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Doing good badly

23 August 2013

Alan Wilson considers a comedy writer's critique of our times

Death by Civilisation: How to accidentally ruin a perfectly decent society (and how it might still be saved)
James Cary

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LIFE is as messy as church these days. In the dear old days, God was in his heaven and all was well with the world, which he kept running smooth as a nut, using venerable, trustworthy institutions.

Fleet Street housed the fourth estate. The banks were safe as houses, and their word was their bond. HP sauce came in a bottle, not on an expenses claim. Our educational institutions led the world of knowledge. The Church of England was so solidly blue-chip you didn't even have to go to its services to keep this a Christian country. Now, the game is up. Post-Leveson, post-MPs' expenses, we suspect all institutions to be up to no good, hopelessly mired in sundry kinds of failure and fraud, bungling, and cover-up. We invent guidelines to set everything right, but, as scandal breaks upon scandal, it only gets worse. It's enough to make a parson blush.

Enter James Cary, comedy writer, all-round savant, and social commentator. Death by Civilisation is a wonderful cascade of sage snippets, which bestrides the world of media, money, government, education, and religion. Fit to grace bedside tables and smallest rooms in the greatest houses, it tells us everything that matters which they didn't teach us at school - how jokes work, how to organise a famine, when to fly the flag, why Hitler makes great TV, and what's our musical funeral.

It is amusing and topical. Herein is a whole rack of anecdotes and reflections to spice up sermons, too.

What does it all mean, and where will it all end? An inescapable conclusion emerges, often whimsically, from these pages. As the Book of Common Prayer told us in the first place, we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. The most highly engineered social tool to make things better usually makes things worse. We stand helpless before this supreme paradox. In- deed, as Bishop Mandell Creighton pointed out years ago, no class of people does as much harm as people who go about doing good. Only Grace, Mercy, and Peace can save us. Money is not enough. We need Love, and God is Love.

Dr Alan Wilson is the Bishop of Buckingham.

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