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Press: Guardian lauds archbishops past and present  

06 January 2023

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ON THE very last day of the year, streaking along the rails out of nowhere, we had a winner! The correction of the year, possibly the correction of the century, was published at the end of The Guardian’s round-up of reactions to the death of Pope Benedict XVI. It read, in full: “This article was amended on 31 December 2022 because an earlier version said King Charles III expressed his sadness ‘as head of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales’. That should have said as the head of the Church of England.”

The paper had been doing unusually well up till then. The seasonal pieties were observed with a Polly Toynbee piece about how much she hates the Christian elements of Christmas: “Much as I dislike most Christian belief, the iconography of star, stable, manger, kings and shepherds to greet a new baby is a universal emblem of humanity. In that spirit I relish singing the old carols when I get the chance. . . But the rest of it, I find loathsome. Why wear the symbol of a barbaric torture? Martyrdom is a repugnant virtue, so too the imposition of perpetual guilt,” and so on, with some impressive myth-making about “fanatical early Christians, who permitted no heresy, hacked down temples and burned ancient classical texts”.

But there was also a leader in praise of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and even of bishops in the Lords: “Right now, the presence of the lords spiritual at Westminster has clear benefits. At a time when the government is attempting to sell performative cruelty towards migrants as a form of humanitarian intervention, the Anglican bishops, led by Mr Welby, deserve considerable praise for insisting on telling it how it is. . . The manner in which the C of E has spoken about refugees has indeed been profoundly moral, in a way that has dangerously eluded the secular political debate.”

 

THEN there was the former Archbishop Lord Williams’s piece of political philosophy, also in The Guardian. It was a rebuttal of all the stereotypes about his writing, being lucid, powerful, and wrong. Whatever his scruples when he discusses the world as it is, when he talks about the world as it ought to be, his confidence is absolute.

“In a society that prioritised security for everyone, the ‘cost’ of living would be virtually invisible. The systems and rhythms of exchange that support us — work, wages, welfare — could be taken for granted. The natural and instinctive concern to keep one another safe that holds cohesive communities together would shape the way our economy operated, so that no one had to constantly calculate how much ‘living’ they could afford.”

I was lucky enough to live in a society run on those principles for a while, in social democratic Sweden in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s gone, now, though. And it worked, while it worked, because of a very narrow description of “everyone”.

Sweden grew rich, egalitarian, and secure partly because of the contrast between its pliant neutrality and the invasions and occupations suffered by the rest of Europe, including all its immediate neighbours.

The security enjoyed by industrial workers in the West under social democracy lasted only as long as the countries outside the West did not themselves industrialise, a process that allowed their peasant populations to gain a small measure of our security as a result.

 

PERHAPS the most sympathetic reading of Lord Williams’s point came from the Financial Times. Its columnist, Lucy Kellaway, who left a successful career as a journalist to retrain as a teacher, has now moved to the de-industrialised north-east, where she is teaching in a Roman Catholic school: “Although I don’t feel any closer to Christ, I am being converted to a slightly different view of education — and, after a term’s immersion in Geordie society, to a radically different view of how best to live.

“I listened with disbelief in the first staff meeting when we were told it was our job to love all our students — especially the ones who were hardest to love. This was a departure from the successful academy school in east London where I trained, when staff would gather together in the name of no excuses, exam results and value-added scores.

“This emphasis on love seems to me oddly profound, because from it everything else flows. If you force yourself to care deeply for every one of your students, you work harder for them, you want the best for them. All the other stuff I learnt in teacher training after leaving my job as a columnist at the Financial Times — differentiation and assessment for learning — seems a bit by the by.”

This chimes very well with the former Archbishop’s view of Christmas: “The story we heard in the carol services is about a moment in human history when it was confirmed, once and for all, that the deepest force and pressure within all reality ‘bends toward justice’, in Martin Luther King’s phrase — and not to an abstract distributive justice but to a loving, attentive, generous valuing of each person that sets them free in turn for love, attention and generosity.”

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