It is not often that a single story dominates everyone’s online conversation—yet that is what happened over the weekend, when I found that just about all my Facebook friends were commenting on the same issue. And it is not often that the bishops of the Church of England appear to speak with one voice on a controversial issue. Yet this is what Dominic Cummings has achieved by his ‘lockdown’ trip to Durham in April. It is quite a feat!
So I thought it worth reflecting on why this has become such a dominant story, why bishops have been commenting on it, and whether Christian faith has anything particular to say. A number of questions need to be addressed in turn—and a number of features of the debate might be noted.
First, did Cummings break the law by disregarding the regulations of lockdown that were put in place? I think the answer is pretty clearly ‘Yes, he did’. The Guardian offered a fairly straightforward analysis, before yesterday’s extraordinary press conference, which I don’t think materially changed the facts of the matter. (Don’t discount this just because of the source; that is an ‘ad hominem‘ argument.)
On 26 March, regulations were introduced in England that made it an offence to leave home without a “reasonable excuse” and to gather in groups of more than two. The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 gave police powers to forcibly return those who refused to comply with the lockdown to their homes and issue fines to dissenters…
Whether he contravened the regulations depends on the definition of “reasonable excuse”. The regulations do not define the term but they do provide non-exhaustive lists of reasonable excuses to be outside, such as shopping for necessities, doing exercise and travelling to and from work…
Asked by reporters on Saturday for her reading of “reasonable excuse”, the deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, suggested “extreme risk to life” would fit the bill. “If you’re symptomatic, you stay at home, take yourself out of society as quickly as you can and stay there, unless there’s extreme risk to life,” she said at the daily press conference.
Downing Street’s statement says Cummings travelled 260 miles north “owing to his wife being infected with suspected coronavirus and the high likelihood that he would himself become unwell. It was essential … to ensure his young child could be properly cared for.”
The regulations are clear that had Cummings been stopped by police en route to Durham, officers could have directed him to return to London and fined him. The wording of the regulations says police only need to “consider” (ie believe) that someone had left home without a reasonable excuse in order to send them back.
The outcome will be devastating for the government’s attempts to carry people with them. Public opinion has been noticeably steady through the pandemic. Most people have proved cautious, rule-abiding, risk-averse. Even now, pressure to loosen the restrictions only comes from a minority. It was entirely predictable that the public’s judgments about Cummings this weekend would be overwhelmingly negative. So it has proved. YouGov found that across every region of the UK, and among leave voters and remain voters alike, the majorities are all emphatically against him.
What happens to Cummings is important. But the real question posed by the furore goes further. Johnson’s credibility over the handling of the biggest domestic crisis faced by any recent government is in the balance. That credibility is vital in the next phases of the response to the pandemic, which are scheduled to be launched this coming week – a week in which parliament is in recess, a typical Cummings touch. But the implications extend to the Johnson government’s authority in the post-pandemic political world, too.
Joshua Penduck observes that a different kind of response in yesterday’s press conference might have diffused the issue:
I panicked. I was afraid for my family and I wasn’t thinking clearly. It was a stupid thing to do at the time and I regret it. I’m sorry. I know a lot of people are angry with me, and that’s very understandable. People have been making huge sacrifices. In a moment of stupidity I messed up.
But that is not Cummings’ style, and nor is the bizarre idea that he could take this decision without proper consultation—so at the moment not the style of this Government, and that has some serious and objective consequences. It is why both David Walker, bishop of Manchester, and Rose Hudson-Wilkins, bishop of Dover (in a rather good interview with Channel 4 News though erroneously styled as ‘Dr’), noted the importance of consistency and coherence in Government.
This also highlights the inconsistency and incoherence of the regulations the Government has been issuing. A doctor I know well often comments that different aspects of the regulations are simply not based on proper understanding of how viruses are transmitted. I think there are multiple pointers to show that it was ‘social distancing’ (what an ugly term) and not lockdown that actually stopped the virus spreading— and not many people have noted that social distancing is actually very little different from lockdown in cities (for example, in London prohibiting travel on the Tube or buses, and preventing any gatherings for sporting events), but has a differential impact on big cities, smaller towns, and rural areas in just the way that is needed to address the differential spread of the virus in these different contexts.
I think the prohibition on visiting friends and relatives close to death was just inhumane—there must have been a way to allow this to happen, and the prohibition was unnecessarily stringent. The most stupid part of the guidance was that ‘You can meet with one person from another household, but not two’ which makes no sense at all. And how is it that I can take exercise in a public space, and meet strangers at a social distance—but not meet friends there at a social distance? The general policy has been to control the population by slogan and fear, rather than by understanding and empathy, as has happened in other parts of the world. Which all makes the Cummings saga something that was always likely to happen.
As my friend Prudence Dailey put it:
In a nutshell: The primary issue at stake is not whether Mr Cummings’ actions were intrinsically reasonable, but whether they were in line with the unreasonable restrictions which he was complicit in imposing on everyone else.
All that leads us to the question of responses, and particularly the unusually broad response from bishops in the Church of England, helpfully gleaned from Twitter here. For those who think bishops shouldn’t comment on such questions, I found this overall summary of the situation from a friend quite helpful:
1) The guidance from the government was repeatedly don’t leave home. He did.
2) Mrs Cummings wrote an article about them being in lockdown which didn’t mention Durham.
3) The government themselves said a week or so ago that the family were isolating in London.
4) The government said a few days ago he hadn’t been on a trip to Barnard Castle
5) I would love to hear support that a good way to test your eyesight is by driving on a 60 mile round trip with your family
6) Is it right and ok as Christian leaders to hold others to account?
Yes, of course Christian leaders should hold others to account. That, in itself, is not a demonstration of being partisan, and is surely appropriate. For some people, who detest Cummings and resent what he has contributed to Brexit, then this furthers their agenda. But it is notable that even Conservative politicians on the right of the party think he has to go.
There is much at stake here, both at a personal level and in relation to government in a time of crisis—so surely Christian leaders have something to say, and Christian theology has something to bring to the table? Emma Ineson, bishop of Penrith, touches on the personal issues:
Goodness, Dominic Cummings must be really, really valuable to Johnson to be worth what he’s just risked by backing him ie the trust of the British people.
— Emma Ineson (@e_ineson) May 24, 2020
Whilst Philip Mounstephen moves from this to the more structural issues of how government works:
In this country, government and the rule of law depend largely and rightly on the principle of consent. But that depends in turn on the consistency, integrity & impartiality of govt and the application of the law. That is now hugely strained. A moment of real and serious concern.
— Philip Mounstephen (@pmounstephen) May 24, 2020
But two of the episcopal comments struck me as particularly curious. David Walker, bishop of Manchester, expressed his concern in traditional terms of repentance for sin:
Deeply grateful for my colleagues who have said what I feel too.
Unless very soon we see clear repentance, including the sacking of Cummings, I no longer know how we can trust what ministers say sufficiently for @churchofengland to work together with them on the pandemic. https://t.co/3WsJWUrnVZ
— David Walker (@BishManchester) May 24, 2020
He (rightly) defended this use of language as being perfectly appropriate for a Christian leader:
If you’re one of that small number of Twitter users who think calling sinners to repent is unchristian, expect a shock if you ever get round to reading the stories of Jesus in the gospels.
— David Walker (@BishManchester) May 25, 2020
I think, though, the difficulty is not in the language used in relation to this issue, but the perception that the language has only been used here, and not in relation to other issues in our culture, which might not play so well in the public realm. So I gingerly asked in response:
I think you are quite right. As a matter of interest, have you called for repentance in the face of abortion or sexual infidelity on Twitter? Open question!
— Dr Ian Paul (@Psephizo) May 26, 2020
C S Lewis once said that people find his views on politics as a Christian very puzzling, since on issues of society and government he looked rather left wing, but on issues of personal morality he looked rather right wing. I find it very strange that church leaders seem quite happy to make public pronouncements on tax and society—but I cannot remember a single bishop every commenting on questions of personal morality, the importance of personal responsibility, or issues which have been the home territory of traditional Christian ethics, such as the family and the importance of fidelity in marriage…
For all these reasons (and I suspect there are more) I think Christian leaders should avoid making pronouncements that align themselves with particular economic or political policies. I cannot remember anyone ever saying ‘Oh, I see that that bishop votes Labour—I think I had better find out more about this person Jesus’.
The second episcopal comment I thought was odd came from Viv Faull, bishop of Bristol:
Day 61 #livingdifferently in a nation where the PM has no respect for the people. The bonds of peace and our common life (which had been wonderfully strengthened during the testing by CV-19) have been dangerously undermined this evening.
— Bishopviv (@Bishopviv1) May 24, 2020
The reason I find this odd is that the language of ‘the bonds of peace’ and ‘our common life’ explicitly refer within Christian theology to the unity and commitment that the people of God have for one another, effected by the reconciliation of us to God and so us to one another that can only come about through the sacrificial death of Christ for us on the cross, and the new life that is now ours through the resurrection. The first phrase is a direct quotation (probably via liturgy) of Eph 4.3; this is a work of the Spirit in us. To apply that to society as a whole, or Government in particular, is either a throwback to Christendom, or a strange kind of universalism. I observe the same kind of odd extension of the language of redemption to an unqualified universalism in the recent comments of Justin Welby:
As a Christian, I believe that God is with us, even in the darkest of times. In our isolation and fear, Christ, who suffered on the cross, deeply understands any pain we may feel. In his resurrection, he makes all things whole again.
Surely we need to say here: because of his resurrection, he can make all things whole again. But that is neither certain nor universal apart from faith; the resurrection does not mean (as a senior bishop recently said on BBC TV) that ‘we will get through this together’.
You don’t need to lapse into an anti-clerical rant like Douglas Murray to see that there is an issue here. The moderate and reasonable Tom Holland also thinks there is a problem when ‘bishops talk like middle managers’—or like politicians, for that matter.
The pandemic and our response to it has functioned as a kind of judgement. Things that have been hidden, or that we have got away with, have now been tested and exposed. There is potential for us to realise what matters and what is of true importance, and our various strategies, assumptions and attitudes have been put to the test. The Cummings saga has shone a light on things we already think and do, including our anger and frustration with the current situation, and the way others have responded to it. Commenting on this in public is a complex business, and we need to think carefully about how our comments might contribute to existing assumptions and concerns.
In his new book On Death, Tim Keller observes this about contemporary society: