Politics and the pulpit

Who cares what an archbishop thinks, anyway?

If inviting the Archbishop of Canterbury to guest-edit the New Statesman was some kind of attention-grasping strategy then it succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations. The ensuing row centred mostly on a single sentence from Rowan Williams's offering - "With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted." Given this week's backtracking on health reforms - which today earned the government a rebuke from the right by former Labour minister Alan Milburn - it might be doubted whether the coalition's reforms are either speedy or radical. But the wider question was whether he should have said anything at all.

Whatever Williams actually said, or meant, critics were quick to accuse him of "meddling in politics", specifically party politics. What they meant was that he was meddling in the economic and social side politics. Nadine Dorries, for example, complained that he was ignoring "areas of policy where politics and the church overlap", by which she meant her personal hobby-horses of abortion, the "sexualisation of children" and euthanasia. On such moral questions he was "deafening in his silence as he hides away with his fingers in his ears".

But on what basis is it assumed that an archbishop should be outspoken on some political issues and silent on others? Abortion and sex education are no less "political" - and no more "moral" - questions than those of health, education or social welfare. Indeed, to the chagrin of its critics the Big Society agenda depends upon the involvement of churches and other "faith-based" groups, as Williams himself acknowledged. As for health and education, the Church of England has extensive interests in both, through its large (and controversially growing) provision of schools, through its network of hospital chaplains and through church involvement in, say, the hospice movement.

Historically, the churches were the largest and often only providers of social care. Schools, hospitals and poor relief were the business of ecclesiastics long before they became the responsibility of the state. Concern for the poor and needy, often in conjunction with a negative attitude towards money and money-making, has been a feature of Christianity since the beginning. Some strands within Christianity stress it more heavily than others, however - and as usual the Bible offers contradictory advice.

The reputation of Jesus is of a penniless wandering holy man, not merely uninterested in material wealth but ideologically opposed to it: famously, he told one would-be disciple that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. But he seems to have had at least some wealthy friends and supporters. One woman - traditionally identified with Mary Magdalene - apparently thought nothing of using an entire bottle of very expensive ointment to dress his hair. As Margaret Thatcher famously reminded the Church of Scotland, the Good Samaritan offered money as well as sympathy to the wounded traveller. And one has to wonder who actually paid for all those loaves and fishes.

Christians down the centuries have interpreted the Gospel's social implications in strikingly different ways, ranging from total renunciation - mendicant friars or hermits who went to live in desert caves - to rampant and unapologetic money-making. Some Christians deem it heretical, but churches teaching some form of "prosperity gospel" - the belief that God will bless his worshippers with material wealth - are the fastest-growing and most dynamic in the world. The United States might be the traditional home of Christian capitalism, but it is these days just as appealing in Asia and Africa. It was recently revealed that one Nigerian pastor, who heads a church known colloquially as the Winners' Chapel, is worth at least $150 million dollars - which puts Rowan Williams' own salary of around £70,000 somewhat in perspective.

Part of the secularisation process in the West involved the taking over of social provision by the state. It is this, combined with the increasing privatisation of morality, that has deepened the sense of a church/state split, with the church being involved more in questions of personal conduct than of social organisation. But it's notable that when church leaders discourse publicly upon questions of sex and medical ethics (abortion, euthanasia, embryology research, etc) they can be sure of being denounced by secularists. Whereas if they choose, like Rowan Williams last week, to discuss poverty or the state of the public services, criticism comes from Christians of a different political viewpoint. Neither the National Secular Society nor the British Humanist Association chose to comment publicly on the Archbishop's foray into political journalism. Instead it was left to the likes of Nadine Dorries to be outraged.

There's an obvious, and often remarked-upon, left/right split in when it comes to episcopal interventions in politics. Critics on the left tend to get upset when bishops talk about sex (because the positions they take tend to be conservative), those on the right when they talk about money (where their views, in Britain at least, tend to the soft-left). It's tempting to leave it there, with the thought that what really annoys people is to hear church leaders disagreeing with their own point of view. But why should that annoy people? Why should anyone care what an archbishop happens to think about the economy?

I think it comes down to a lingering belief that church leaders are experts in morality - and that therefore whatever they say they speak from some elevated perspective. Or at least that they presume to; or that they should. The word "pontificating" springs to mind. Strictly speaking, perhaps, WIlliams wasn't pontificating - that's the Pope's prerogative. He was archiespiscopating - which, by long Anglican tradition, is an altogether more ambivalent and equivocal activity. Still, give a man a pulpit and you kind of expect him to use it. Archbishops are as strongly criticised when they don't speak out as when they do.

Nelson Jones runs the Heresy Corner blog. He was shortlisted for the 2011 Orwell Prize for blogging.

 

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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