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Not much praise for Songs

21 August 2015

“Condemned”: the Express on Songs of Praise from France

“Condemned”: the Express on Songs of Praise from France

WHEN the first, hardly credible, reports of the atrocity filtered through to Lapland, where I had taken shelter from the heat of the British summer, it seemed as if Theresa May had finally gone too far. Dogs, razor wire, troops, and no doubt, in time, chemical weapons might all be deployed to discourage refugees, to little effect . . . but making them take part in Songs of Praise would surely close the traffic down, once news filtered back to North Africa.

It seems that I misunderstood.

The Daily Express was in no doubt of the threat that these people — sorry, these migrants — represented to all that is good and holy: “This is how the BBC is spending your money” trumpeted the front page: “Songs of Praise filmed in Migrant camp”, with the lead: “The BBC was last night condemned for televising Songs of Praise from the lawless migrant ghetto in Calais.”

What was really daring, however, was the skyline box: “How to beat Alzheimer’s: sleep on your side, say experts: pages 6 and 7.” One day they’re going to publish a story about a cure, and it will be true — and all Express readers will suddenly remember that they have been reading the same three front-page stories in rotation every week for the past 20 years.

After the programme went out, Damian Thompson was hired by the Mail to kick it through the door, so to speak. The inhabitants of the camp were mostly Muslim, he argued; the Christians were Ethiopian Orthodox, who don’t sing hymns; and the programme had too much Giles Fraser.

This was not Canon Fraser’s opinion. In The Guardian, he said: “I had a little walk-on part in the programme; but they cut out my mini-sermon on the similarity between the plight of these refugees and the story of the book of Exodus. Maybe that was a little too strong for Songs of Praise.”

His main point, though, was that the programme attempted to show the camp-dwellers as people, and that this is precisely what the talk of “migrants” is meant to stop us from doing. Personally, however, I would not use Exodus in this context. There is always a danger that your listeners will identify with the Canaanites.


IN ANY other week, the Calais migrant story would have been enough to fill this column. But there was one other thing to disturb the calm of Lapland: a reader rang me to ask if I thought it was time to have Lord Carey put down.

It seems that I misunderstood.

Lord Carey had intervened in the Assisted Dying debate in favour of a change in the law. This was not news, of course, to people who follow the debate, but most people don’t. And so his piece in the Mail on Sunday, and the faith leaders’ letter to the Telegraph, will accomplish at the very least a sense that “the Church of England” is divided on this issue.

That can only be good. I hear that the official church machinery is gearing up for a ferocious assault, conducted at diocesan and parish level, against the Assisted Dying Bill. Although, in this instance, my sympathies are with the official church line, and against the beliefs of almost all my friends (except for Canon Fraser), it a great silliness to pretend that the Church of England is a disciplined and coherent body that can deliver the votes of its members for whatever the Bishops and General Synod decide.

The dividing line on this question runs right through congregations, and, in practice, right through most people who have strong views on either side.

In practice, all of us are pro-death in some circumstances. But the question which legal arrangements can best ensure that only (or mostly) the right people die at the right time is an extremely tricky one.

Lord Falconer is entirely sincere, extremely intelligent, and motivated by real compassion — but also, as seems to be the case with all the Blairites except for Tony Blair himself, completely lacking in any understanding of the way in which political emotions actually work. Perhaps those people have never been powerless, or even felt that they are.

The debate on assisted suicide is all about power. What is proposed is an enormous shift in power from doctors to patients, and patients’ relatives, when it comes to deciding who should die and how. Falconer’s Bill is unrealistic, in that it seems to think that this shift can be arrested halfway: that doctors should first decide whether you have good grounds for wanting to die, and — if they agree — you should then decide whether they should kill you.

But if it is fought on grounds of autonomy, why should the doctors decide whether your reasons are good enough? This is not a mere slippery slope. It’s a crevasse. Yet I have friends who argue that it may still be better than the way parts of the NHS work now.

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