I’ll come clean — I’m a four-episodes-of-The-West-Wing Christian
Robert Webb, star of Peep Show, on why Rowan Williams is his secret crush.
I'm troubled by how much I like Rowan Williams. I think it reveals character flaws in myself that I'd rather not think about. The softly spoken soon-to-be-former Archbishop of Canterbury is my secret crush, my weird pash and my guilty pleasure.
No, you didn't misread: Rowan, not Robbie. I want Rowan T-shirts made. I want a Rowan duvet cover and a convincing Rowan beard to wear to funerals. When my phone rings, I want to hear Rowan fruitily intoning, "In some ways, this might be an opportune moment to answer the telephone, Robert." This would not only make me happy but "in some ways"
it would also make me a kind of Christian. After all, religion is many things but one of them surely is a way for adults to indulge in uncritical hero worship. I don't want a crucifix on my bedroom wall but I might want a large poster of Rowan Williams sitting in a sensible armchair, reading a book.
This is perhaps the least shameful aspect of my fandom: I like it that he's brainy. The guy sounds like he was raised by librarians. Don't get me wrong - intellectual snobbery is vulgar and gauche. The story of David Cameron having to remind civil servants that "I do have a double First from Oxford, you know" is almost endearing in its vulnerability, until you try to imagine that being said by anyone you actually admire. When it comes to judging people by their intelligence, I prefer the summary given by the fictional US president (and Nobel laureate) Jed Bartlet in The West Wing: "If a guy is a good neighbour, if he puts in a day, if every once in a while he laughs, if every once in a while he thinks about somebody else and, above all else, if he can find his way to compassion and tolerance, then he's my brother and I don't give a damn if he didn't get past finger-painting."
Bartlet's Christianity comes over loud and clear in these lines, as it always does when he gets serious. And there's little in the speech above that any liberal - including an atheist one - couldn't sign up to.
I suppose I'd better come clean here. Just as I had a friend at college who described himself as a "three-bottles-of-wine bisexual" (those lucky, lucky boys!), I guess that I'm a "four-episodes-of-The-West-Wing Christian". Or rather, while I'm busy having doubts about my doubts about my doubts, it "helps" to have in front of me an example of a believer I'd like to talk to. It's an intersection of hard-won but lightly worn scholarship and classic liberal notions of tolerance and compassion that allows agnostics like me the space to believe in God without feeling like a mug. In short, it makes God "attractive". Well, I did warn you about character flaws.
If Bartlet is a fantasy, then, for me, Rowan Williams is the real thing. His God doesn't care if you're gay, doesn't insist the earth is only 10,000 years old and isn't intimidated by novelists. This God has no problem with Darwin's theory of evolution, doesn't particularly care what you eat and finds himself big enough to handle the odd satirical cartoon. Conversely, he seems to be all about love: he really can't get or give out enough of the stuff. He seems to offer a benign focus for an intrinsic human need for transcendence, for a feeling there is something greater than ourselves. And most convenient of all, this God seems to agree with me about everything. Just as Ann Widdecombe's God agrees with her. That's the way round it works, isn't it? Or am I missing something?
The other thing about Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury is the memory of who came before and who might now come after. My history teacher at school was once coming to the end of a long summary of the late-medieval kings we'd been studying and trying to tie the narrative together in a memorable way. The important thing about being a successful king in this era, he was saying, was how well they divided up patronage among their barons. On the four adjacent blackboards, he wrote the names of Edward I, Edward II, Edward III and Richard II. He then thumped each blackboard in turn, saying: "Good, bad, good, bad!"
This is a game that Star Trek fans know well (all the even-numbered film sequels are great, all the odd ones are lousy) but it's more fun to oversimplify something so obviously complicated as "who was a good king" or "who was a good archbishop of Canterbury". So Runcie was great because Thatcher hated him, Carey was useless because Thatcher promoted him, Williams was great because he was a thoughtful, liberal boffin and whoever comes next will probably be a conservative dunderhead because we're about due one. Look, I don't know much about the Anglican Communion but I know what I like.
It's good to talk
I know precisely one MP, who would happily describe himself as a "Blairite". He shudders when you mention the name Ed Miliband, not because he thinks Ed is disastrously left-wing but because the MP has seen research confirming that the one thing the electorate values above all others in a political leader is . . . communication skills. I know. But there it is. Ed Miliband will never be prime minister, because he can't talk.
I know it's wrong. I know it's a symptom of a media culture that isn't always particularly conducive to a sober analysis of the issues but much of my own prejudice comes down to communication. After years of Carey's forgettable babbling, it was a relief when Williams opened his mouth and out poured newly minted phrases, self-deprecating asides and complicated ideas put simply and beautifully.
It was like going from the weird thought-rhythms of John Major - "This is our policy. It is a pleasing policy. It is, moreover, a policy with which we can all be pleased" (he didn't say that, but, y'know . . .) - to a prime minister who could give a speech to the European Parliament in French and not sound like an idiot.
And look where that got us. As far as Tony Blair went, I was pretty much the last sucker standing. I hope history will be kinder to Rowan Williams. Good, bad, good, bad . . .
Robert Webb stars in "Peep Show" , which returns to Channel 4 in the autumn, and "The Wedding Video", in cinemas later this year