257 churches. 76% of those are actively involved in foodbank provision. That’s just over ¾ of our churches, actively involved in feeding the poor, here in this so-called developed country. One of the great privileges of my work here is that I co-chair the Citywide Strategy Group for Fairness and Tackling Poverty at the invitation of the mayor, alongside Councillor Jane Corbett who has been advocating for the poorest of the poor as a Christian lay woman in our city for many, many years. It’s a privilege to stand alongside her and alongside the many people, of all faiths and none, who represent the coalition of voluntary and faith communities who want to make a difference for the poor. That’s where the Church belongs.

In this as I say we stand with people of other faiths and people of no faith – with Fans for Foodbanks, with the work of the mosques, to name but two. But when faith involves itself in caring for the poor, people across the community recognise it as a valuable contribution.

So one place for the voice of faith in England today is to name poverty and unfairness, to help with it practically, and to speak against the structures that cause it and sustain it.

That applies more widely than Liverpool, and it raises an old question about whether faith should be involved in politics. When Bishop David Sheppard and Archbishop Derek Worlock were here, they were asked the same question pretty sharply, and the C of E report “Faith in the City”, which Bishop David inspired and guided, was described by members of the then Parliament and Government as a Marxist document. 

Archbishop Derek was good at writing spoof verse for fun, and in my home in Woolton there’s a poem he gave to Bishop David which was worked up into a sampler and which Bishop David’s daughter kindly gave to us. It hangs on the wall on the way in to the chapel, and this is what it says:

In our Liverpool home,
Sent here from Lambeth and Rome,
We’re better together in protest and prayer,
We’ve shouted for jobs in a voice loud and clear,
When the city wants allies we’re proud to be here,
In our Liverpool home.

He saw it that way. And we see it that way still. And people beyond the church see it that way and they are glad of it.

Six months ago, in December 2018, YouGov undertook one of its regular opinion polls, with a sample of 1600 people. As well as the usual questions about voting intentions and so on, there were a few about faith. Here are a handful of the results:

“Do you think it is appropriate or inappropriate for the Archbishop of Canterbury to express opinions on political issues?” Yes: 35. No: 44. Don’t Know: 21.

And then the response to some of those very issues:

“zero-hours contracts are “the reincarnation of an ancient evil”” Agree: 39. Disagree: 31

“the government’s universal credit policy leaves “too many people worse off”” Agree: 53. Disagree: 16

“the tax system allows online retailers to pay “almost nothing in tax”” Agree: 59 Disagree: 10

“there is a “widening gulf between rich and poor” in Britain’s “broken” economy.” Agree: 66. Disagree: 10

So as you can see, a fair few people don’t think it’s appropriate for the Archbishop to comment at all in the public square, but when he does comment, lots of people agree with him.

In my own ministry I can identify with this. So when the City Council produced its analysis of the cumulative impact of benefit cuts, or more recently their analysis of the unintended consequences of Universal Credit, it was my privilege to be able to commend and advocate for these pieces of analysis and to ask what impact they would have on public policy as we go forward. I was able to do this because the Church of England has a Christian presence in every community, including the poorest communities of Merseyside, and because we are seeking to help those on the edge of things and from that place to speak truth to power. 

A couple of weeks ago I was asked for my views on the visit of the US President, and I spoke about the magnetic attraction of the Bible to those on the edge of things, to the poor, to the displaced, to the refugee and the asylum seeker, and I said that I hoped the President would hear that too, and I regretted that some of his advisers who bear the name of Jesus did not seem to feel that caring for the poorest and the displaced had anything to do with their faith. 

I said all that not because I’m a lefty independently of my faith, but because I think that’s the implication of following Jesus.

These comments were not universally popular. But they were more popular than not, and a lot of people said they were glad that the church was at least trying to speak for those with no voice, and that the voice of faith was still echoing in the public square.

Back to our conversations in Church Street. As well as being positive about the social justice work of the churches, the people our researchers spoke to had another point to make. They were grateful that church buildings were there as a place where they could pop in and be quiet. 

You will know that at the moment in the Anglican Cathedral there is a huge model of the earth – 23 feet wide, rotating every 4 minutes. So far 120,000 people have been to see it, just as many hundreds of people come into the Cathedral on Light Night every year. And in every local church that’s open, of all denominations, people come in to connect with peace and quiet and, for many of them, to connect with God.

So from that research the message that emerged for us, from the people of the city, were – we don’t really understand Christianity, we’re not sure we like it, but the two things we really like are the stuff you do for justice and the space you give us to wonder. Justice and wonder.

So from that place on the edge and underneath, and trying to maximise the gifts we’ve been given by our history as a nation, the Church of England takes its stand alongside other believers, in the hope that we can contribute to the common good – and of course the very phrase “common good” is drawn from, and is at the heart of, Catholic Social Teaching.

Believing still has a voice, and in this hinge-moment in our culture many people wish we didn’t, or vaguely regret that we do, and at the same time they value what we say and agree with it. 

And like all those who want to affect the way we live together as a nation, believers seek to speak in, and into, the public square. 

That phrase, “the public square”, has always been a bit romantic. It looks back to the marketplace, the agora, or the open-air court, the Areopagus, of ancient Athens. These were places where people would gather to speak and listen and indeed to govern together. In the Christian Bible, in the Acts of the Apostles, St Paul goes there, and the Bible says: “He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day” (Acts 17:17, CEB). And he gets into political and religious conversations, and being St Paul and being a Christian, he gets into hot water too.

But even when there is a public square, not everyone wants to use it. My Auntie Thelma is 95 years old, and she looks back, as people of that age tend to do, to her own childhood and to the things her mother used to say to her. One of them – and she mentions this almost every time we speak –  was this: “Never discuss politics and religion”. She finds it quite hard, given that I have the job I do, to avoid doing that – but she manages it mostly.

But there’s a difference between choosing to avoid the public square, and not knowing where it is, or even if there is one. And that’s where we are now. 

The fragmentation of our public life, which has mostly been brought about by technology, has opened us up to an increasingly fractious and angry discourse, and to the possibilities of manipulation by unscrupulous people who will avoid the public square by targeting people in the privacy of their own Facebook pages with fake news and with fear-mongering, in such a way that things are not discussed publicly but rather decided privately. We live in echo-chambers, where we never hear reasonable voices with which we disagree, but only like-minded friends and caricatured enemies.

“Never discuss politics and religion”. Well, for many years religion has been encouraged to be a private matter for those who like that sort of thing – and now politics is becoming like that too. And so in the absence of a meeting place, people in their bubbles are turning up the volume, and bellowing at one another, and coarsening the language of public debate. And of course there are those, across the West, who like it that way and who want it to be that way, and who profit from its being that way. 

I spoke a moment ago of the recent visit of the President of the United States. His tone of public voice, and the response of some of our own public people to his visit, makes it clear that the stoking of anger and the downplaying of dialogue is in the active interest of some, and that this direction of travel is welcomed and encouraged and advanced by them. 

To these people I think the voice of reason, exemplified by Universities like this one, and the voice of faith, exemplified by our communities of faith, must speak with equal force – clearly and critically. 

In an image given to us by the Hebrew Scriptures we must say to those who dismantle the public square: You have sown the wind, and you will reap the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). And in another image from the Bible – the tower of Babel – we must say that unless we continue to learn a common tongue, we will end up with a nation in which public discourse is impossible, because people have forgotten one another’s languages.

In the face of those attempts at disruption I’m a believer in the public square and I mean two things by that. Firstly, I believe that there should be a public square, where we can talk and listen and disagree well. And secondly I believe that in that public square, the voices of people of faith should be heard. 

So for me an urgent project for people of good will – people of all faiths and none – is to establish a public square once again and to learn how to operate within it, which means learning to disagree well within it.

Good disagreement is a phrase well known in the Church of England, given to us by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the context of our own conflicts and tensions, not only here in England but across the world. In the Church, as we have so often done in the past, we’re disagreeing about sex and gender. In the Anglican world in the last century we disagreed about contraception, then divorce, then the ministry of women as priests and bishops. Now we’re disagreeing about same-sex relationships and about the place of trans people in the world. 

And the Archbishop wants us to disagree well. To do so it helps to sit around a table, together. That’s the aim of our Lambeth Conference next year, and also of smaller gatherings and partnerships such as the one we’re involved in here in Liverpool, the “Triangle of Hope” which follows the path of the slave triangle of old and seeks to remember and redeem it, as we in Liverpool stand in partnership with Christians in Kumasi, Ghana, and in Virginia in the USA.

Disagreeing well is easier to do when you’re talking and listening, and when there’s a space in which to do that. That’s true too for the conversations between the faiths, and here in Liverpool Father Crispin Pailing, our Rector at the Parish Church, convenes meetings at my home where we can drink coffee and tea and take counsel together. The Triangle of Hope, the inter-faith conversations – these are small things but each one of them is a subversive moment – subversive of the coarsening of public conversation which threatens to overwhelm us in these days.

Let me then explore one last question in this lecture: do the people of faith, the communities of faith, have any specific gifts to bring to the public square, either to establish it or to enrich it? 

I hope and pray that we have two particular things to bring. Neither of them is specific to religious faith; both of them can help wherever they are found. They are civility and story.

If you’re civil with someone it normally means that you get on with them, although of course you will know the phrase, “Civil War”. All war is terrible, and civil war worse than most because in civil wars friends become enemies, and hatred comes into families. Most world faiths speak of the love of God, and of God’s compassion and mercy. And in most world faiths there are those who deplore or exclude or hurt or even kill other people because those others don’t share the details of their belief. 

Nonetheless in the world of faith civility operates like gravity. It holds us to the ground of conversation, and it reminds us that God is bigger than we are.

After the 2016 referendum there was a spike in hate crime, here in the North West and across the whole country. Our elected Mayor, Joe Anderson, called together a group of people to speak for peace. It included people from across the political divide, but it was also part of Joe’s purpose to call together the leaders of the faiths. This was not because the faith leaders were stoking conflict, but precisely because they were opposing it and speaking for peace and openness in the face of hatred and exclusion. And so we stood together, and spoke in St George’s Plateau, and embraced one another so that it could be seen that civility was not dead in North-West England in 2016.

Civility is not being nice. It is far more than being nice. It is taking a stand, and standing with people. It is finding and if necessary making a room where people can disagree, and speaking calmly but very clearly in that room. It’s not just sitting there neutrally, like some sort of super-chairman with no views, or no mind, of your own. It involves listening, and then speaking clearly, and then listening again.

And it involves more than words. A few weeks ago the Liverpool region mosque network threw a party for the city, and invited us all to eat with them at sunset. They did this because it was Ramadan, when Muslims fast until the sun goes down, and because Islam is a hospitable faith. And thousands of people responded to the invitation. The following day the man who calls himself Tommy Robinson came to Merseyside, with his message of division in communities. I was proud to receive the gift of my Muslim sisters and brothers that day, and to say to those who foment hatred that love is stronger, and that it’s harder to hate someone while you eat with them at table. So here on our city the people of faith exercised civility in a simple and compelling way, in the public square, there on the Pier Head. 

In my first week in public ministry in Liverpool, in Autumn 2014, a man was jailed for antisemitic abuse of Luciana Berger; the man was in the neo-Nazi group “National Action. So my first act as bishop, literally the first thing I did after I had begun, was to send a message to Luciana to say, the Christians of the Diocese of Liverpool stand with you; we will not have this incivility which treats you as less than human.

In 2017 it was my great honour to become a patron of Liverpool Pride and to speak and walk with our LGBTI+ community, to stand against hate crime in memory of the homophobic killing of Michael Causer, and to affirm the richness that LGBTI+ people bring to all of us. It was a privilege to do that, and to apologise in person to that community for the things that many in the Christian family have thought, said and done in the past, and frankly still do in the present, to hurt and exclude.

All these things were attempts to be civil in the public square, and I’m proud of all of them. The church is often seen as a place for making tea – more tea, vicar? And it is a place for making tea, so that people can sit down and drink it and talk – but it’s more than just making tea for people – although like making tea, it involves hot water. A table to sit round, and drink tea if you like, but then be prepared to get into hot water.

When I began as bishop here in 2014 I began with a sermon based on an image and a story, and over the years since then I’ve tried to live this story in the public square too.  It was a story about a table (and this is my second opportunity to plug the book I write based on that sermon, called “The Table”, £12.99 as I’ve said before…).

And it began like this:

So there’s this table.

It’s a simple table but it’s well made, because it was made by a carpenter. The guy who made it is a poor man, but he’s generous. He offers a place at the table to anyone who wants to sit and eat. This is a table that started in one place but now it can stretch down every street, and it can go into every home, if people want to sit there.

It’s a table for meeting. It’s a table for talking around. It’s a table for laughing. Most of all it’s a table for eating. It’s a level table. Maybe it’s not a round table. Maybe it’s a square table, so that people can look directly at one another as they sit there. Can look each other in the eye as they sit there, beside the poor man who made it.

But it’s not a high table.You don’t have to qualify to sit there. It’s for anyone. And the poor man sits there, and wherever people sit, he sits beside them.You can sit there too, with the poor man, and look across the table, at people you like and at people you don’t like, at people who agree with you and at people who disagree with you.

Sometimes it’s a table for thumping. Sometimes it’s a table for signing treaties and for making peace. Always the poor man sits beside you.

Yes, most of all it’s a table for eating.You can’t eat alone at this table.You can’t buy a meal at this table.You can’t buy a ticket to sit here. Anyone can sit here. It’s a table like a table at a wedding.You sit with guests you never knew, and you find out about them, and they become your friends. And the table is spread with a beautiful fair white linen cloth and if you come here, like any pilgrim coming into a new house, they will clothe you in the most beautiful clothes and they will make you welcome.

And if you eat the food served here you will never be hungry again. Because the poor man offers the food at this table. And the poor man will serve you, and the poor man’s hands are wounded when he serves you, because the food came at a price, and he paid the price.

The poor man’s name is Jesus, who though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor so that through his poverty we might become rich. And if you sit at his table he will feed you and he will ask you to feed others; he will serve you and he will ask you to serve others; he will love you and he will ask you to love others.

That’s how it started. There isn’t much abstract about that. It tried to be down to earth. 

In the referendum debate you’ll remember that Michael Gove said he felt the British people had had enough of experts. And indeed in the fragmented public square experts are despised and should not be. But people of faith, for all that we try to learn from experts and to contribute to the common good, basically we’re just storytellers. And as I draw this lecture to a close. More than anything I want to say that believing in the public square is standing in the public square with a story to tell, and eating in the public square with my sisters and brothers who are different from me, and proclaiming in the public square that hatred has no place there, and if necessary getting into hot water. 

The late American Jesuit Daniel Berrigan, a Christian, a poet and a peace protestor, who spent some time in prison for his beliefs, had a saying: “Know where you stand – and stand there”. On behalf of the people of faith in this city I want to say that we stand in the public square, and that we’re committed to that public square, and to making room for all civil society there, and to telling our story and through our story sharing our values, and to listening. 

The privilege of being able to give this lecture is a part of that, and I repeat my gratitude to this University, this modern, civic University, for the invitation it has extended to me and to all the lecturers before and after me. And I hope I’ll be forgiven, as a person of faith in this public square, for saying: know where you stand and stand there, and as you do, may the God of love bless you all. Thank you.