Bashing The Bishop
Sunday, 12 June 2011
[This thread is now closed for comments].
So I’ve got a piece in the New Statesman this week. I’m not the only one. This is the special issue edited by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, whose own leader article in the magazine (about the dangers of benefit cuts and the Big Society idea) has triggered some controversy.
My piece is an unremarkable, gentle little thing about poker which nobody will notice; Dr. Williams’ oeuvre has caught the imagination, snatched headlines and triggered a national debate. Maybe we should swap jobs? Except I’d make a terrible archbishop.
It’s exactly what he should be doing, of course: getting stuck in to matters of public ethics, questioning the national conscience, being a strong and relevant voice on issues of social concern. I can understand why some in the press feel obliged to disagree with him - and this is a good thing; we all want to live in a country of robust debate - but the way that some have slammed him for speaking out at all is just embarrassing. It’s like they don’t understand who he is, what he does or what the role’s about.
Take Carole Malone in today’s News Of The World. I know, I know; you don’t read the News Of The World. But a lot of people do. Some of them, if they’ve still got time left in the day after 19 pages about Ryan Giggs’ affair with his sister-in-law, might actually read what she’s got to say. And it’s just STUPID.
“I’m always suspicious of lefties who live in palaces”, Carole begins. “Especially the ones with no idea what life is like in the real world, who have people to cook, clean and pick up after them, who are feted wherever they go, yet still feel entitled to pontificate about the poor and how they feel their pain.”
But… Carole… he’s the Archbishop of Canterbury. Whoever does his laundry, “entitled to pontificate” is EXACTLY what he is. Is your problem specifically that he’s voicing worries on behalf of the poor? He’s a Christian. He kinda has to. You might feel better if he was speaking out on behalf of bankers and Premier League footballers, concerning himself solely with trying to get the top rate of tax down and build more landing strips for private jets, but that really wouldn’t reveal a great understanding of the New Testament. Which the Archbishop of Canterbury is supposed to have.
Easy for Dr. Williams to speak out, argues Carole Malone, “knowing that his £70,000 salary and the five-star living conditions at his riverside palace won’t be affected one jot.”
Oh, Carole. Look at the man. Look at his haircut and his eyebrows; read his personal history; listen to him speak. Do you really think it’s all about the money? Do you think he gives a toss where he lives?
The right-wing press that is so furious with the Archbishop’s New Statesman sermon is exactly the same right-wing press that’s always complaining Christianity (for better or worse, our national religion) is too weak and small a voice, that its values are not fought for - even that Dr. Williams himself is too remote and peaceful an academic to get stuck in and fight the good fight among noisy voices from other faiths. Now he has got stuck in, they hate it.
I think the problem they’re facing is that (sorry, guys) Christianity is innately a bit left-wing, a bit socialist. It likes equality and fairness for all. Jesus wanted everyone to get a bit of bread and fish. He was all about the sharing and the concern for one’s neighbour. If Christianity is going to make itself heard on tax-and-spend policies, it has just GOT to lean towards spreading the spoils around. There’s not much the Archbishop can do about that. His hands are tied. The gospels say what they say. If he wanted to support the idea that handing out bread and fish is bad for people because it de-motivates them from doing their own baking and fishing, he’d really have to leave the church and get a job on a tabloid.
I’m not saying I am personally incapable of seeing what might be wrong with too benefit-led a culture, or the other demands on the ailing national purse, or that I can’t also imagine (with some considerable worry) a generation of kids in whose memory no family member has ever worked. Of course it’s important for politicians to look at this, for journalists to thrash it out, for some to argue vehemently against hand-outs of any kind. But I’d be bloody terrified if the Archbishop of Canterbury was one of them.
Carole thinks the Archbishop should shut up about the poor, and focus on why church attendance is down. “Maybe if he concentrated more on why millions of Christians no longer feel they ‘belong’ to his church, it might just begin to justify his vast salary and his rent-free palace.”
Have you considered the possibility, young Carole, that expressing concern for the welfare of the poor, and joining a major national debate about the ethical thinking behind benefits, is precisely what might HELP millions of people (Christian or otherwise) feel like the church is on their side and is relevant to their lives after all?
And do shut up about the palace. They haven’t given it to him. He’s just allowed to use it while he’s the Archbishop of Canterbury. Do you not want it used for that purpose? What would be better? Should it be knocked down? Or simply turned into luxury flats? Think of the money that could be raised if we sold it off! Perhaps Carole would feel happier to see Roman Abramovich move into Number One, Lambeth Palace, with its library converted into a swimming pool and steam room - or a garage for luxury cars?
As for the “vast salary”, what a meretricious, dangerous, childish thing to say. Of course £70,000 is a decent wedge; it’s a lot more than will be earned by most readers of the News Of The World, which is no doubt why Carole grinned as she typed it in, knowing the buttons it would press and the jealousy it might trigger. We have to hope the readers are cleverer than that. We have to hope they have now read enough about the kind of sums raked in by investment bankers, corporation chairmen and adulterous footballers to know that there’s no need to despise the Archbishop of Canterbury simply for taking the respectable salary that comes with his unique, demanding and absolutely full-time post. It isn’t “vast”. It’s not the kind of money that buys you boats and planes, suites in Caribbean hotels or probably even private education for the kids. And I’ll tell you this: Carole Malone will be getting a lot more than £70,000 just for writing that one weekly column in a tabloid newspaper.
I don’t mind telling you, I get about £25,000 a year for writing in the Observer; for writing in the News Of The World, Malone will get more like £100,000 - £125,000. Probably more. That’s the lowest it could possibly be. Does that mean she wouldn’t be allowed to express concern for the poor, either? (And of course she’s free to do other work on six other days of the week, so she could treble that salary if she wanted to. The Archbishop of Canterbury has to be Archbishop of Canterbury every day. He has to work Sundays, and Christmas.)
I don’t mean to harangue Carole Malone specifically, although I suppose I have done. She’s just a journalist. I’m sure she’s not a bad person. Sometimes she writes things I enjoy, or even agree with.
But I’m incredibly disappointed with the general press reaction to the Archbishop’s article; where they should welcome his readiness to speak loudly on the national agenda, and recognize his vocational commitment to voicing concern for the poorer and weaker in society - or at least argue with him fairly and squarely, making their own reasonable points about the risks of too spoon-fed a society - they’ve gone for the mundane and boring personal attack, combined with a ridiculous misunderstanding of the constituency on whose behalf he MUST speak. And today’s is the stupidest and most annoying example I’ve read yet.