Letter from the Vicar (May 2010)
While travelling up to visit relatives after Easter I listened carefully to a radio programme that I always enjoy, but rarely attend to carefully. It is called Start the Week and is hosted by Andrew Marr. On this occasion the programme hailed from Lambeth Palace and the contributors included the Archbishop of Canterbury, the atheist author Philip Pullman, the Muslim scholar Professor Mona Siddiqui and the Jewish atheist David Baddiel. It was in the course of this programme that Rowan Williams spoke of the Irish Roman Catholic Church as “losing all credibility” – an observation rather than a judgement.
The point I want to make about this programme, however, is not connected with that comment. No, what struck me about the discussion was the excellent way in which the four contributors and the compère conducted themselves. Rather than the rancorous and self-serving debates that are so often heard and seen on radio and television, this one was a model of courtesy and luminosity. By that I mean that the listeners were really enlightened by the discussion. It served to make us think about the issues discussed. Furthermore the participants genuinely listened to each other with humility and sought to discover areas of agreement rather than of disagreement and dispute. By comparison so much of the political rhetoric of our day and age serves only to confuse and bamboozle the listener.
Those engaged in debate do not attend to what each other are saying and speak in shrill voices to ensure their point is made. In many ways I don’t blame the politicians for this. It is in very large measure the media that has had this effect. The incursion of media-savvy spin doctors into the world of politics has had a most deleterious impact and threatens to undermine the well being of our democracy. I know a number of politicians. I know them to be clever and honest people. But they often come across as deceitful and devious because of the games they have to play to cope with the media. It has often been said that you get the politicians you deserve. In our age we are all so in thrall to the media that we are certainly getting the politics the media is willing to deliver us.
But what has all this to do with Christianity and the Church? Only this. The Church is increasingly placing itself into a ghetto. I put it that way round because I believe that is the truth of it. Others say that the Church is being marginalized or even persecuted in contemporary society. This is a gross exaggeration. If the Church is finding itself at the margins of our society it is because Christians choose to place themselves there. It seems to me that some Christians are becoming more and more like the shrill politicians we disparage. They are not listening to other Christians and other people in society. They are seeing things solely from their own perspective. Some Christians are asking for opt-outs from the law of the land, for special consideration for their views on this and that subject. Lord Carey even recently said we needed judges specially sympathetic to Christianity to deal with cases involving Christians.
This disengagement with the rest of society is a profoundly negative development. It will undermine the Church of England in particular as a national Church which seeks to serve everyone in this country. Instead of such a negative and self-serving approach let us rather listen to what other people are saying to us and engage with humility in lively and courteous debate about what is best and right for everyone. This is surely the way of Christ who gives us an example of loving, self-denying service, not self-assertive zealotry.