Voices from the Voiceless

Once upon a time, not all that long ago, bishops did not speak. Or if they did, what they said was without form and void. Occasionally a bishop would utter controversially, only to be warned by the all powerful Westminster spin-doctors that he had not been granted the ultimate prize of palace, unlimited expenses and a chauffeur in order to express his own opinions, and that if he sinned again he might well be transported to the far reaches of the land – or even to Sodor and Man.

But then there arose a new king over Egypt who knew not Joseph. He came from a far-off land, his countenance hidden beneath a luxuriant growth. Even his language was strange and, in very truth, there are still those who cannot always tell if he is speaking in English or in Welsh. Almost at once, God’s Own Spin-Doctor disappeared mysteriously from Church House – some said transported to a druidic Valhalla.

And the ecclesiastical world began to change, mainly for the better. Whereas it had been quite an event when an Archbishop of Canterbury said anything much at all, soon it was no longer only the Chief Rabbi and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster who were listened to as major religious leaders. And once again too, an Archbishop’s statements began to gain the enthusiastic support of those whom The Times calls the ‘spiritual leaders’ of the nation.

Moreover, when Archbishop Williams spoke of the ‘portfolio culture’ in which ‘personal integrity is being sacrificed to short-term goals’ and where ‘the short-term job and the short-term relationship go together’, he was speaking as one firmly rooted in religious rather than political or social principles, going on at once to relate this to personal spirituality, to the ‘inner chamber where things have time to echo’.

The Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks added that ‘we need to assemble every resource of wisdom we have. And that will require something deeper than the short attention span and sound-bite culture we have at the moment.’

Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, remarked that there is a day-to-day approach but often little thought about tomorrow, whereas ‘what we do today had a recurring long-term consequence for the day after. It is for this reason that all Abrahamic faiths inseparably connect the “here” with the “hereafter”. That connection has become weaker in our more-than-secular times.’

There was more to come, with the eventual production by the House of Bishops of a letter to the Prime Minister quite remarkable in its harmony. It is hard to recall any occasion, at least during the last three Primacies, when the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have been able to issue a unanimous statement on behalf of the House of Bishops, all 120 of them – diocesan, suffragan and assistant.

It was strong and uncompromising, firmly rooted in Christian principle and emphasizing the widespread unease and revulsion at the inhumane treatment meted out to Iraqi prisoners, on much the same lines highlighted in this column two months ago.

But then there was a curious diversion where the Archbishops referred to the influence of the Christian Right in the United States in allegedly over-influencing the policy towards Israel – described in the letter as ‘an uncritical and one-sided approach to the future of the Holy Land’. Although that is an equally important issue in the progress towards peace in the Middle East, it was perhaps a pity that it was not dealt with in a separate approach to the Prime Minister.

And it did seem something of a throw-back to an earlier age. Christians are surely right to criticize any one-sided approach to such matters, and too often religious comments have seemed to be pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. But no Christian can claim the moral high ground if Israeli brutality and oppression directed towards Palestinians is (rightly) condemned, while Palestinian terrorist bombs blowing up buses and killing innocent men, women and children are quietly ignored.

That was in fact not quite what the Archbishops’ letter did, but one had to read the small print to realize it. And remembering the past, I did wonder if it was because someone in the Board for Social Responsibility had insisted that the bee in his/her favourite bonnet be included. But the BSR is no more, having ridden proudly into the (red) sunset. Or perhaps not entirely. For behold, as The Times revealed, it was pressure from none other than Bishop John Gladwin that brought about its inclusion. And what was Gladwin in a previous incarnation? Secretary of the BSR.

But there was a more practical reason against including this diversion. In my early days on the Thought for the Day panel, producers would sometimes pull me up if I veered off on to another tack, away from the main point I was trying to make. They were right because quite simply it vastly reduced the impact of that main point. Two strong Letters, separated by time, would have brought home to 10 Downing Street two valid and ethically important issues but would have done so ten times as strongly.

There was even more to come from the Archbishop who apparently wants the Church to ‘bring environmentalism into every aspect of its work’ – discouraging cremation because it generates greenhouse gases, driving electric cars (he is chauffeured in a semi-electric Honda), using bio-degradable coffins so that bodies rot quickly and don’t contaminate the soil, and letting churchyards become wildlife reserves – something the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Living Churchyard Project has been supporting for many years.

But had he spoken too often, when to all this was added his support for a new bible translation, which he hoped would spread ‘with epidemic enthusiasm’. ‘St Paul urges more copulation for couples in sexed-up Bible’ screamed The Times headline. Well, sort of, I suppose. Paul’s condemnation of certain homosexual acts are dealt with quite simply by leaving them out: ‘My advice’, says this more politically-correct Paul, ‘is for everyone to have a regular partner.’ So that’s all right.

But now it turns out that Williams’ endorsement had been given while he was still in Wales and that it was published before he had seen the full text, so it wasn’t Rowan’s Lambeth ‘bridge-too-far’ after all.

The translation incidentally has interesting innovations. Baptism becomes ‘dipping’, heaven ‘the world beyond time and space’, and – no surprise this – the Son of Man ‘the Complete Person’. Modern nicknames are given to biblical characters so that Peter becomes ‘Rocky’, Mary Madgalene ‘Maggie’, Aaron ‘Ron’ and, the most innovative, Barabbas ‘Barrie’.

Could this mean that Bishop Barrie Rogerson, formerly of Bristol, should really have signed himself ‘+Barabbas Bristol’?

George Austin is a writer, journalist and broadcaster, and former Archdeacon of York