Life in Bradford is very full on and there is little time at the moment for blogging. But, one of the things I did a couple of days ago was welcome several chaplains to the University of Bradford. I licensed two Anglican ones, but the short welcome ceremony, led by the Vice Chancellor, also included a Muslim and a Quaker. It was a good ‘do’ and it was preceded by a personal re-introduction to the university where I did my first degree.
During the brief ceremony, the Vice Chancellor and I were asked to speak. I spoke about the university as a place for intellectual inquiry, rigorous exploration of the world views of others and the sort of ‘sorting out’ of the commitments deriving from our world views that a university provides the space to encourage. I also had a go at the myth of neutrality – that there is a level of opinion or discourse which is assumed to be neutral and, therefore, suitable for dominating the public discourse – and questioned the thinking behind this. My point was that chaplaincy is not simply about being available to accompany people through their spiritual (or other) crises or experiences, but is also about contributing (encouraging) the sort of intellectual discussion that compels people to look at the world through their own ‘world view lens behind the eyes’ and subject their own faith to scrutiny. Faith that doesn’t ‘work’ in the real world is not a faith worth having.
Contrast this, then, with the pile of nonsense written by very highly paid commentators following Rowan Williams’s guest editorial of the New Statesman. I am behind the game now, but the matter (not just the content of what he said) still raises questions worth articulating.
Several commentators tell the Archbishop that he has no right to comment on this (or, presumably, anything else. In the Sunday Times Minette Marin tells him to ‘go’. She would, wouldn’t she. But her thinking (if that is what it it; it seems to arise from a rather uncritical lack of thinking) appears rooted in the assumption that the Archbishop’s views are delegitimised by virtue of his office or role. What on earth does she think an archbishop’s role is? And does she seriously believe that his views should be dismissed – not on the basis of what they are and whether or not they hold water – simply because he shouldn’t have any?
Marin often assumes that she occupies neutral space along with others whom she assumes share her neutral views of the world. This isn’t only arrogant, it is nonsense. Is her assumed view to be privileged above that of someone who knows at first hand what he is talking about? Are Christian leaders living in a fantasy land of remote abstraction, confused by the luxury of their guarded palaces and enormous salaries? When commentators like this get upset by someone like Rowan arguing for a set of questions to get raised, I think he’s probably hit the mark. People like the idea of prophets, but hate the reality.
It is unbelievable that this degree of uncritically assumed ignorance should be rewarded with a huge salary – something the Archbishop is criticised for by Carol Malone of the News of the World – an organ famed for its serious analysis of current political, social and economic thinking. (For those unsure, that last statement is ironic.) Victoria Coren has demolished Malone’s case and doesn’t need further help from people like me. However, I will admit to having a prejudice here. When I was ‘stung’ on Christmas carols being ‘nonsense’ a couple of years ago, I did the Alan Titchmarsh Show on ITV. Malone and Ken Livingstone were on the set with me for this item. Ken Livingstone was fine. Carol Malone went for me big time – which was fine and was her job. I asked her if she had seen the book, let alone read it, or if her entire case was based on a Sunday Telegraph headline. Suffice to say, she hadn’t seen the book and hadn’t read a sentence from it.
I have no idea how huge the salaries of these commentators is. But, if I was their editor, I think I might be asking for a refund. Argue with what the Archbishop says, by all means – that’s important. Understand the status and context of his observations (guest editorial in a magazine in which other invited writers don’t necessarily agree with him). Explore where his views have come from and why they might be fundamentally wrong. But, please don’t assume that he has no right to say anything anywhere other than the privatised sphere of the religiously backward or that a case can be dismissed simply because he has made it.
The privatisation of religion is a nonsense stated by people who assume their own ‘neutrality’ to be self-evidently true (hardly a rational position). Neutrality is a myth and a distraction that offers an excuse for not addressing the arguments.