Press: ‘Anti-war rant’ stuns The Sun

14 October 2009

by Andrew Brown

Unimpressed: Saturday’s Sun breaks the stony silence

Unimpressed: Saturday’s Sun breaks the stony silence

VARIOUS are the uses of an Archbishop of Canterbury. For The Sun he is a figure of such iniquity that he can bury a genuinely embarrassing news story. “The Archbishop of Canterbury yesterday hijacked a service honouring the sacrifice of British troops in Iraq — to spout an anti-war rant.

“The Queen, 11 other Royals, and former PM Tony Blair and wife Cherie sat in stony silence as Dr Rowan Williams began a ten-minute tirade in St Paul’s Cathedral.

“Hundreds of stunned troops — many in­jured in the conflict — looked on alongside families of colleagues who died, as the Arch­bishop questioned whether the invasion was ‘the right thing to do’.”

The idea that an Archbishop can hijack the service at which he is himself preaching has a certain novelty; but don’t be too hard on The Sun for noting that the congregation sat in silence (stunned or otherwise) as the Archbishop “spouted his rant”; for there was an alternative.

The Telegraph and the Mail both accused the former Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon of checking his email on his phone: “Witnesses who sat close to him during the moving event on Friday”, the Mail said, “claim that some 15 minutes into the service, Mr Hoon took his mobile phone from his pocket and checked his messages, holding up his Order of Service to hide what he was doing.

“One fellow guest said they saw the former minister apparently scrolling through his messages as the choir sang a penitential rite with the words ‘Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy’ during a Requiem Mass composed by Maurice Duruflé.”

Still, I don’t suppose Dr Williams has ever been quoted at such length in The Sun as he was in this news story, but this unwonted scrupulous respect meant that they had to boil down to two paragraphs (or four sentences, as the rest of the world counts them) the story of what happened after the service, in the Guildhall: “But Mr Blair faced even more criticism and embarrassment at a reception in London’s Guildhall after the service. He approached Peter Brierley, whose son Lance Corporal Shaun Brierley, 28, died in Iraq.


“The PM offered his hand. But Mr Brierley told him: ‘I’m not shaking your hand, you’ve got blood on it.’ A shocked Mr Blair was ushered away.”

Readers might have remembered this bit, even after The Sun’s leader, entitled “Disloyal Fool”, asked one of the world’s great questions: “WHAT has the Church come to when the Archbishop of Canterbury will not condemn mass murderers?”

The Guardian and the Mail had no trouble leading with the Brierley affair: “Tony Blair branded ‘war criminal’ after Iraq memorial service”, said The Guardian, with the sub­headings “Father of soldier killed in Iraq criticises Blair” and “Rowan Williams decries human cost of conflict”.

But what was it Dr Williams had actually said? The Guardian’s report, bylined James Sturcke and agencies, merely quoted a cautious and rather woolly statement to the effect that no one could be entirely certain that the war had been entirely wrong or right.

It was left to Ruth Gledhill in The Times to spot what he had managed most elegantly not to say out loud: that the real enemy in the war had not been Saddam Hussein, but “Principalities and Powers” as the AV has it — though Dr Williams called them “the invisible enemy”, as in: “The invisible enemy may be hiding in the temp­tation to look for short cuts in the search for justice — letting ends justify means, letting others rather than one­self carry the cost, deny­ing the diffi­culties or the failures so as to present a good public face.”

I think Ruth Gled­hill was on to a real story there. It’s a fas­cinating illustra­tion of biblical illiter­acy that no other reporter seems to have heard those echoes, which must have been there for any Chris­tians in the congregation.

Perhaps this is just as well. If The Sun had only heard them, it might have been even ruder than it managed to be: “So feeding scream­ing captives in­to human mincing machines, raping women, and gassing babies was acceptable to you, Archbishop? When the head of the Church of England cannot tell right from wrong, what is the point of him?”

As I write, the first reports are coming out of a 5500-word speech the Archbishop has given, apparently to exhort us all to start gardening. Unless there is some killer quote around the 3500-word mark, I imagine this will be used to attack him for prolixity. God knows why.

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