Archbishop goes to war, gets bruised

July 27, 2013

The Archbishop of Canterbury hits the headlines with an attack on money-lenders and gets bruised in the first week of battle

The story broke this week as the newly appointed head of the Church of England declared war on the so-called payday credit firms. Interestingly, the remark was part of a far more widely-ranging interview for Total Politics magazine. The story that hit the headlines [July 2013] was seized upon from one paragraph:

A plan for the church to develop credit unions has been floated, with Welby proud that the church is “putting our money where our mouth is” in developing an alternative to payday money-lenders. The plan, he says, is to create “credit unions that are both engaged in their communities and are much more professional – and people have got to know about them.”
It will, he adds, be a “decade-long process”, but Welby is ready for the battle with the payday giants. “I’ve met the head of Wonga and I’ve had a very good conversation and I said to him quite bluntly we’re not in the business of trying to legislate you out of existence, we’re trying to compete you out of existence.” He flashes that smile again. “He’s a businessman; he took that well.”

Battle had been declared

Within days the militant archbishop was on the defensive, as it was revealed how the Church had investments which were with dubious ethical operations. Protests that the investments were very tiny hardly quelled the storm in an ecclesiastic and financial teacup.

The shallowness of the debate was illustrated by BBC Newsnight’s weary efforts [Friday 26th July 2013] with church spokesperson, payday-loan spokesperson and Jeremy Paxman’s stand-in contributing to an inept effort to offer any reasoned contribution.

Fighting for the moral high ground

Welby, going the rounds of the media, had admitted to being embarrassed. It takes more than four months to master the art of avoiding the pitfalls of interviews when seeking to achieve the moral high-ground. His unusual background as a financial executive was not sufficient training.

The archbishop presumably wanted to introduce his visionary plans for the church under his leadership. He finds himself fighting his first hand-to-hand pitched battle with the forces of darkness.

Church of England struggles with single-sex marriage proposals

June 14, 2012

Bishop Tim Stephens

A discussion on gay rights from a mute eavesdropper

I was listening on breakfast-time radio [Jun 12th 2012] to the latest episode of a long-running story concerning the rights of gay people in the United Kingdom.

I caught only two snippets of discussion. The same presenter first interviewed a Bishop, and later someone representing a gay rights organisation [Stonewall].

First snippet:

Interviewer: You seem to be discriminating against the rights of gay people to marry?

Bishop: Not at all. If you read the document from start to finish you will see we do not discriminate”

ME [Mute Evesdropper] Thinking aloud]: What document? Doesn’t matter. That’s the ‘map’ being tested by the interviewer. The Bishop rejects the authority of someone who hasn’t read the whole document.

Interviewer: But you are discriminating. You reject the rights of gay people to be married in your Church.

ME [thinking aloud]: Nice one. She’s denying she needs to read whole document to explore the point she is making.

Bishop: We are not discriminating, we are distinguishing between people.

ME [thinking aloud]: Maybe the same way the Church is ‘distinguishing’ between the rights of males and females to become bishops.

Snippet ends

Second snippet:

Interviewer: The Government seems to be offering more rights for gay couples

Spokesman: It’s still a discriminatory document proposed by a minority of noisy clerics

ME: Reminds me of the ‘noisy neighbours’ remark about a certain football club…

Interviewer: The church says it’s not discriminatory.

Spokesman: They would say that wouldn’t they.

Interviewer: The bishop says it’s distinguishing not discriminatory.

Spokesman: He would say that wouldn’t he.

ME [thinking aloud]: Spokesman ‘reads’ the document as discriminatory. Avoids semantic debate. Implies that the Church is arguing from a special interest position rather that a rational one.

End of snippet.

Map testing

In legal debate, the snippets would have to be carefully examined, applying skills and knowhow which accompany legal training. You do not need that level of sensitivity to legal subtleties to examine and interpret what is being implied within a discussion. It’s testing the map you are reading.

In digging more deeply it is useful to consider the dilemmas that might be most urgently occupying those involved. The Bishop faces the dilemma of accepting the universal right to the Church’s care and the theological objections to homosexual practices.

I don’t find it as easy to read the map offered from the STONEWALL representative. He clearly rejects the ‘map’ proposed by the Bishop as scaremongering. He may be uncomfortable about the relationship between Church and State as inappropriate for non-Christians, and for Christians who are non-Anglicans. However, maybe he is aware that the Church will be able to collect support in the media if he appears to be undermining their theological position.

Dialogue of the mute

There are many aspects of this complicated story which I can’t pretend to understand. But I hope I have indicated how it is possible to ‘tune in’ even with limited information. With respect to Bishop Tim you don’t have to ‘read the whole document’.

Having a ‘mute dialogue’ (also called talking to yourself) also has its merits. By active listening you may well figure out aspects of your own leadership beliefs and actions.

To go more deeply

The Guardian takes its customary libitarian position

Archbishop Sentamu early front-runner in Church of England Spring Chase

March 19, 2012

The betting on the next leader of the Church of England has thrown up a front-runner in the archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, and a large field for punters to choose from

By general agreement, the post of Archbishop of Canterbury is only matched in difficulty with that of manager of the English football team. Dr Rowan Williams had barely made official his intention to stand down, when the betting, as well as the lobbying, started.

Sky-pilot and high-flying charismatic

The front-runner John Sentamu is the candidate with a flair for the charismatic gesture, and sound-bite quote. He was imprisoned by the Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin. He has espoused many high-profile causes. He has sky-dived for charity. He also writes for the Sun (proceeds to charity). He defies simple classification into traditionalist or moderniser, with a mix of the controversial and pragmatic positions (against gay marriage; non-judgmental on cohabiting royals).

The front runners

The Telegraph had a detailed list of runners:

Dr John Sentamu has been installed by bookies as their favourite in the wake of the Archbishop of Canterbury announcing that he will step down by the end of the year. He would be the first black leader of the Church of England and would inherit an Anglican communion badly split over how to deal with homosexuality and whether women can become bishops. Dr Williams himself conceded that his own attempt to prevent schism in the Church over the issues was likely to fail.

Dr Sentamu is 11-8 [i.e. odds on favourite]. The second favourite is currently Dr Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, but church observers believe he is highly unlikely to [succeed] as he does not ordain women into the clergy. Although he is a close friend of the Prince of Wales, and seen as a charismatic and urbane figure, his strong traditionalist stance on the issue is seen as a severe handicap.

Other senior clerics rated by bookies include: Christopher Cocksworth, the Bishop of Coventry, who is 7-2; Nick Baines, the Bishop of Bradford who is 8-1; Justin Welby, the Bishop of Durham, who is 9-1; and Graham Jones, the Bishop of Norwich, who is 10-1. [Sunday 18th March]

The Guardian’s betting guide

The Guardian also turned to the betting metaphor

The bookies’ favourite to succeed [Rowan Williams] is the Ugandan-born archbishop of York, John Sentamu, who said he had received the news of Williams’ resignation “with great sadness”.

The other name frequently mentioned is the bishop of London, Richard Chartres, who is opposed to the ordination of women but has become increasingly quiet. Both men are older than 61-year-old Williams.

Background struggles

A similar narrative can be found in more ecumenical publications:

Tory backbenchers are demanding a traditionalist figure to replace Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury, amid growing anger about gay marriage. John Sentamu, who won friends in the Tory party for his outright opposition to gay marriage, has emerged as the leading candidate for many conservatives. “I don’t want the Archbishop to say we can’t have gay marriage because it is not socially acceptable. I want him to say we can’t have it because it is wrong” Peter Bone said.

Nadine Dorries said: “I think we need someone who is prepared to stand up for Christian values that the vast majority of Christians identify with and Rowan Williams didn’t do that.”
Some church figures believe Dr Sentamu could be a problematic figure due to his heavy-handed tactics behind the scenes. Others still respect him for his opposition to Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe and his inquiry into the murder of Damilola Taylor.

Saintly familiar?

No prize for seeing the connection between these signs of election power-struggles with another battle for election and power going on in The United States. At least, the process of electing a successor for Dr Williams will be far less prolonged.

Back Jesus vote BNP?

April 7, 2009

The BNP poster claims that if alive today, Jesus would vote for them. The campaign has brought much publicity. But will it win voters, or trigger resistance from opposing activists?

The BBC reports the story :

In the UK most politicians are markedly reluctant to “do God”. But the British National Party has recruited Jesus Himself in its efforts to get an MEP elected to the European Parliament in June. [Their] election poster bears a passage from John’s gospel and a traditional image of Jesus. “What would Jesus do?” it asks, and then supplies the answer – “vote BNP”.

It’s an appeal to people worried by the growth of Islam, and to traditionalist evangelical Christians anxious about the secularism they feel is eroding their values in society. The party tries to strike a chord with them by claiming that “church leaders actively shun the word of God on issues like sodomy, abortion and social justice”. Christian groups have accused the BNP of using the word “Christian” as a synonym for “white”, and “Islamic” to mean “Asian”, but it’s a claim the party dismisses. The BNP has also been stung by strongly worded instructions to voters from Church leaders telling them not to vote for the party. The UK’s first black archbishop, John Sentamu, said in 2004 that voting for the BNP was “like spitting in the face of God”.

What is the BNP?

The BNP (British Nationalist Party) does not hold any parliamentary seats in Westminster, but has secured a handful of local government seats. Controversies over a more overtly racist past continue, although its current leadership denies this in public. What is clear in these murky political waters is that the BNP attracts voters in areas where racial tensions are high, and is regarded as a group with views that play to anxieties of the disaffected and underprivileged.

Jesus would have voted for us …

Christians from time to time discuss ‘what would Jesus do if he was alive to day …’ over various topics from gay rights, to shopping on Sundays, to women priests. No doubt there will be discussions (and further advice from church leaders) on this one.

It has long been said that the Church of England is the Tory (Conservative ) party at prayer. Recently it was argued in one influential Christian blog that the old saw has political mileage today. By espousing it more wholeheartedly evidence of

such a moral purpose would undoubtedly find resonance among the Muslim, Sikh and Hindu communities, the Conservative Party would find itself increasingly attracting the votes of ethnic minorities

Leadership questions

I’m not convinced. Suppose that you are involved in the leadership of a political party? What considerations should inform a decision to present your political message with a strong religious connection?

Clearly there is no simple and universal answer. Each leadership campaign calls for judgments drawing on various kinds of evidence. It is situated in the conditions of the time.
It may be backed up by techniques of market research, and short term considerations may be weighed-up against longer term consequences. Emotions may be triggered today which arouse recollections of other emotionally charged memories. I would think carefully whether a campaign might trigger off such past assocations. In that sense, history tends to take hostages to fortune.


Yesterday [May 24th 2009], Archbishops entered the fray with exhortations to their flocks to vote, but not for the BNP. The poster was again used as a hook for the story.

The British National Party has dismissed an appeal by senior Anglican church leaders for voters to boycott the party at next month’s elections.

The archbishops of Canterbury and York are urging people not to let anger over the MPs’ expenses scandal drive them to vote for the party.