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Press: Commentariat takes cue from Boris Johnson

29 April 2022


IF A good sermon is one that you can still remember after you have left the church at the end of the service, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter homily, in which he castigated the Government’s plans to displace asylum-seekers to Rwanda (News, Press, 22 April), must be counted a success, because the right-wing press and its commentators were still going on about it this week.

As a retired bishop of my acquaintance wrote to me, “Rarely have I found so many opportunities to talk about the relevance of the gospel to politics amongst my secular friends.”

Not that there were many sinners come to justice, especially among the commentariat. Perhaps taking their cue, if cue were needed, from Boris Johnson’s remarks to the Tory backbenchers’ 1922 Committee that bishops had been less vociferous in condemning Vladimir Putin than in criticising the Rwanda policy, and that the Archbishop himself had “misconstrued” the plan (News, 22 April), they took the opportunity to pile on the criticism.

The prize for the most imaginative attack on Archbishop Welby came from the Spectator columnist Rod Liddle, who announced that God had spoken to him in a telephone call. Nothing particularly unusual in that, of course — God has been speaking directly to mystics and Evangelicals for centuries, though usually without satirical intent — and, strangely, as with Liddle, God invariably agrees with their views. God told his amanuensis: “To be absolutely clear, I have had no communication with Justin Welby whatsoever, so his statement is grossly presumptuous. . . He is exceeding his pay grade. He is cloaking himself in an authority he does not have. . . Would Welby prefer that more people died crossing the Channel? Or has he not even thought about that?”

The answer, of course, as Mr Liddle should know, is that the Archbishop has concerned himself very much with that; but his repeated anguish does not make the news much these days, and so has passed largely unnoticed by commentators. Now that the secular press has largely dispensed with religious correspondents, the spiritual can be refracted only through the lens of politics. Jeremy Harris, Archbishop Carey’s director of communications, once told me that they could perfectly well do without the national press, and now it has come to pass.

ONLY occasionally do religious people impinge on the wider consciousness — usually incidentally, as in the case of Andy Le Roux, a church pastor in Odiham, Hampshire, and his wife, Kate, to whom The Guardian spoke. They are trying to sponsor Olga Kolisnyk, a university professor from Kharkiv, and her two children; but the Home Office has denied a visa to Ms Kolisnyk’s six-month-old baby unless she undergoes security scans in Warsaw, 800 miles from the family home in the middle of the war zone. Perhaps the Government could divert some of the energy that it has expended in attacking bishops to sorting out the malevolence and incompetence in the Home Office.

As The Guardian’s columnist Zoe Williams (who admitted that she’s no Christian) observed: “These days slating an archbishop for having Christian values is probably the least embarrassing thing [Tory MPs] will be asked to do this week. A special mention here for the rightwing pundit Tim Montgomerie whose response to Welby was: ‘Jesus is risen. And the sun is out. And I’ve been given a huge Easter egg.’ Credit to the man, isn’t that the real meaning of Easter? That it is time to put aside the suffering of others and concentrate on the happiness of the man who looks after Number 1?

“It’s a tricky one for the Conservatives, the Church of England. Can’t live with it, can’t privatize it.”

FOR ME, the most anguished and profound commentary on the whole Ukraine crisis so far came — also in The Spectator, as it happens — from the academic and journalist Peter Pomerantsev, who was born in the country, but grew up from infancy in London. “Many Ukrainians I speak to worry that the war will brutalise them, that they risk becoming so full of hate it will eat them up inside,” he wrote.

Pomerantsev turned to the Talmud for guidance: “There’s a passage describing how when the angels wanted to celebrate the drowning of the Egyptian army, God stopped them. How could they sing when His creations were dying? Even a genocidal enemy has some humanity. But if I’m honest, I celebrate every incinerated Russian tank. I tried to think about the soldiers inside them at the start of the war but I lost that moral battle by week two.

“At breakfast . . . I suddenly find myself weeping over the boiled eggs and coffee. That’s how you recognize Ukrainians these days — they’re the ones crying in public for no apparent reason. Like Zelensky, I may be angry at God, but religion helps: the ever-returning catalogue of mass murder imprinted in Judaism puts this current evil into a context of pain and ultimate resilience.”

Stephen Bates is a former religious-affairs correspondent of
The Guardian.

Andrew Brown is away.

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