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Press: Welby’s statue review gains him no points

03 July 2020


The Archbishop of Canterbury preaches during the Christmas Day service in Canterbury Cathedral, last year

The Archbishop of Canterbury preaches during the Christmas Day service in Canterbury Cathedral, last year

THE most interesting ethical discussion of the week was in the Atlantic journalist Helen Lewis’s online newsletter “The Bluestocking”, which considered the difference between social and economic radicalism. Economic radical­ism is where you do some good; social radical­ism is where you look good. There’s no doubt which is more popular.

“What I come back to, again and again, is the cheap sugar rush of unleashing the tum­brils,” she writes. “Real institutional change is hard; like politics, it is the ‘slow boring of hard boards’. Convincing a company to toss some­one overboard for PR points risks winning a victory that is no victory at all. The pitch­forkers are sated. But the corporate culture remains the same.”

In this perspective, the Archbishop of Can­terbury’s intervention about statues is doubly mystifying. It is not, I think, doing anything to advance the cause of black people in this country, but neither is it gaining him any points for social radicalism. The letters col­umns of The Times and the Telegraph were aflame. Nick Timothy, once Theresa May’s feared consigliere, now reduced to having opin­ions, had one in the Telegraph: “Nobody personifies the madness of our times, and the moral cowardice of our leaders, like the Arch­bishop of Canterbury.”

The Times’s leader on the subject was more thoughtful and much more damaging: “The decision on religious statuary does not belong to the archbishop. Individual parishes and dio­ceses are engaged in an audit of who is mem­or­ialised in England’s churches and cathedrals. It will be up to them to decide if they wish to remove some of those memorials, and they will then need to seek permission from one of the Church’s consistory courts.”

Some of its letters were also thoughtful: Hugh Pennington wrote: “Fritz Haber exempli­­fies the complexity of toppling ‘benefactors’. He won a Nobel Prize in 1918 for his discovery of how to make ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen, an essential process for making the fertiliser that 40 per cent of the world’s popula­tion needs today for its food production and without which there would be massive famines.

“But as a chemist he led the development of chlorine gas as a weapon, first used in 1915 at Ypres by the Germans, killing 5,000 French soldiers. The linden tree that had been planted in the garden of his research institute in Berlin to celebrate his 60th birthday was uprooted in 1933 because he was Jewish.”

None of this might matter were it not that the Archbishop is making some increasingly desperate enemies. It comes in a week in which two pieces of research reveal large and politic­ally untapped reserves of social conservatism: Religious London: Faith in a global city, from Theos, and Mind the Values Gap, from the think tank The UK in a Changing Europe.

The Values Gap report shows not only that Conservative MPs are very far to the Right of both their activists, and still more their voters, on economic matters, but, if anything, some way more liberal in their social attitudes than the median voter. Labour MPs, on the other hand, are far out to the Left on those measures. This is exactly the opposite of the “values gap” identified by Linda Woodhead between the clergy and the laity of the Church of England (Feature, 20 September 2013).

Parenthetically, I am still boggled by the finding that only five per cent of Tory MPs believe that there is “one law for the rich and one for the poor”. Do the other 95 per cent, when they have to hire lawyers, always go for the cheapest because they don’t think that will make any difference to the result?

And, to return to Helen Lewis, her piece ends like this: “A Tory MP told me recently that the party hoped beyond hope to fight the next election on identity rather than eco­nom­ics, given the British economy is likely to still be in the toilet by 2024. A therapeutic crusade against the ‘loony left’ while actually being fairly social liberal in comparison to the aver­age voter would be just the electoral ticket.”

If Archbishop Welby wants to play Runcie to a future PM’s Thatcher, he needs a Church Urban Fund, not a soundbite on Today.

MEANWHILE, the Christ Church story con­tinues to astonish. “Oxford college rocked by accusations of leaks and blackmail” ran the FT’s latest headline. “The head of another Oxford college said, ‘If [Christ Church] were a school in Hackney, it would already have been taken into special measures.’”

This may have been the single juiciest quote, but I think that the most significant line was was this: “Senior university figures fear that significant intervention by the [Charity] Com­mission could have implications for all Oxford colleges, which, unlike most charities, tend to have large numbers of trustees — academics — who are also paid and therefore have a fin­ancial interest in the charity’s spending.”

If the row destroys the cosy ar­­rangements across the whole university, whereby the people who are nominally trustees vote to set their own depart­ments’ budgets, it will make the Censors of Christ Church seem the most self-sabotaging con­serv­atives since Nick Tim­othy managed nearly to lose the 2017 election.

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