Andrew Brown: Welby wriggles slowly across the fence

06 October 2017

PA

Honoured: Jimmy Savile in 1996, with his knighthood from the Queen

Honoured: Jimmy Savile in 1996, with his knighthood from the Queen

BY THE time this appears in print, I imagine that the only story from the Primates’ Meeting will be the planned demonstration by survivors of child abuse, which will be covered with particular relish by the BBC after Archbishop Welby’s attack on the Corporation for its handling of Jimmy Savile.

I really have no idea what the Archbishop thought he would accomplish with that; perhaps he was just lashing out. But for a man who is usually so controlled and charming with journalists, it was a very strange lapse. “I haven’t seen the same integrity over the BBC’s failures over Savile”, he said, “as I’ve seen in the Roman Catholic Church, in the Church of England, in other public institutions over abuse. We may be proved wrong about that, but you know that’s one area.”

The charitable reading of his remarks is that they dealt not with the scandals themselves but with the subsequent public expressions of repentance or punishments of the guilty. This may or may not be true: retired BBC executives do not retain titles such as “honorary assistant bishop” from which they can be purged; so the two cases are not directly comparable.

But, in any case, it seems clear that most of Savile’s crimes came to light only after his death and were not reported to the BBC at the time. The church scandals were worse in that respect. Lambeth Palace was told about Peter Ball and did not pass on evidence to the police (News, 30 June). No one told the police about John Smyth, of the Iwerne camps, who operated in the heart of the public-school Evangelical sub-culture (Press, 10 February, Comment, 17 February).

I suspect that some of the Archbishop’s rage comes from the fact that the Smyth cover-up was orchestrated by people whom he knew and trusted: he lodged at Cambridge with the man who carried out the internal investigation, which was promptly covered up. This is a horrible burden. I don’t think he knew anything himself, but he respected the people who did. His childhood had been full of betrayals. He had then been sent to Eton, hardly a school of trust. The Iwerne/HTB men must have seemed to him — as well as to themselves — the standard-bearers of decency in a fallen world. But that is a subject for John Le Carré, not for journalism.

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AND so to the Archbishop’s interview with Alastair Campbell in GQ magazine, in which candid and thoughtful answers were punished with predictable headlines. In a way, the most revealing moment was a throwaway, when he caught himself saying he couldn’t give a “straight” answer to the question whether gay sex was sinful. How many people have the inner censor who would spot the slip, alongside the indiscretion to draw attention to it?

“I don’t do blanket condemnation,” he said, in a context in which he sounded apologetic for this lack. He gives the impression of a man who is not so much sitting on the fence as wriggling slowly and uncomfortably across the top of it: “I don’t think it is sinful to say that you disagree with gay sex. But to express that by way of hatred for people is absolutely wrong in the same way as misogyny or racism is wrong.”

I reckon that ten years ago he’d have said: “I don’t think I disagree with saying gay sex is sinful.” But now he realises that real, loving people do it, and the sin and disagreement have changed places.

What pushes people over that particular fence is the reflection that actions are character. Sex in this respect is not like theology. It is possible, I’m told (I take this on faith), to have theological disagreements without personal hatreds. But it’s much harder to avoid thinking badly of people who practise forms of sex which you think are wicked.

 

A NICE example of the limits of theological tolerance turned up in The Guardian: “Hundreds of thousands of commuters experienced major disruption during rush hour on Monday morning after passengers evacuated from a train in London and spilled on to the track.

“A man wearing a rucksack was reciting verses from the Bible and talking about homosexuality and sex outside of marriage being sins. He was also said to have referred to ‘doomsday’. A passenger pulled the emergency alarm and some people prised open the doors and went on to the tracks.”

 

BUT the best Doomsday story came from the Daily Star, under the headline “Church FINALLY breaks silence on today’s apocalypse prophecy”.

“An increasing number of conspiracy theorists — especially Christians — fear the apocalypse would be happening today,” the paper warned on 24 September.

“One of Britain’s top Anglican thinkers — a member of the Church of England’s executive committee — has told Daily Star Online he does not believe the end of the world will start today.”

Then comes a perfectly placed paragraph break before the bathetic end: “But he admits he cannot be sure.”

This same top Anglican thinker (the only one to come forward from a list of 20 scholars supplied to the Daily Star by Lambeth Palace) was asking on his blog whether he was being paranoid about those missing from the list of speakers at the Church Times Festival of Preaching. But if the trumpet gives an uncertain sound. . .

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