Why do the people imagine a vain thing? The Archbishop versus the media

Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness … (Penitential Sentence from the Morning Prayer, Saturday 9 February 2008, as given in the Book of Common Prayer)

There are, now and then, non-stories which, through accident or mischief-making, are elevated by the media not only into stories, but into stories of great moment. Admirable is the commentator who, standing apart from the resultant clamor, refuses to fuel such story-type pretensions with further comment, further clamor, further picking-apart of something that didn’t require picking apart in the first place. But since I’m not that sort of commentator, let’s just make this quick, shall we?

The media was, obviously and self-evidently, wrong to confect a major story out of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice. Part of the narrative of this story, now enshrined as incontrovertible fact, holds that the lecture itself is impenetrably abstruse, obscure, unreadable. Not true. What Dr Williams said was clear enough to anyone who took the time to examine his text. On one hand, he raised for consideration the idea that our largely secularised legal framework might plausibly seek better ways in which to accomodate the beliefs and obligations of a society which, despite what the media always claims, is not very secularised at all, although increasingly diverse in the types of its religiosity, implicit or explicit. And on the other hand, by way of specific example, he suggested that the British legal system might find a role for Islamic Sharia law not entirely unlike that accorded to the Orthodox Jewish Beth Din courts — or for that matter, although the Archbishop didn’t make this point, any other form of informal, binding legal arbitration. All of which is, frankly, although probably fascinating to those who work at the conjunction of law and faith, otherwise unremarkable stuff. ‘Church leader seeks bigger role for faith in civil society’ is, ultimately, not exactly a man-bites-dog type of story.

But of course that isn’t the way that the headlines came to be written. Instead, we were served up screamers proclaiming that ‘Sharia law in Britain is “unavoidable”‘ — this, despite the fact, widely reported thereafter, that Sharia courts are already functioning in Britain, albeit without the sort of official legal acceptance Beth Din courts receive. Given the state of anti-Islamic modishness under which our commentariat presently labours, the unavoidable implication was that Dr Williams envisions — who knows, perhaps even desires — a London that resembles the more rustic corners of Yemen or Afghanistan, a sort of fantasy liberal hell in which the women, swathing themselves in black from head to toe, seek to avoid being stoned for making furtive eye-contact with second cousins or knowing too much of the alphabet, while the men keep themselves busy with growing beards and hacking off each others’ extremities by way of judicial punishment, before relaxing with favourite suicide-bomber farewell videos. All of which, to reiterate, didn’t exactly match what the Archbishop actually said — but since when did the media let the truth get in the way of a pointlessly nasty, err, good story?

So once the media had established that, unsurprisingly enough, pretty much no one in the entire world was willing to defend the words they had placed in the Archbishop’s mouth, the next step was to orchestrate new and improved headlines proclaiming ‘Archbishop under pressure to quit’, since political correspondents have long since established that achieving an actual resignation, sacking or indeed suicide trumps every other achievement of sober, professional journalism. Conveniently, as many as two members of the 482-strong general synod have, to date, been provoked into calling for the Archbishop’s resignation. The fact that this is, by the standards of that famously fractious body, just about average for a good week is deemed unworthy of publicity. Meanwhile, artificial divides are postulated between Dr Williams and more or less every other churchman known to average hacks, which is to say, the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Rochester. Et voilà, thus we have achieved ‘a church in crisis’ — and yet more licence to call for disestablishment, or to salute the demise of our national church as sad but surely inevitable. Double chalices of fizzy secularism all round!

At one level the antipathetic resentment of the media towards the Church of England is intelligible. For one thing, vanishingly few journalists or commentators are themselves believers, let alone Christians, let alone protestant Christians, let alone church-going, communion-taking Anglicans. A strong minority are vociferous, one might even say evangelical atheists, while the bulk seem to be that tiresome British thing, semi-educated demi-middle-class types who regard faith in anything higher than their own struggling intellects as indicative of some sort of pitiable yet at the same time embarassing psychological failing. Obviously, too, the news cycle feeds on events, and if the real thing is out of season, well then, ersatz events will have to do. It’s a shame about the lives, institutions and beliefs chewed up in the process, but it doesn’t do to blame the men and women of the press. Newspapers and broadcasts have to be filled with something. The press are just doing their job.

And yet surely there’s more to it than that. Not for nothing, in his discussion of John Stuart Mill, did the late Mr Cowling introduce the notion of a clerisy of rational intellectuals, there to take over from the actual clergy in the most profound and critical of their functions the minute the actual Church loosened its grip. Because for all the scorn that the media heap upon the purported ivory-tower’d donnishness of Dr Williams, for all the claims they make regarding his culpable ineffectualness and redundancy, there’s still a pervasive sense that he’s still holding onto something, somehow, some genuine burden of authority and unpartisan seriousness, that they’d dearly like for their own but can’t quite wrench away just yet.

Their confusion is almost as palpable as their enterprising fury. On the Today programme this morning, for instance, one Ruth Gledhill was allowed a long, uninterrupted op-ed on the subject of the Sharia furore. And who, one might ask, is Ruth Gledhill? Well, for years now she’s appeared as religious affairs correspondent for the Times, which is how she was introduced on Today, but more recently she’s also tapped out personal blog for that same organ’s online manifestation, while it also appears that she’s a communicant member of the Church of England. So, when she was given a good five minutes in which to mock the Primate of her ostensible faith for being bookish and out of touch, to condemn him for deficiencies of leadership and to call for his swift replacement, which of her various hats was she wearing? Were we swearing at, err, listening to a seasoned reporter, objectively recounting the facts of the situation? Or to a loyal daughter of the Established Church, emoting painfully from the chasms of her own belief? Or to that inexpressibly tedious thing, the media figure whose claim to fame is being a media figure — a claim on the basis of which we’re expected to listen, rapt with awe and hungry for edification, to the least little thoughts and half-thoughts that happen to surface in her head this morning before sinking once again into that deep yet stagnant sea of rancid self-regard?

Elsewhere on the television, in newsprint and on the blogosphere, we are remarkably well-provided with commentators who know far better than e.g. the Archbishop of Canterbury how his Church ought to be run, and whether he is the man to lead it. The fact that few of these commentators believe in Christ in no way detracts from the rationalism and plausibility of their critiques. The core function of Christianity has been re-codified as Standing Up Against The Muslim Threat. Meanwhile, the Archbishop’s defects are interesting in part because they illuminate many commentators’ long-held certainty that the media, rather than the Church, is truly in touch with the nation’s innermost being, that it understands our deepest interests and can articulate them more clearly, and hence achieve our ends more purposefully, than poor Dr Williams could hope to do. One sees this, among other places, in Ms Gledhill’s central critique of Dr Williams, which is that he is, for all his qualities, unable to produce satisfactory soundbites, and hence can’t or won’t play ball with the media — and what is the point of a churchman who won’t play ball with the media? Out he goes.

The notion that elevation to the throne of St Augustine entails anything more than ‘representing’ his flock — speaking out for their interests like some sort of Member for the Jesus People — receives short shrift. The realisation that faith might exist to challenge, rather than reassure, is literally inconceivable to most of these commentators. Meanwhile the idea that public approval is no desideratum, but rather a false god before whom no one ought to offer the least prostration, seems to have occurred to more or less no one in this story, other than perhaps to Dr Williams himself. Hmm, a man who says unpopular things, who shows signs of loving his neighbours (even those who don’t share his religion!) and ends up being denounced by the would-be Chief Priests and Elders for shaking things up a bit … the spectacle of crowds baying for one’s blood, as I’m sure Dr Williams is well aware, doesn’t always mean one’s right, but on the other hand, it isn’t exactly what one would call a discouraging sign.

Two points remain. The first, which cleverer readers may have anticipated, is that I have some sympathy for Dr Williams’ remarks. I should perhaps add by way of preface that I’m anything but a long-standing fan of Dr Williams; I found the ordination of women, for instance, a real test of faith, although in some sort of frail striving after humility and obedience, I’ve on many occasions received the Sacrament from a female celebrant, with no obvious ill effect.

Back, though, to the topic at hand. As anyone who knows anything much about pre-Reformation England ought to be cognisant, over the past five centuries, the pendulum has been swinging away from a multiplicity of legal jurisdictions, both secular and religious, towards a more unitary, one-size-fits-all judicial system. Is it mad, given the complexity and diversity of our present-day world, to suggest that the pendulum might someday swing back in the other direction? Breathless scaremongering along these lines merely suggests that someone out there hasn’t read his Bruce Benson. Anyway, we do already have different ways in which to resolve the disputes that inevitably afflict our interactions; the trick is to make them play together nicely, so that everyone has fun and no one gets hurt. Formal religion (secularist wet-dreams notwithstanding) still informs, consciously or not, most people’s sense of right and wrong, just and unjust, good and evil. A British legal system that has already accomodated, to varying extents, the disparate needs of Quakers, Catholics, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Christian Scientists, Mormons, agnostics, atheists and, yes, Muslims regarding issues of diet, dress, education, healthcare, marriage, finance and burial, is unlikely to collapse under the shock of encountering Sharia in some watered-down form. But then that’s just another curiosity of this whole ‘debate’ — the amount of bastardised Spenglerism that lurks not only in the blogosphere but also amongst its more respectable progenitors. Can it really be true, as most of these commentators suggest, that if our British way of life comes up against Islamic practices, however moderate and Anglicised, two thousand years of Christian history will terminate, inevitably and ineluctably, within a decade or two? Well, any system as weedy as that deserves to be supplanted by something more robust — although, needless to say, I don’t for a moment think that’s what’s going to happen.

The second point, though, is by far the more serious one. At one level, as we’ve seen, it may seem fair enough for the media to pick fights, inflate stories, sell their product and advance their vested class interests. After all, that’s their job. It’s what they do. To blame them for it is like blaming a cat for killing a mouse, or blaming the setting sun for ending a lovely day.

Except that unlike cats and stars, the men and women of the media, being human (obviously I’m generalising a bit here) have moral agency. They do, up to a point, know what they are doing. And in this case, what they are doing is not only reprehensible at some level high in the moral stratosphere, but also appalling in immediate, consequentialist, here-and-now terms, because in their assaults on a rival source of moral guidance and authority, they are paying very little attention to who might get caught in the cross-fire. Aspiring not merely to reporting reality, but to shaping it, their alarmist and gappy account of Sharia law, its implications and global track-record can only serve to deepen the distrust with which many in Britain — Christian, Muslim or none of the above — already, naturally if sadly, regard their neighbours. For the panic over Sharia only makes sense if we assume that a generous proportion of our fellow Britons, no matter how friendly, assimilated and ‘normal’ they may seem, are liable to mutate into Koran-waving hand-choppers the minute they’re given the least mite of legal encouragement. They may seem like us, the logic appears to run, but under that thin veneer of Britishness, their real loyalties are to a faith and a way of life both ineradicably foreign in nature, and fatally opposed to our own …

The frightening thing here is more than just a matter of ingratitude on the part of non-Anglicans who, let’s remember, can only be members of Oxbridge colleges, practice law or medicine, or hold any form of military rank or political office due to a long-term process of accomodation between the Church of England and other, heterodox faiths. Whether or not one applauds this innovation, we can at least perhaps all agree that the spectacle of the beneficiaries of such concessions pulling up the ladder behind them isn’t a wildly attractive one.

But no, it’s even worse than that. While one can blame some of our stupider commentators for having forgotten the carnage at York in 1190, the May Day riots of 1517 or even the Gordon Riots of 1780, it is astounding that resonances of this narrative don’t chill the hearts at least of those whose own families suffered unspeakably from religous and racist persecution in the course of the twentieth century. It’s a failure of imaginative sympathy all the more repugnant for the arrogance that licences it: we’re not like that, it isn’t a proper parallel, it couldn’t happen here — and most of all, Islam is different. But of course that’s always the prologue to the smashed shop window, the lynch mob and the sharp suspension of private kindness and personal decency — a faith that’s been made to seem so incompatible that the only solution is its violent, permanent eradication. Such impulses have surfaced before, even in Britain, not that long ago. If our Archbishop of Canterbury is seeking to ensure, however haltingly and diffidently, some sort of accomodation in place of conflict, perhaps, instead of succumbing to the media’s agenda, he’s following a rather different set of injunctions:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:43-45).

And if that’s the case, even those who disagree with Dr Williams might do well to accord him, and his high calling, the basic courtesy of listening to his considered remarks with a degree of forbearance, charity and humility.

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