Sides of the same coin?
George Austin on differing perspectives
News pictures of the demolition of Wembley Stadium brought back memories of Cup Finals long past. Thanks to a family friend, Joe Shaw, who played for Arsenal in the 1920s and then went into management with the club, my father was at the first Final in – was it? – 1921, and then apart from the war years every year until just before he died. By the time Joe retired, Dad was a member of the board of Bury FC and got his own tickets. From 1946 onwards I joined him for about 20 years, missing only the greatest – the Stanley Matthews Final in 1953 – when I was doing my own Finals.
We usually went for the weekend, travelling with friends and doing a bit of sightseeing – on the first occasion visiting Notting Hill Gate, Kensington, Earls Court, Westminster, Tower Hill, Aldgate et al. In fact we did the whole tour on the Circle Line, never getting off. But it was deemed to be a great educational adventure for a lad up from the sticks, and I knew my father and his friends well enough to be aware that I must be effusive in my thanks for such a wonderful tour.
Our friends’ tickets were in various parts of the ground, and what was always apparent was that every year they saw a totally different match from ours, simply by viewing it from a different angle. Rather like watching footage of the Iraqi War, I think. Flicking between channels – BBC News 24, ITN digital, Sky News, CNN, Fox and the rest – it was never quite a different war, but certainly the emphasis changed in each.
Points of view
The BBC seemed to leap at every chance to attack not the Iraqis, but the British and American governments, to undermine the reasons given in the first place for the war, to over-emphasize the difficulties and mistakes that are bound to happen in any war. Now don’t misunderstand me. I do want to see reports that make me uneasy, to hear views which may conflict with my own. That is why I prefer The Times to the Guardian or Daily Telegraph – because it assumes I can hear both sides of an argument and have enough intelligence to come my own conclusion.
In the end I usually opted to watch ITN digital or Sky News, ITN because it felt more balanced and dispassionate than the BBC, and Sky because it seemed to have reporters in more out-of-the way places. And yet I wonder. Was I really seeing the BBC report from another part of the arena and judging accordingly? Was I still prejudiced by the morass I once inhabited when I served on the assemblies of the British and World Councils of Churches, where morality seemed to be based only on whether or not it was acceptable to a far-Left (and often deeply distasteful) perspective?
It is of course not only in news reports that we can watch the game from another part of Wembley Stadium. For instance, when I read the ND review of Frank Williams’ autobiography, Vicar to Dad’s Army, it seemed not to be the book I had read and reviewed for The Stage newspaper. It complained he had ‘little to say about the Church he clearly loves’, and that it ‘fails in conveying just what Christianity means to him’, being rather a ‘list of churches he has attended’. Yet I read it as a moving testimony to the manner in which the three great loves of his life – his work (in his case the theatre), his faith and his many friendships – have intertwined and fed each other, as they should in all of us. I was obviously sitting at the opposite end of the pitch.
The truth is really that none of us can come to any judgement dispassionately and without the baggage we have collected on the way. I felt this strongly during a sermon recently. We are in the middle of an interregnum and sensibly the PCC has decided to use their own retired clergy about once a month and to get the wider experience of having visiting priests for the rest of the time.
I once preached at a wedding in Blackburn Cathedral and afterwards in the vestry the organist sought me out to thank me. ‘We like having visiting preachers,’ he said kindly. ‘It does make us appreciate our cathedral clergy so much more.’ Well, I have to say that if our visiting preachers are anything to go by, there is little to worry about today in the standard of Anglican sermons.
On one Sunday after Easter, we had one of the best resurrection sermons I have ever heard, well constructed, thoughtful and thought-provoking, as well as being totally orthodox in the presentation of the truth of the Easter story. But one particular point made me think hard. The preacher was commenting on variations in the New Testament accounts and drew attention to Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 15 of how the risen Christ first appeared to Peter, then to the Twelve, and so on, with no mention of the appearance to Mary Magdalene in the Garden or to any of the other women.
He went on to suggest that this was because of the position of women in those days (and Paul’s supposed attitude to them), and that as a result women had been airbrushed out of the resurrection story. Was he right? Had the story been altered by a first-century attitude to women? Or maybe Paul’s hearers only knew Peter and not Mary? Or had a modern assumption been placed on the interpretation of a New Testament account?
Again it is easy, with our awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust, to suggest that St John is anti-Semitic in his disparaging references to ‘the Jews’ in the story of Good Friday, and to forget that he was using shorthand for ‘the Jewish religious authorities’, rather as we sometimes criticize ‘the Church’ when we really mean the Anglican establishment and not the faithful folk in the pews.
In a similar manner, feminists are eager to reject the suggestion that Mary Magdalene was the woman who was ‘a sinner’ – a harlot – forgetting in the process the working out of the Gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation in her closeness to Jesus and the other disciples. Seeing the story only from their perspective in a corner of the arena, they manage to destroy the reality of Jesus’ message.
Of course we need to be aware of where we are now. But we cannot sensibly ignore the impressions and understandings of those who saw the same match from another culture
George Austin is a writer and broadcaster