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Rev Richard Coles: Brexiteers and Remainers alike could learn from the life of Jesus

“Now is the time to come together,” said Theresa May at the despatch box on 29 March. But how? Britain is more divided than I have ever known it, if my Facebook feed, lively with debate, is anything to go by. As I look at it, I keep hearing that mysterious sound in Act II of The Cherry Orchard, of something turning and twisting and tightening to breaking point. At first, I attributed it to tinnitus, the enduring legacy of my pop career, but now I wonder if others hear it, too, in exchanges between Remainers and Leavers – especially those happening in unlikely places and testing untested loyalties.

The Church, particularly the Church of England, with its historic commitment to the via media (“middle way”), has rich experience in seeking to bridge irreconcilable differences. The first Christians were formed by the first Easter into a new community that transcended all other commitments, encompassing the tax collector Matthew, a lackey of the occupying Romans, and Simon the Zealot, an insurrectionist.

Two millennia later, the Church of England, which has a kind of ecclesiastical personality disorder, is obliged to seek breadth. It is a Church of the Reformation that retains its Catholic character, with thrash-metal-loving, wifi-enabled congregations which believe that the world is about six thousand years old next door to congregations singing Renaissance polyphony amid clouds of incense. A church of such conflicting views that can hold together for almost half a millennium should have something to offer the wider divided world.

You might think so, but we are fully occupied holding together our own irreconcilable differences. Here are two examples. After decades of wrangling and compromises extracted like wisdom teeth without anaesthetic, the Church of England voted in 2014 to allow women to be ordained not only as deacons and priests but also as bishops. Trying to explain why the Church found this so hard to a generation that has grown up finding women’s leadership not even noteworthy (let alone controversial) is increasingly difficult, if you found the change necessary. And opposing it is ever less defensible.

Philip North, widely acknowledged as a fine priest and bishop, was nominated to be the next bishop of Sheffield, a post with a special responsibility for all of the priests in the diocese – including women, whose priesthood he finds doubtful because he questions the validity of their ordination. A compromise that ensured the passage of the legislation allowing women to become bishops guaranteed the “mutual flourishing” of both sides of the argument. After intense protest against his appointment, Bishop North decided not to accept the nomination. Whatever you make of this, no one would dispute that the promise of “mutual flourishing” was premature.

A recent document pledged just as gushingly to “affirm the place of lesbian and gay people in the life of the Church”, while ruling out any change to the status quo regarding same-sex relationships. It came out of a process in which those of us who are working towards a change engaged with those who cannot countenance it, in the hope of finding some sort of compromise that would, we hoped, allow at least a move towards greater inclusion. What we got was language that said one thing and action that said another. The General Synod responded by declining to “take note” of the document.

I was not surprised that we failed to make a breakthrough in the Church’s position on same-sex relationships, nor was I surprised that the agreement providing for a bishop who does not ordain women to be given charge of a diocese failed. The effort to reconcile the irreconcilable is sometimes more difficult and painful than the compromises achieved in Synod allow.

The most difficult and painful experience I have had of division was at theological college – an enclosed and febrile place where disagreements about the butter knife could suddenly become gladiatorial. Our disagreements were over more fundamental issues, and they grew so intense that I once spent the night in a tent in freezing weather because I could not bear to be under the same roof as some of my brethren (I know that some of them found me no more bearable). At the darkest hour, I sat in the echoing church at evensong as a monk read the New Testament lesson from the second chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians, in which the writer speaks of Jesus Christ reconciling the irreconcilable, making “one new humanity from the two” at the cost of His death on the cross. Something sparked.

Jesus comes among us, in our all division, not to instruct, comfort or inspire but to die. In doing so, He answers the sum of our self-regard, stupidity and cruelty. On the other side of the cross, self-regard, stupidity, cruelty and their associated powers are spent, and we look beyond to see a new day rising and the possibility of life transformed.

Just before dawn on Easter Sunday, we meet outside the church where a new fire is burning. From it, we light the great Easter candle, which the deacon carries into the church, bare and empty and dark, symbolising the tomb in which Jesus was laid on Good Friday. The deacon sings, “The light of Christ!” We respond, “Thanks be to God!” and, one by one, light our candles, anticipating the dawn breaking outside at the edge of night on an undiscovered country where divisions are not glossed, or dodged, or reconciled, but left behind.

Richard Coles’s “Bringing in the Sheaves: Wheat and Chaff from My Years As a Priest” is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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