A Call to “Take Sides”!

by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool and Chair of the Ozanne Foundation


In an increasingly polarised and angry West it may seem perverse to say that we need to be clear about taking sides. Surely the work of civilised people, and in particular of those who follow the Prince of Peace, is to avoid taking sides – to work instead at bringing all sides together and seeking consensus, agreement, emollience? Surely that would be the pastoral thing to do?  And the Church is primarily a pastoral entity – isn’t it?

In “Liberating God”, his remarkable study of “Private care and public struggle”[1],  Bishop Peter Selby has wise and prophetic things to say about this understanding. He writes of the default setting of our pastoral care, which is crystallised in words such as “attentiveness”, “empathy”, “caring”, “openness”, “a non-judgemental attitude” – and of course he knows and emphasises the value of all these things, especially as they apply to individual care for the hurting. But he also says that if this is all we do, and all we think we are for, then we may be missing a vital contribution to the public square.

We may indeed be missing something of what our Scripture and our tradition calls us to. And so he regrets that:

“The minimising of pain and the reduction of tension do not appear as one side of an argument, to be balanced against the possible value that disturbance may have.”

He continues:

“…we should at least consider a new aspect of the pastoral relationship. This aspect involves making pastoral care not only listening but also a taking of sides.”

This week a new biography of one of my predecessors as Bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard, was published. Called “Batting for the Poor”, it is written by Professor Andrew Bradstock[2]. It tells the story of a privileged young man, a sporting hero, who was changed and indeed radicalised by his conversion to Christianity and by his immersion in Scripture and in the life of the underprivileged, first in East and South London and then here in Liverpool. In short it tells the story of a man who was led to take sides.

Despite the accusations which were laid against Bishop David of political naïveté and of flirting with Marxism, Andrew Bradstock writes: “Sheppard had carefully avoided direct involvement in party politics while in Woolwich and Liverpool…”. But he then goes on: “Sheppard said he ‘would certainly accept the label of Christian socialism – which doesn’t always mean commitment to one particular programme.’” [3]

As I read this I was led to consider how bishops speak today, how language has changed over the years since Bishop David lived in the house where I now live.

Times change.

Ours is an overheated climate in more ways than one, with every political party ready to throw accusations of partisanship at anyone who speaks into the public square. In such an election climate it’s all too easy for people to misspeak, throwing verbal fuel on a pretty hot fire, producing more heat than light.

It would be better then to look for the fruit of thought, or in another image to identify the political compass which people try to follow, and which they invite others to follow in the particular currents and channels of each person’s own life and commitments. And a powerful and relevant example is to hand.

In their excellent joint letter for the General Election, published earlier this week, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York speak strongly of the need for prayer and respect for our politicians, for unity and for courtesy in public discourse, and very rightly so.

But their letter is also crystal clear as to the Christian imperative:

“…we must put the vulnerable and those on the edges of society first … That includes justice for the oppressed, protection for the persecuted, and a commitment to combat climate change and adapt to its effects. It also includes a just economic system, open and encouraging to aspiration and ambition, supportive of those who struggle.”

It does not seem to me that Bishop David Sheppard would find anything here with which to disagree. Certainly I agree with it. The Church follows its Lord who took the side of the poor. Taking sides need not mean taking up labels, but it must surely mean taking Jesus seriously.

My own public statements on this election are few, and very brief, but I believe they stand in the tradition lived out by Bishop David decades ago, the tradition mapped out by our Archbishops this week.

For better or worse I have chosen to express them on Twitter, and they stretch to three tweets. They constitute a pale echo of the stand taken by Bishop David and by Archbishop Sentamu and Archbishop Justin. But here they are:

Let me say again what I say in every election: if you’re a Christian, then (after praying, reading and learning) cast your vote in the way that you believe will help the poorest most. #Election #ChooseLife

Electing: six suggestions in two tweets.

  1. Pray, read and think before you choose.
  2. Seek the truth. It can still be found, even if it is harder to find nowadays. Dig.
  3. Vote. It’s not true that they’re all a shower, not true that your vote will make no difference. Vote. 
  1. Vote in such a way as to help the poorest most.
  2. Vote for a government – it’s not a referendum, not a presidential election.
  3. Resist those everywhere who stir up fear of others, Antisemitism, Islamophobia.

I commend these simple ideas to you – in the hope that they might help you at the moment when, whatever side you choose to take, you take sides; that is, for the moment when you vote.

© 2019 +Paul Liverpool

[1] SPCK 1983

[2] SPCK 2019

[3] “Batting for the Poor”, p.274

This entry was posted in Bishop of Liverpool, Brexit, Good Disagreement, Human Sexuality, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

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