Mark B thinks I am too generous to Polly Toynbee whom he writes off as ‘just another rich secular leftist (in a rather crowded field) – like Marghanita Laski but without her brains – who loves the sound of her own voice and blows hot and blows cold, oblivious of her own inconsistency: Polly puts the kettle on for her beloved Tony Blair, then takes it off again, delares her love for Gordo, then it’s off again, on again – la donna e mobile!’ He then delights in her ‘hypocrisy’ being skewered on the telly. Well, thanks, Mark. The trouble is that I can’t see either you or me escaping from some charge of hypocrisy or blindness to our own inconsistencies.
I agree that Polly Tonybee is exasperating when she gets onto religion, but her writing on Labour’s ‘New Deal’ and the ways in which some policies follow the laws of unintended consequences has been both compassionate and passionate as well as provocative. The problem is, however, that she seems to do this from an analytical distance. And she is not alone in working in a profession that happily skewers people ontheir hypocrisies whilst maintaining immune from the same sort of consistency. When was the last time a newspaper editor (responsible for the public humiliation of other people) resigned in shame over their own hypocrisy? And yet they adopt the role of a sort of new priesthood: moderating public morality and claiming a sort of righteous neutrality for themselves. It stinks. But they only get away with it becasue the reading public keeps allowing them to do so.
It could be argued that the media, constantly looking for novelty in order to keep the audience awake, foster precisely what the Archbishop of Canterbury was exposing and embarrassing in his Christmas Day sermon. He set about debunking the fantasy that there is some ‘saviour’ or system out there that will sort out the world’s problems and make everything alright. I began my working life in a divided Europe working for the British Government as a Russian linguist, paying very close attention to the Soviet Empire that proposed just such a totalitarian system. And history repeatedly demonstrates that such hopes are indeed fantasies: the ‘golden age’ cannot be reclaimed because it never existed in the first place. Augustus, Hitler, Stalin and many others have offered total solutions. We are now asking our politicians to come up with the panacaea for the global economy. Barack Obama comes into office in three weeks’ time with a weight of unsustainable expectation on his shoulders.
We should grow up and realise that we create our history now as we make decisions in the small things of life for which we are responsible. Growing up means losing our fantasies, not fostering them and then humiliating the people who don’t fulfil them on our behalf.
Rowan spoke of ‘signs of salvation; not a magical restoration of the golden age, but the stubborn insistence that there is another order, another reality, at work in the midst of moral and political chaos’ – that is, the God who took flesh and transformed the world’s possibilities from unimaginably small beginnings by asking people to try it his way.
This thinking needs to be applied also to the Christian world itself where there is a constant yearning for the ‘thing’ that will sort everything out and solve all our problems. Billy Graham was followed by John Wimber who was followed by the Torronto Blessing which was followed by Willow Creek and now we have a proliferation of panacaeas for evangelism, revival, etc. In the Church of England there are those who suggest that if only everyone could buy into New Wine, Spring Harvest, Reform, Anglican Mainstream, etc. (choose which one most closely aligns with your own prejudices or confirms your own convictions), the Church would grow and revival would come. It is fantasy.
It seems to me that history teaches us (and, funnily enough, so does the Bible) that we need to develop a ‘godly’ perspective on time, responsibility and accountability – recognising the relativity of much of what we do. In my old church in Rothley I used to baptise in a Norman font (1000+ years old), drink wine from an Elizabethan chalice (400+ years old) and look at a plaque bearing the names of every vicar of Rothley from the eleventh century – to say nothing of the Saxon cross in the churchyard. God’s witness continues down the ages by people being faithful to their bit of the story and living real lives in a real world of injustice and joy and handing on the task to successive generations. This perspective produces inevitably a bit of humility when we consider our successes and achievements.
In my book ‘Finding Faith’ I praise John Lennon for being a hypocrite of enormous proportions. He never let his hypocrisy stop him saying what he thought was true. Mark might be right about Polly Toynbee, but I recognise my own limitations and inconsistencies and – whilst wishing she’d grow up a bit in some areas – still want to affirm her right to say what she does. But I would also hope that she might consider the possibility that her irrational anti-religious prejudices might need to be rationally re-visited.
So, I won’t sneer at her. I will jeer at her nonsenses and anyone who castigates the hypocrisy of others while ignoring their own. And I’ll cheer the Archbishop of Canterbury and those who, despite being sneered at by people like Polly Toynbee, still manage to articulate the real questions and expose the superficiality of our collective thinking.