SOME readers may remember a column I wrote a few months ago having a pop at the Ven. Donald Allister, who, it was announced, was to be the next Bishop of Peterborough. I won’t rehearse my opinions. Suffice to say that I wasn’t hugely impressed when he denounced liberalism as “satanic”.
A few weeks after that piece came out, I got a message (the messenger was barely able to suppress his laughter) that: a) Archdeacon Allister was to be consecrated bishop in St Paul’s Cathedral; and, furthermore, that: b) as canon-in-residence at the time, it was down to me to help organise his service. No further proof is needed that God has a sense of humour.
And so we met up — and here’s the thing: what a nice bloke. I really liked him. He’ll make a jolly good bishop.
And so I started to ask myself: what lesson have I learnt here? For I’m not at all sure that I have softened towards his views. And it’s not quite that I want to apologise — though the instinct to do that is strong. I resist that simply because it would be disingenuous of me to pretend I had changed my mind about his theology.
Struggling to work out what was different, I half-remembered a wonderful Thought for the Day given by Dr Rowan Williams some years back. He spoke of the sort of violence that is possible from “someone who’s got to the point where they can only see from a distance: the sort of distance from which you can’t see a face, meet the eyes of someone, hear who they are, imagine who and what they love. All violence works with that sort of distance; it depends on not seeing certain things.”
Now what I was doing wasn’t violence, of course. Still, there is a certain sort of journalism that is only possible to write from a distance. And that sort of writing has surely been at the heart of the deeply destructive culture-wars that have engulfed the Church over the past few years. That was what was wrong with my first column. Perhaps that was what was also wrong with Archdeacon Allister’s use of “satanic”.
Dr Williams went on: “One of the disturbing things about religious faith is that it tells us that God never sees at a distance, never sees things only in general.” And so, Archdeacon Allister, I may not quite be able to say sorry. But I hope you will accept instead a heartfelt thank you for reminding me of a valuable lesson about God. Every blessing in your ministry.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.