FIRST, to state the obvious, though not in the blunt terms that have been used in emails and social-media posts to this paper, the diocese of London, anyone connected with the Revd Jarel Robinson-Brown, and Mr Robinson-Brown himself: to attempt to make a political point the day after the death of a much-loved national treasure was thoughtless and insensitive. Nor was the medium well chosen: choosing Twitter to develop a complex and subtle argument is like trying to serve consommé on Ryvita. It could well be that Mr Robinson-Brown wanted to defend the memory of the “kind and generous” Captain Sir Tom Moore from those who wished to recruit him for right-wing propaganda. He has gone to ground, or been sat on by the diocese, so we cannot know. But Twitter allowed him space only to apply, without distinction, the same shade of White Nationalism paint to all who wished to salute the centenarian’s efforts on behalf of the NHS.
In his more considered piece prepared for the SCM Press event and reproduced in the Church Times last week — a better medium for these sorts of arguments, we would contend — Mr Robinson-Brown distinguished between different circumstances in which a prophet might rage. There are elements of that article that Mr Robinson-Brown would do well to revisit: rage against systems must include compassion for those caught up in them. There are, too, many passages that his critics would benefit from reading, not least: “Sometimes, rage is the only thing that gets the high and mighty to notice the manifold sicknesses at work in a disordered, disunited kingdom.”
Setting the church authorities aside, those most upset by Mr Robinson-Brown’s tweet were neither high nor mighty. Those with power and self-determination were able either to dismiss the insult or accept the apology, or both. The people most affected, judging by a cross-section of their comments, were those with less agency, people who resent being made to feel bad about being white or nationalistic or inspired by the example of Captain Sir Tom. It is easy to condemn racists and homophobes. More problematic are those who write: “I am not a racist/anti-gay but . . .” It is these who feel most keenly the huge, unaddressed crisis of identity that is facing the UK, and the English in particular. No longer part of an international body, who are they, exactly?
Here is the challenge for a prophet: how to address a situation in which a monoculture is being thoughtlessly and insensitively promoted in a multicultural nation. Captain Sir Tom was a hero: a modest, gracious man who doggedly overcame age and disability to contribute to the national response to the coronavirus. It ought to be possible to salute his heroism while questioning why other heroes, many of them people of colour who have given their lives during this pandemic, fail to be depicted as representative of this nation’s values.