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Press: New York Times probes unionisation of Anglican clergy

05 January 2024


ONE way of looking at managerialism is that it replaces covenants with contracts. A bishop who is your manager is no longer your father- or mother-in-God. The merely managed are interchangeable with one another in a way that children are not. And so, in self-defence, they must form unions. As individuals, they may no longer be valued, but, as part of a faceless mass, they can no longer be ignored.

So, The New York Times carried the most surprising religious piece of the Christmas period. Polly Smythe, a writer for the Corbynist Novara Media, had a properly reported piece on the unionisation of the Anglican clergy. “Now part of Unite, one of Britain’s largest unions, the faith workers branch — predominantly priests but also rabbis and humanist celebrants — is fast approaching 2,000 clerical members, or around 10 percent of the clergy in [active ministry].

“The numbers, in themselves, may not sound like much. But these members have joined from a nontraditional sector without any recruitment push from the union, in a remarkably organic process.”

What she really wanted to write about were the evils of Tory austerity, and the weakness of the piece, I thought, was that she wrote from an entirely materialist perspective: the only reason suggested why the clergy might join is that they were part of the general immiseration of the working poor, and they want better pay and conditions. But, in my experience, the motivation of those who join the union is really distrust of the organisation, and of their bishops. It would be interesting to hear from readers who could cast light on this.

seems to me to be less of a progressive than an anti-Capitalist nostalgist: one who looks back to a golden age before contractualism, when all society was organised by personal bonds. He had a long piece in The Guardian which celebrated this strand of Welsh culture, “a culture that was deeply invested in local co-operative structures, mutual support, ethically slanted education and international concern . . . a society that was profoundly literate both about the ethics of national and international relations and about the right and capacity of citizens to shape their lives together and to secure each other’s wellbeing”.

The peg for this was the centenary of a petition urging the United States to join the League of Nations and the International Court of Justice, which had been signed by 400,000 Welsh women in 1922, and then exhibited all across the US. It has now been returned for veneration in Wales.

Nowhere does Lord Williams mention that the petition had no effect whatsoever on US foreign policy. It took the Second World War to get the Americans to sign up to the international order that they are now abandoning. There is something about the spectacle of British intellectuals — whether on the Right or the Left — telling the US what to do which reminds me of a dachshund barking orders at a battleship.

OF COURSE, you can be an anti-capitalist nostalgist without being on the Left. The Financial Times had a story on the reverence of Italian neo-fascists for The Lord of the Rings: “At Rome’s National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, rooms recently devoted to an exhibition of Picasso drawings now hold more curious relics: a 19th-century travel trunk emblazoned ‘M. Tolkien’; dictionaries of old English dialects; a paper-strewn writer’s desk and colourful drawings of hobbits, elves, orcs. There is even a ‘Lord of the Rings’ pinball machine.

“‘Tolkien is an authentic and sincere conservative,’ says culture minister Gennaro Sangiuliano, who was behind the show. ‘He wanted to project the values of humanity, the spirit of sacrifice of the small against the Dark Lord. . . There is a fight going on in this globalised society between those like me — for whom people are citizens with rights and duties — and those who consider men as mere bar codes, consumers that have to stay passive towards the world.’

“Meloni has called The Lord of the Rings a ‘sacred text’ and her autobiography recounts how as a young member of the Italian Social Movement (MSI) — founded by Benito Mussolini’s surviving allies after the second world war — she and fellow activists dressed up as hobbits, elves and other characters to perform at children’s parties, as a form of both entertainment and outreach.”

The FT found a filmmaker who was visiting the exhibition and who told the paper: “Tolkien is without political colour. . . It’s just a message of universality, of coexistence of all the possible races in the world.”

Really? Orcs and elves join hand and sing around the campfire, while a Balrog snores beside them in contentment? What makes Tolkien a moral author is that, while the racist interpretation cannot be denied, the characters are not wholly bound by it. The generosity and courage that Frodo shows redeem even Gollum, or call him back to his hobbit nature — for a while. As someone said, it’s Gollum who is the only grown-up in the whole saga.

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