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Fri - 24.11.2017

All change in the See of Canterbury? Religion and politics in the modern media

All change in the See of Canterbury? Religion and politics in the modern media

As CVs go, it’s certainly unconventional. As Dr Rowan Williams, outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury and self-proclaimed ‘hairy lefty’, toddles off to ruminate in Cambridge quadrangles, his successor appears to be cut from quite a different clerical cloth. The Bishop of Durham and archbishop-elect, Justin Welby, ought to have grimacing Guardian leader writers sharpening their pencils with relish: for, with apologies to Lady Bracknell, to be an old Etonian is unfortunate, but to be an ex-oil executive as well looks like carelessness. 

One can perhaps rationalize the change of direction signaled by the Crown Appointments Commission in what is a demonstrably risky nomination – Bishop Welby has been in his post for less than a year, a mere 20 years since he was first ordained. Much of the criticism of Archbishop Williams centered on his air of donnish fuzziness, particularly when it came to his dealings with the media. An undoubtedly clever man, his intellectualism often clouded that which it sought to clarify, a failing magnified by the emphatically unequivocal positions adopted by modernisers and traditionalists in clashes over women bishops and homosexual priests. The job is, of course, (along with perhaps director-general of the BBC and manager of the England football team) one of the very worst in Britain, and Welby will inherit the laughably difficult task of holding together a communion that includes liberal English clergymen who want to anoint gays and West African churches who would rather execute them. Clearly, though, the Church of England needs a voice; and the media provides the modern day pulpit from which to preach.

In his advice to his successor as Primate of All England, Dr Williams borrowed the theologian Karl Barth’s formulation that the next inhabitant of Lambeth Palace should be one who preaches ‘with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other’. Both the title of Welby’s dissertation at theological school, ‘Can Companies Sin?’, and his answer – a resounding yes – provide insightful context regarding both his vertiginous promotion and his appointment on the new Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards looking into the Libor fixing scandal. In an era of crisis littered with similar collisions between capitalism and theology – epitomized last year in the juxtaposition of the Occupy movement and St Paul’s Cathedral – the truth of Sir Humphrey Appleby’s statement that ‘nowadays politicians want to talk about moral issues, and bishops want to talk politics’ seems readily apparent.

For the bishops really do want to talk about politics, and for that the media is paramount. While conventional opinion states that the presence of the 26 Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords is an anomalous anachronism, the role of newspapers as alternative pulpits has if anything increased. Dr Williams, in his guest editorship of the New Statesman last year, commented apropos the Coalition’s reforms that, ‘with remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted’. Lord Carey, Williams’ predecessor at Canterbury, is currently leading the charge against gay marriage from the pages of the Daily Telegraph; and Giles Fraser, the leftist former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, resigned in the wake of the Occupy protests in order to become – you guessed it – a journalist for the Guardian, better to advance the cause of capitalistic reform.

The obvious paradox, therefore, is that Welby must have a voice, but not a voice that’s too right wing, or too left wing, or that might split his congregation in two; yet a direction of travel is nonetheless required. Fraser and Carey, in the examples mentioned, offer alternate routes; needless to say, the two cordially loathe each other, the former criticizing the latter’s interventions as having ‘all the intellectual subtlety of Jason Statham trying out ballet’. What Welby does bring, however, is specific and relevant competencies from the world of finance and the City, instead of ideological baggage from either the Thatcherite tradition or the Socialist Workers Party. Significantly, he has 11 years of actual corporate experience to which the ethics of Christianity might subsequently be applied.

The lesson from Williams’ tenure is that the Archbishop of Canterbury must show active leadership. But for one who must lead an increasingly divided flock, the sunlit uplands are littered with political potholes. Jesus was not a reactionary; neither, as Malcolm Muggeridge observed, was he the Labour MP for Galilee North. Lord Carey began an article on banking in the Daily Mail earlier this year with the words: ‘You might think it ill-behoves a retired Archbishop to comment on economic matters about which I have no expertise, but…’ It seems to have occurred to the appointments committee that, if their new man is expected to have a media voice in this new media age, it might be an idea to have someone who actually knows what he’s talking about.


Frederick Alliott


2012-11-08 18:26

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