Welby: England has ill-treated the Scots for 800 years
So, the Archbishop of Canterbury flies out to Iceland and does what archbishops do: he delivers a sermon in a cathedral. His subject? "God is a God of justice". Marvellous stuff.
He called on churches to "cry out and claim and struggle" for justice, in order to bring "testimony and witness to words and prayers". He explained that "justice faints and hope fades" when the church "looks in on itself". And he called for a renewal of prayer so that the Anglican and Lutheran churches might be "caught up" with the "God of justice" who calls people into action.
"In Iceland there is the pain of the crash which took place five years ago," he empathised. "In every Diocese in England churches take part in food banks, in a society which has no need for such imbalances of wealth. On the richest continent on earth we cannot devise an economic system that provides for the poor and yet forces the wealthy and the powerful to share equally the burdens of debt, and the heritage of materialism gone mad."
"Any serious view of the nature of human beings," he said, "tells us that without the action of God their can be no true justice, and that the Church is there to be the widow, to cry out and claim and struggle. That must involve action, which may be slight or grand."
It was all going so well, until:
And it is such a powerful movement that we’re even working with the Scots about it. And there is a miracle. It takes a lot to make the Scots willing to work with the English. Understandably, we’ve spent about 800 years ill treating them.The "powerful movement" to which he refers was his call for the re-establishment of credit unions to take on the 5000% usury of Wonga. He explains:
I made what seemed to me the fairly obvious comment that I considered this to be usury and usury had been a sin since Moses. Well, it was a quiet day in the press. And they had nothing important to report, so we found that they reported it rather large scale. It was a casual comment. I wish I could say that I had a grand strategy, but I didn’t. It was an accident. But it was an accident in which God was involved. Because it has created such momentum that there is a great new movement to change the way we do community finance.Well, it must be another quiet day in the press: 800 years of England's ill treatment of the poor Scots is now being reported on a "rather large scale", and it is not yet clear that God is involved.
When you're good at soundbites, you need to use them wisely and sparingly. It was manifestly a lighthearted joke - another "casual comment" - but it is already circling the globe, and Alex Salmond has added it to his referendum armoury. Sadly there was no helpful contextual history - a passing mention, for example, of the fact that the Scots tended to forge alliances with the French and conspired to invade England once or twice would have been helpful.
But everything that surrounds the assertion of England's ill-treatment of the Scots - the theology of reconciliation that preceded it and the anthropology of cooperation that defined it - will now be subsumed to the feverish tabloid headlines of the English Archbishop who is stoking the cause of Scottish independence. The Daily Mail is already on the case. Others will follow.
Justin Welby's predecessor Rowan (Lord) Williams learned the hard way, with his assertion that, in the context of increasing ethnic plurality and religious equality, sharia law in Britain is "unavoidable". It was a reasoned theological point reflecting a political reality. But the naivety was astonishing. He seemed to treat Radio 4 as if it were an Oxford theological college, assuming his audience to be made up of academic theologians with the ability to dissect and analyse words with his theo-political precision. But ++Justin is not so naive: he is, as The Spectator noted, "a very political archbishop": he knows and understands fully that every word he utters will be seized upon by certain sections of the media for an undesigned emphasis and turned to some unintended meaning.
The Church of England has always struggled with the tension between affirmation of the gospel and assimilation to the prevailing culture; between transformation and inculturation. Establishment commits the Church to full involvement in civil society and to making a contribution to the public discussion of issues that have moral or spiritual implications. If Rowan Williams showed us anything, it is that these cannot easily be reduced to soundbites, neat headlines or trite blogposts: profound matters demand profound contemplation and an articulation which does them justice. More often than not, Lord Williams of Oystermouth was purposely woefully misunderstood and misreported by a ferociously judgmental and increasingly hostile anti-Anglican press.
His Grace prophesied that his successor would fare no better: it is the zeitgeist.
The assertion of England's 800-year-long ill treatment of the Scots cannot be put down to "an accident": unlike the Wonga episode, these words form part of a prayerfully considered and thoughtfully crafted sermon; not a spontaneous bit of levity in a magazine interview. But is it not a shame that bishops and archbishops may no longer use humour in their sermons?
There is an unbridgeable gulf between the God who laughs (Ps 2:4) and the one in whom there is no humour. Protests over cartoons satirising Mohammad combined with images of Muslims criticising frivolous aspects of Western culture often leave the distinct impression Islam and comedy are incompatible. The most concerning thing for Britain is that those Muslims who dare to express humour or satrise aspects of their religion are derided by those who hold to the Ayatollah Khomeini school of Islam. He once said: "An Islamic regime must be serious in every field. There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humour in Islam. There is no fun in Islam."
God forbid that the Church of England should ever become so drearily stuffy, priggish or straitlaced. So, go on cracking your jokes with a twinkle in your eye, Archbishop Justin, for they bring your sermons of salvation and messages of social justice to the whole nation.
Yes, God is involved.