A COUPLE of weeks ago, RAF Leeming exercised their right of the freedom of the city of Ripon by having a parade, complete with a fly-past by a Spitfire. I was invited to be present, along with Civic and community leaders.
When the parade and fly-past had ended, I had a wander round the stalls that the RAF had set up around the market square. One of the stalls was manned by members of 34 Squadron: the Regiment that is deployable at 72 hours’ notice to ensure that an air-field area is marked off and protected.
The Regiment gentlemen were well on their way to winning my attention by giving me a free water-bottle and a squeezable grenade stress-buster. After some conversation about their various roles, I was asked if I would like to try on some of the kit that was laid out on the table between us: a harness that you put on like a jacket, a bullet-proof vest, and a helmet with a dust-repellent mouth-guard. I looked a bit like a stormtrooper from Star Wars.
It didn’t take long for smart phones to appear pointing in my direction. Evidently there was a high interest factor in the bishop dressed up in all this gear. A photo or two appeared on social media, and attracted comments like ‘Crikey! Bit extreme to avoid getting the sun’. It was a comment posted by the Station Commander at Leeming however that caught my eye: “Can you spot the bishop?”
I spend a fair amount of time in vestments and robes, the formal clothes that mark out my role in the Church of England. Wearing the apparel of a completely different vocation gave me a fraction of insight into another life.
Political life is always challenging, and each generation has to face the reality it inherits. To do this requires wisdom, patience and courage. Sadly I don’t see much of that in our present political leadership, and we are all the poorer for it.
If our new Prime Minister is going to be even mildly effective, they will have to divest themselves of a London-centric mindset, and learn to walk in Yorkshire wellies. That is not going to be easy. While they contemplate that particular challenge, it requires us to do some work too, by asking ourselves who we are, and who we want to be at this time? Debates about identity are relentless, and ironically can lack focus because there are a lot of competing narratives.
Despite a knock-back from the Government, Yorkshire devolution must remain on the table. The arguments why it makes sense haven’t changed. There is an urgent need to attend to issues of transport, to take just one example. My parents recently had a terrible journey which involved traversing our region with cancelled and crowded trains making a day out a nightmare that ended when they eventually made it home in the small hours of the morning, exhausted and vowing ‘never again’.
A lack of proper transport access is also an issue of social justice. The sustained reduction of bus coverage affects isolated rural communities in particular, and I see and hear stories about the effects of this most weeks.
Although some innovative individuals have started their own bus services, there’s a broader issue of spending squeezes forcing many a local authority to make cuts. There are others who are better informed to make comments on that, so my own focus is on the result of isolation, and a call to reflect more widely on what sort of society we want to be shaping not just for the future, but in the present? It comes back to the question about identity, and whether or not a new Prime Minister will welcome that conversation with all its uncertainty and challenge?
Social justice is a phrase that is often used to convey the prophetic call that all God’s children are known and loved and should be treated equally. Of course there are many debates and arguments about this, and examples aplenty of how the Church falls short (Church can here refer to any Christian denomination). When applied to the topic of accessibility it can become a powerful tool giving voice to those who feel they have no voice, and who are often forgotten about.
I hope our new Prime Minister might have the courage to listen to voices ‘on the ground’, instead of filtered through a Westminster echo-chamber that can still view ‘the North’ as irrelevant and a back-water. Strong words, but that’s how it feels at times.
Once I had taken off my 34 Squadron kit, I became visibly ‘me’ again. I walked back across the Market Place in Ripon to join the tea-party that was well under way in the Town Hall. Once you’ve walked a few steps in someone else’s shoes, however, your perspective is changed. So, new Prime Minister, are you up for the challenge?
Tomorrow: Emma Hardy MP on school uniforms.