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Andrew Brown: Archbishop Welby in address about intolerance

29 September 2017


On air: the Archbishop of Canterbury at an earlier appearance on the radio station LBC

On air: the Archbishop of Canterbury at an earlier appearance on the radio station LBC

A MOMENT of silent sympathy for Justin Welby, who goes on LBC presumably to talk about Jesus, and ends up discussing Christian Concern instead. As The Times put it, “The Archbishop of Canterbury has said it is not a problem for a boy to wear a dress, as he inter­vened in a row over a Church of England school that welcomed transgender pupils.

“The Most Rev Justin Welby was asked on LBC radio how he would reply to objections on Christian grounds to a boy wearing a dress at school. He said: ‘I would say to them, “I don’t think that’s a problem”. The other family are making up their own minds, the other child is making up their own mind.’ He suggested that it was a parent’s job to clear up any confusion, saying: ‘Talk to your child. Help them to understand.’”

That gloriously surreal lead — I don’t think that anyone starts out in journalism expecting either to read or write such a sentence — highlights a lasting problem that is usually described as the media’s fixation on extreme voices. In this instance, we had Christian Con­cern starting the whole story off; and, after the interview, the delicious contribution of Lord Tebbit, whose column in the Telegraph noticed that the Archbishop had been “strug­gling with” the questions raised by the case.

”I am sure that the Archbishop knows his way around the Bible far better than I, but it took me only minutes to find the answer in Deuteronomy, chapter 25 verse 25. There it is written: ‘The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garments: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.’” How would the poor man have coped if Margaret Thatcher had dared wear trousers in front of him?

The problem of silly voices remains, how­ever, and it’s not all the media’s fault. Of course, we look for people to condemn things, and, when the things in question are perfectly reasonable, we end up with completely lunatic voices’ being taken apparently seriously.

But we do so because you, gentle reader, are not that interested in perfect reasonableness. Especially on subjects about which you neither know nor care very much, a fight will draw your attention much more quickly than anything else.


LORD TEBBIT, however, is yesterday’s grumpy old man. The future of reaction belongs to the younger generation, such as the (very good) pop science writer Matt Ridley, who now has a column in The Times. This week, he was extremely upset by the fate of Hypatia of Alexandria: “Maybe the entire world is heading into a great endarkenment, in which an atmosphere of illiberal orthodoxy threatens the achievement of recent centuries.

“My optimism, usually rather robust, has been shaken by an eloquent new book, The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey, a writer for this newspaper. Her topic is the Christian takeover of the Roman empire, and her argu­ment is that it was more violent, intolerant and destructive than we have been led to believe.

“In 415 AD Hypatia of Alexandria, the finest mathematician and philosopher of her day, was seized by a Christian mob, urged on by ‘Saint’ Cyril, who objected to her symbols and astrolabes, which seemed to prove she was an emissary of Satan. They dragged her to a church, stripped her naked, flayed her alive, gouged out her eyes and burnt her body. . .

“In the words of the Princeton historian Brent Shaw, the Christians brought ‘a hector­ing moralising of the individual, and a cease­less management of the minutiae of everyday life. The joke, the humorous kick, the hilari­ous satires, the funny cut-them-down-to-size jibe, have vanished.’”

Ridley’s starting-point was the insult to Francis Crick proposed by a Guardian contributor, who brought up some rather eugen­icist remarks that the great scientist had made in a private letter, and proposed that his name be removed from the Francis Crick Institute. This, as one mustn’t say, triggered Ridley: “The no-platforming, safe-space, trigger-warning culture is no longer confined to academia, or to America. . . Every writer I know feels that he or she is one remark away from disgrace.”

And so everything that upsets him, from Islam to transgender activists’ refusing to condemn violence, gets swept up into a great tidal wave of endarkenment which will end with the Archbishop of Canterbury cheering on the mob who are flaying Richard Dawkins on the steps of the Sheldonian Theatre.

What is funny about this is, of course, the element of projection. The mere appearance of a silly article in The Guardian threatens free speech for everyone. When people threaten the authorities he believes in, they become “a statue-toppling mob”; but when he mocks their authorities, he is upholding civilisation.

It all sells papers, but I do wish that people who think themselves on the side of history would take the trouble to study it, too. Is history really something any decent person would want to side with?

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