ONE reason that I hate politics is that it requires such persistence in mean-spiritedness. I lack the application, if hardly the talent.
Take Frank Field, a former MP, who has used the publication of a biography of John Habgood (Books, 1 May; Podcast, 15 May) to boast that he (Mr Field) was the man who successfully nudged Margaret Thatcher into appointing Lord Carey to Canterbury instead of the then Archbishop of York.
In a review of the book Just John (SPCK) by David Wilbourne, for The Tablet, Mr Field wrote: “During one of the evening conversations I had with Mrs T, I told her that . . . if she wanted to break the cabal of those determined for Canterbury to go to Habgood . . . she needed to appoint a chair of the Crown Appointments Commission who would make the two recommendations and who would have no idea of synod politics. Mrs T appointed Lord Caldecote, a West Country squire. A West Country bishop, whom Caldecote presumably knew, was George Carey, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Field also writes: “I found Habgood not simply shy, as he is described here, but lacking in any discernible human sympathy.” But Habgood seemed to me a classic Etonian: a clever man who had had guardedness and reserve beaten into him. Almost the most obvious thing about him was the loneliness of a man inured to being misunderstood. Perhaps these are two ways of looking at the same character, but I remember also the luminous, if pitiless, sympathy of his eyes.
AH, TALKING to the dead. . . Tracey Thorn had a piece in the New Statesman which seemed a good example of the magazine’s grown-up attitude to spirituality. It also suggests a realistic approach to the sort of tentative revival that might be happening in a few places: not really “a move of God”, but maybe a twitch of his sleeping tail.
“I’ve always been an atheist,” she writes, “or at least, I’ve always thought so. . . But I’ve backed off a bit now.
“I find myself most mornings walking around the weathered, leaning gravestones of the churchyard. If the church doors were open, I think I’d go and sit inside. Maybe I’d sort of pray.
“I find myself having conversations inside my own head, and I wonder, is this a prayer?
“Being in the churchyard encourages the thought. I talk to my mum, who has been dead for nearly ten years. ‘Mum,’ I say/think, ‘you won’t believe what’s happening. There’s a pandemic and we all have to stay indoors. Like, indefinitely. It’s really, really weird. And I’m a bit sad and scared.’
“I wait for her answer, but I can’t quite catch it.
“A friend tells me her parents have a memorial stone in the churchyard, so I go and find it, and stand in front of their names. After a few minutes I reach out and touch the plaque and say, awkwardly, a kind of ‘bless you’ to them. And is that a prayer?”
If this kind of open, tentative uncertainty is part of a widespread public mood, it is a difficult one for church leaders to respond to.
THEY don’t seem to be doing so. Tom Holland had a civilised version of this complaint in theTelegraph earlier this month: “Rather than speaking with the voice of prophecy, rather than explaining to a grieving and anxious people how the dead will rise into the blaze of eternal life, rather than proclaiming the miracles and mysteries that they uniquely exist to proclaim, church leaders seem to have opted instead to talk like middle managers.”
As is traditional for this kind of exhortation from the sidelines, bishops are expected to believe, and to proclaim, things that the writer shrinks from putting in his own mouth.
THE US website Religion Dispatches had an entertaining and scholarly look at the Mormon Church’s difficulties over polygamy, going back to the roots of the doctrine, when Joseph Smith needed to persuade his wife, Emma, of the divine sanction for his need to take other wives — 30 in the summer of 1843.
“At one point, Joseph worried that Emma was going to take a plural spouse of her own; at another, Emma threatened Joseph with divorce. Eventually, they reached a truce, but only when Joseph promised to not take any more plural wives.”
The relevance is that the State of Utah has finally dropped its ban on polygamy. Establishing the ban was the price of peace between the Mormon Church and the US state, and the official Church became one of its strongest supporters. But, in this year’s change, the Church stayed neutral, and the amendment was carried.
This shows that polygamy is no longer a key battlefront in the culture wars. There always has to be some supposedly unnatural sexual practice with which to berate the other side, but it turns out not to matter much which.