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Press: Welby stumbles in Prince Andrew test

20 December 2019


Prince Andrew (left) and the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, attend the Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington, London, in November

Prince Andrew (left) and the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, attend the Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall in Kensin...

HE ALMOST made it unscathed through to the end of the year. The Archbishop of Canterbury had attracted hardly any press coverage until the election was over.

It must have seemed that an interview with The Big Issue was safe enough. No one is actually in favour of homelessness, especially when it’s visible. The Archbishop was really careful with the predictable question: “Foodbank use has risen. There has been a huge rise in the client base of Christians Against Poverty, the debt-counselling charity.

“Also, people’s tolerance for minorities has gone down. Minority groups have had a much harder time, asylum seekers, immigrants. The use of vitriolic language has gone up significantly. We have had an MP murdered. I am not saying we are in a crisis, I am just saying the direction of travel is not what we want.”

But then he was asked about Prince Andrew — and this was after the Maitlis interview. Although he tried to avoid particulars, he did say: “I am not commenting on any member of the royal family except to say that I am astonished at what a gift they are to this country.

“They do serve in a way that is extraordinary in what is literally, for them, a life sentence. I think to ask that they be superhuman saints is not what we should do because nobody is like that. Everybody makes mistakes, everybody is human.”

This is remarkably tone deaf, even if mostly true. Obviously you could defend most other members of the Royal Family in those terms, but not Andrew, who, if he has been a gift to any country, has been one only to places like Kazakhstan.

Nor is it the way in which the Archbishop reacted to the apparently much less credible allegations about Bishop George Bell. The Mail made it a front-page splash, under the headline “Welby: don’t expect royals to be saints”.

I think that this was one of the rare moments in which Archbishop Welby’s poshness and instinctive sympathy for the people among whom he grew up really handicaps him for the job. One of the things that the clergy and the monarchy have in common is the experience of a sense of duty, or of calling. It makes for a bond of sympathy which must be inexplicable if you haven’t ever felt it yourself. This is a culture that takes self-invention for granted, and is hostile to the idea that you don’t have any real choice about how you are, only how well you are going to be that person.

So, it’s easy to forget just how inexplicable the concept of service seems when summoned to the defence of someone such as Prince Andrew, who appeared to have few royal duties to fulfil, and now has none. Still, like every other row in the papers, it will all be over by Christmas.

THE New Statesman had an illuminating vignette from the Revd Lucy Winkett’s diary. She had been defending a congregant at an immigration tribunal. The Government’s lawyer claimed that the migrant couldn’t be a real Christian because he could only name five of the 12 apostles. The test requires six. Ms Winkett’s congregation, asked the next Sunday, also scored only five.

She writes: “‘Can you be illiterate and be a Christian’’?’ demanded the lawyer. I was totally bemused by the question. Of the two billion Christians in the world today, a large proportion are technically illiterate. And for the first four centuries of Christianity, not a whole lot was written down, in any case.”

On the basis of this story, would you suppose that the unlucky congregant’s skin shade was closer to Ms Winkett’s or to Jesus’s?

BOTH the Financial Times and The Washington Post had long stories about Brazilian Pentecostalism and its ties with the Bolsonaro regime. As the FT pointed out, “The Evangelicals’ support is also valuable to the government on social issues. When police charged into the São Paulo slum of Paraisópolis to break up a loud street party, nine young people were killed in the ensuing commotion.

“Marco Feliciano, a neo-Pentecostal pastor and congressman, was quick to speak out. ‘The bandit-loving media is demonising the police and victimising the funk dances,’ he wrote on Twitter. ‘I want to know what those journalists would do if they couldn’t sleep for four days of the week because thugs had transformed the street into a modern version of Sodom and Gomorrah.’”

Meanwhile, the founder of the “Universal Church of the Kingdom of God” has a personal fortune estimated by Forbes magazine at $1.1 billion. The Church itself claims to have sent 14,000 people to proselytise in the prisons, and The Washington Post picked up the results. “Those efforts, analysts say, have contributed to the growing evangelization of gang life in ­Brazil.

“Christina Vital da Cunha, an associate professor of sociology at Federal Fluminense University, has spent decades studying evangelicalism in Rio’s favelas. ‘Some pastors and denominations strategically bet on converting traffickers in privileged places in the hierarchy of crime,’ she said.

“Several of the converted were leaders of the powerful gang Pure Third Command. The conversions, Vital said, helped instil a new ‘evangelical religious morality’ in the criminal group as it waged a war of conquest against other gangs in Rio’s northern reaches — exactly where many followers of Afro-Brazilian religions had settled.

“‘Some of them call themselves “Jesus drug dealers”, creating a unique identity,’ said Gilbert Stivanello, commander of the Rio police department’s crimes of intolerance unit. ‘They carry weapons and sell drugs, but feel entitled to forbid African-influenced religions by stating that they are related to the devil.’”

Perhaps it’s not that different from the devout opium-pushing British merchants in 19th- century China. It’s certainly not the future that anyone imagined for Christianity 30 years ago. But that quality of being a little beyond the limits of our imagination is exactly what makes writing about religion so interesting.

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