Of the Monarch, her Bishops, and the press

Posted on December 26, 2011

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The Christmas tradition of the Monarch making a direct address to the nation is not one I object to, but nor, I confess, is it one I generally notice. All that I know of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II leads me to suppose that she is a person of wisdom, true Christian faith, and an unwavering commitment to the public duty that was thrust on her by accident of birth; none of that means that in an otherwise busy season I find sufficient reason to pause to take notice when she offers a brief narrative of her own understanding of the state of the nation.

My Facebook and Twitter feeds this year, however, were full of Christian admiration for her speech, often coupled with unflattering comparisons to the sermons preached by the bishops who serve under her in one of the established churches in her realm. The admiration was not misplaced: she closed her speech with some direct and unashamed references to Christ’s saving and revealing work, asserting that God sent His Son to be a Saviour, and that the love of God is ‘known in Jesus Christ our Lord’.

The comparisons, however, seemed less fair. Even an MP, John Glen, tweeted to the effect that, whilst the Queen’s broadcast was excellent, it was a shame that the Bishops focused more on bankers than Christ. I confess that I do not usually spend any more of my Christmas attending to the words of those elevated to episcopal office by Her Majesty than I give to her own words; I was sufficiently intrigued by a bit of a barrage of comments like this this, however, that whilst the rest of the family indulged an incomprehensible (to me) addiction to Strictly Come Dancing, I sought out the texts of various episcopal sermons.

The Archbishop of Canterbury took the opening verses of John as his text; he explored more deeply, but no less faithfully, than the Queen the wonder of what God does in Jesus: ‘His life is what God says and what God does; it is the life in which things hold together … Jesus is the place where all reality is focused, brought to a point.’ He stressed the need for a response to what God has done in Jesus: ‘Before we have even got to Christmas in the words of the gospel we are taken to Good Friday, and to the painful truth that the coming of Jesus splits the world into those who respond and those who don’t.’ His focus was perhaps more on sanctification than justification – but that is no less properly a part of the Christian message, and perhaps an appropriate theme when addressing those who are, by choice, in a cathedral congregation on Christmas day, and so may be presumed to have some measure of Christian commitment.

The Archbishop of York, preaching on Lk 2 and Is. 9:6, made not dissimilar points: describing the coming of Christ as a ‘still-open opportunity’ ‘The only way of coming to King Jesus,’ he declared,  ‘is on our knees, stripped naked of all our religious trappings, empty-handed and begging for mercy.’ He went on to quote a verse of Toplady’s ‘Rock of Ages’. Then, like Rowan Williams, he turned to the transformation of life that will come from following Jesus.

I could continue around the episcopate, at least those texts that have already been made available online; the point would get tedious however. The criticisms that the Bishops were less adequately Christian than the Queen in their Christmas addresses simply do not stand up. Which led me to wonder, whence the criticism? Why did people – faithful, intelligent people in many cases – pass such harsh judgements in public on their fellow Christians?

It would be possible to be judgemental in return: there is a temptation for a certain style of conservative Christianity to stress justification at the expense of sanctification because it pulls the sting of the gospel. It is easier to speak – and certainly to hear – of the forgiveness of God, full and free, without calling for true repentance, for a change of heart and life that involves painful and costly changes of behaviour. But the gospel for bankers and other financiers involves a call to visible repentance of professional wrongdoing – ask Zacchaeus… (and the gospel for preachers and theology lecturers involves just as much, or perhaps even more (Ja. 3:1) a call to visible and ongoing repentance of professional wrongdoing…) There are many, no doubt, who would rather hear about God’s forgiveness than their own greed, or lust, or anger, or whatever, but that is not a reason to surrender to their prejudices.

I suspect, however, that the true answer is less harsh than this. The BBC online report of Rowan Williams’s sermon makes it sound as if it was all about bankers, and barely mentioned Jesus; John Sentamu’s sermon has not yet been reported, as far as I can determine, but the list of stories brought up by a search of the BBC news website is revealing: in November, he apparently called for a rise in council tax, condemned executive pay, and talked about NHS funding; in October, he condemned the NHS market system, called for help for BAE, a manufacturing firm in his diocese, and, incidentally, consecrated two new bishops. Is this a fair representation of his public statements over the past three months? I suspect we know the answer…

The BBC report of the Queen’s speech also failed completely to mention the explicitly Christian content, describing (not unfairly) the central theme of the speech as the importance of family. Her Majesty’s speech, however, was broadcast live to the nation and heard by millions, most of whom could have only accessed the sermons of either Archbishop by the sort of web-trawling I did. It was received directly; the sermons were refracted through the prism of the press’s concerns and interests; the comparison of the two was therefore inevitably badly skewed.

I have had cause before on this blog to suggest that media reporting of the public pronouncements of religious leaders can be profoundly misleading; here it is even fairly difficult to find fault with the reporters: they, properly, focused on the bits of the message that were genuinely newsworthy (‘Archbishop uses Christmas sermon to say birth of Jesus was important’ – it’s not an arresting headline, is it?). Further, even on his official website, the explicitly Christian themes of Rowan Williams’s sermon were downplayed: the link to the sermon takes you here, to a press release describing the social commentary that formed a part of the message; if you scroll down far enough, you get the full text of the sermon, and realise, if you happen still to be reading, that much was missing from the press release. Sack the press officer? Perhaps, but s/he is charged with attracting the notice of the media; highlighting the parts of the message that will be interesting to the press is hardly wrong from that perspective…

Should we criticise the press for having the wrong interests? The repeated defence of the tabloid editors before Leveson is unfortunately at least somewhat convincing: if we consume the media, buying it or (online) clicking through to it, then we are implicitly supporting its evaluations of what is of interest to us. We cannot pretend to be horrified at salacious gossip if we choose to buy the paper pedaling it; no more can we pretend to be unconvinced by evaluations of what is newsworthy.

Of course, there is a ‘least worst’ defence here, applicable to religious and scientific reporting at least (probably also to some other areas; I am not competent to judge): it is a truism that no media outlet in Britain is at present remotely competent in covering either of these areas, but one needs to engage somehow, and so we put up with the least bad. Equally, we cannot ignore the composite nature of newspaper publishing: all I know of former News of the World readers – which is admittedly not that much – suggests that most bought it for the sports reporting, not the showbiz gossip; over many years we have bought the Guardian, not because we have always liked the editorial line, still less some of the columnists, but because the news reporting has generally been as sound as anywhere, and has come with the benefits of Garry Trudeau’s cartoons and Araucaria’s crosswords…)

Should, finally, we criticise those who criticised? In the academy, we talk about the importance of primary sources; given that we all know of the unreliability of the press in the area of religious coverage, it does not seem to me unreasonable to ask Christians making public criticism of their brothers and sisters to have at least read the original text, and not just the press reports, before so doing.

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