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Object Lessons

While watching Bremner, Bird and Fortune on Channel 4, I suddenly realised what it was like to have them shoot at me; or at least shoot at something I care about.

I love the show, if for no other reason than it gives some of our MPs an object lesson in being an effective Opposition. Last week it turned to the subject of God speaking: Mr Blair finds it hard to hear what God says, so he asks Mr Bush who does hear God clearly. So we learn from Mr Bush that God says they should bomb Iraq, and Bremner wishes God would learn from the Archbishop of Canterbury whose practice, apparently, is to say nothing.

I was on board until we got to the Archbishop.

It took me back to a Daily Mail article I was shown a year ago asking what the point was of an Archbishop who did not feel the need to speak on every subject in the public eye. Of course Dr Williams has and does speak on key issues in public life, it is just that he does not do so to order.

It’s a strange feature of our national life that while so few of us attend Church of England services, and yet we expect its most senior figure to come out with a defining word from God to solve a particularly thorny public debate.

It happens personally as well. I was called to visit some old friends last autumn. They had lived perfectly contented lives without any need for dialogue with the Christian faith. They were now in crisis as the husband was dying a nasty and lingering death. They were clearly disappointed that I didn’t come out with a tidy phrase which would have been a ready source of supernatural comfort in their distress.

I know colleagues who do have a stock of tidy phrases for these occasions, but I have never believed you have to take people back to a world of Santa or the Tooth Fairy to be able to talk about God. Losing a lifetime’s love to death is too serious for that. I didn’t do a quick and easy sound bite, because you can’t give a shallow, ready response to profound pain. (Neither can you leave them empty-handed.)

Newspapers are in business to boost their circulations, so that they can charge more for their advertising space. Demanding a comment from a prelate, then and there, is newsworthy. Whether the comment is worth hearing, or whether it is absurd, it makes no difference to the journalist as it will still sell papers. Tomorrow it will be someone and something else, which will be required to be just as instant.

To be expected to respond to complex national issues with deadline-driven instant insight is unreasonable. Just as no course in faith, which will do a dying man or his wife the slightest bit of good, can be delivered in one visit over afternoon tea. But both are possible, all they need is time, consideration, prayer, and silence.

Above all they each need an understanding that any insight about anything, national or personal, is about being committed to a journey of discovery, in which things about ourselves are revealed, some of which will be assuring, some of which will not. Journeys are not all of a fixed length, and the outcome is not always foreseen. Whatever else they are, they are not usually responsive to instant demands for pithy comment.

I’m sorry Mr Bremner, an Archbishop who doesn’t always speak on demand is not a national liability. If anything, he is an object lesson to our representatives of how to manage grave and weighty issues. He does speak, however. As I write this, he is addressing a gathering in East London on the subject of who is raising our children. Whether I will agree with him or not, he will be worth hearing because what he says will be the fruits of a considered and prayerful journey, in a way that a lot of what is passing through Parliament is not.

Silence to a demand is not to say nothing, it may be that the question is the wrong one, or that silence may be an invitation to take a longer and more prayerful look.

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Robert Leggat

Would that a few more within the C of E hierarchy emulate the Archbishop of Canterbury on this one!