Christopher Smith decides not to relocate to Canada
It has been mild but wet in London recently, and, in the words of the song, nothing falls like London rain. Who wouldn’t rather be somewhere less rheumatic, like Lisbon or Seville or Naples? Or maybe Canada or Los Angeles, but we’ll come to that in a minute. In the words of the old cliché, the grass is always greener on the other side, or perhaps there’s always glamour somewhere other than the place where we have to get on with the business of daily life.
We’ve had quite a start to the year in this country, of course. We are redefining our place in the world, and there has been much change in parliament. One of the most important chairs to have changed occupant is that of the Speaker of the House of Commons. The role goes back to the thirteenth century, and at least one saint has held the post, in the person of St Thomas More. Readers will not need me to tell them that its latest occupant is Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who is the MP for the Lancashire constituency of Chorley.
Nor will readers need me to remind them that his immediate predecessor was in a number of ways a controversial figure. A national newspaper recently made a Freedom of Information request about Mr Bercow’s expenses, and discovered that the tax-payer had forked out over a thousand pounds to take him by taxi to a university in Nottingham. He had gone there to speak about the nation’s current feeling of discontent with politics! He also hosted a series of farewell parties, including one for his ‘retiring’ chaplain (who’s moving on to a new job, in fact) which cost us £3,168. That must have been quite a party!
It all makes me begin to wonder whether a confusion is developing between public service and celebrity. Generally speaking, the salaries of our public servants are not huge. The Prime Minister is still not paid much more than £150,000, whereas a century ago he would have been on the equivalent of four times that amount. The Archbishop of Canterbury is on a stipend of a little over £80,000, which is more than three times that of your parish priest, but his mid-Victorian predecessors were earning what today would be seven-figure sums. But of course we are all aware that the ‘worth’ of a role bears little relation to its pay-day remuneration. We should try inverting the pay scale of teachers and footballers and see how attitudes to each job change! Even so, the likes of us know when we enter certain professions that they’re not going to make us rich.
But I do wonder whether some of our public servants think they ought to be compensated with a touch of celebrity. Perhaps that’s what we’re now seeing even in the Royal Family, as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex head off into the Canadian sunset, probably with some private-jetting back and forth to Hollywood factored in. Are our expectations partly to blame? Or have their expectations changed? Has there been a move away from an old-fashioned sense of duty (‘What do God and my country expect from me?’) to a new-fangled sense of entitlement (‘What am I prepared to do for my country, and what can I expect in return?’).
A key thing in the Sussex household’s hope for the future seems to have been to do with safeguarding their privacy, which did leave me wondering how they would cope with vicarage life. Anyone having a role with a public element knows that there are frustrations in that respect which are offset by people’s evident love and concern. If people simply didn’t care, they wouldn’t be interested. The Sussexes may find that the most frustrating thing for them in due course is that the public stop giving a damn about them!
Perhaps there is even something along these lines going on in the Vatican, and there is a well-reviewed film out called The Two Popes. I haven’t seen it, but then I almost never go to the pictures, but friends have. Apparently, soft and cuddly Francis is contrasted favourably with cold and cerebral Benedict. Francis chats away to the gardener about growing herbs in the Vatican gardens, whereas Benedict just thinks about doctrine all the time. It did make me wonder whether there was anyone else in the Vatican who might be capable of holding a conversation with members of the gardening staff, and whether perhaps knowing something about Christian doctrine and being able to articulate it might be a useful quality in a bishop, let alone a pope. Many people might think it’s all about image, but if a pope is for anything, surely he’s there as the principal guardian of the deposit of faith.
A colleague recently reminded me of a collection of essays by Dorothy L. Sayers published under the title Creed or Chaos? in 1947. Christianity is, she reminds us, ‘a religion for adult minds’. Of her play The Zeal of Thy House she said, ‘if my play was dramatic it was so, not in spite of the dogma but because of it—that, in short, the dogma was the drama… It is the dogma that is the drama—not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death—but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that a man might be glad to believe.’
Supposedly adult minds seem to empty at a sniff of celebrity. Perhaps it’s time to grow up.