What the Archbishop of Westminster really said…

The top news story on several UK sites on Christmas morning ran as follows: the Archbishop of Westminster, knowing that his midnight Christmas mass homily would be widely reported,  had used the opportunity given to him to attack the government’s plans to introduce same-sex marriage. Christian comment on (those bits that I see of) FB and Twitter was highly critical, suggesting that – even if he happened to be right about equal marriage, which most people who took the trouble to comment seemed to think he wasn’t – to make this the central message of Christmas was totally inappropriate.

All this was rather predictable; also rather predictable was the fact that the media reports were at least highly misleading, if not actually inaccurate, and that the Archbishop was not guilty of any of the things he was charged with by social media commentators.

The full text of Vincent Nichols’s homily is available here; his central point is that the fact of incarnation brings earth and heaven together, a fact which means the apparently-mundane activities of daily life are charged with eternal significance. He offered three examples: our daily work is a sharing in divine creativity; love expressed in human life is an expression of the love of God; and – combining these two points – the particular love expressed in marriage is a uniquely creative act, bringing into being a new human soul.

He went on to suggest that each of these points is capable of distortion by sin: work can become exploitative, and a ‘corrosive disrespect can fashion the culture of a business and put it in need of refashioning’; charity can be motivated by self-interest, not genuine love; and marriage can be distorted: the Archbishop said:

Sometimes sexual expression can be without the public bond of the faithfulness of marriage and its ordering to new life. Even governments mistakenly promote such patterns of sexual intimacy as objectively to be approved and even encouraged among the young.

(This was, to be clear, the complete content of his statement on marriage; there was nothing else.)

Now, it is fair to say that underlying this is an assumption that marriage is ordered to procreation, and so that same-sex relationships can never be ‘marriages’, but it is not news that a Roman Catholic prelate believes this, and it is left as an underlying assumption, not a point argued for or highlighted. The direct criticism here concerns sexual activity outside of marriage, and governments are criticised for approving of and promoting that.

If one wanted to link the Archbishop’s comments to a current news story, the criticism of corporate culture, particularly in the context of corporate tax avoidance and the LIBOR fixing scandal, would surely have been the obvious place to go; equal marriage just was not on his agenda.

So, whence the stories of attacks and quotes about the plans being ‘shambolic’? The Archbishop gave an interview to the BBC – presumably on Christmas Eve, although this was not made explicit in any of the reports. In the interview, he was asked about the government’s plans for same-sex marriage and responded; he said, as far as I can determine, nothing that has not been said repeatedly previously by Roman Catholic – and Anglican, and Evangelical, and Muslim – leaders; the press stories that appeared on Christmas Day conflated comments made in this interview with his homily to give the impression that the theme of the homily had been criticism of government plans concerning equal marriage.

The BBC story, here, leads with the interview comments, but the story focuses sufficiently on Christmas sermons to give the impression that this was the context for the comments. At one point there is a quotation in a headline ‘”Shambolic” Process’ which is immediately followed by the line, ‘Speaking in his sermon at Westminster Cathedral…’; the word ‘shambolic’ came in the interview, but this arrangement of words appears almost designed to confuse and conflate the two comments. The Guardian similarly located the interview comments within a story that discussed the content of Christmas sermons, and so invited, perhaps encouraged, readers to confuse the two.

Does this matter? Yes; it was clear from my FB/Twitter feeds that people I know to be intelligent and thoughtful were misled by such reporting, which surely makes it bad reporting. A festival sermon and a press interview are very different contexts, and to imply that something said in one was in fact said in another is to mislead readers badly.

It would be possible to imagine intent in all this: the press were trying to paint the Archbishop in the worst possible light; I am sure that this would be unfair, however. The most machiavellian reconstruction I could begin to believe would be the fact that the press conference, which presumably cost the BBC significantly to arrange and film, turned out to be a complete dud in news terms – if, really, the best story available was ‘Archbishop repeats series of points made several times before concerning equal marriage,’ the effort was wasted – by conflating the interview with his Christmas homily, there was at least something to report.

I suppose, though, that even this would be unreasonable, and that the real story here is the appalling religious illiteracy of our press, not excluding the religion correspondents of serious news outlets. This played out here, I hypothesise, in two ways: first, the radical difference between a Christmas homily and an interview was just not understood by correspondents, and so the story in their head was ‘we have a series of comments from the Archbishop…’ with no appreciation of the different contexts of various comments; second, in the minds of our press correspondents, same-sex marriage is about the only issue that religious people ever talk about (Anglicans are allowed to talk about female bishops – the theme of Rowan Williams’s Christmas sermon, if one believes the press…), and so the archbishop’s comments in must have been about that, despite the fact that they look like he is talking about something else.

This betrays a fundamental lack of grasp of reality: I won’t try to speak for the Roman Catholic Church, but in approaching twenty five years of weekly, often twice-weekly, attendance at a variety of evangelical churches, I have heard precisely one sermon on the issue of homosexuality (a sermon which took as its text ‘let him who is without sin cast the first stone,’ incidentally). The issue is divisive at national level for a couple of denominations – notably Anglicanism and the Church of Scotland – and important to a few campaigning individuals, but for everyone else, and for almost everyone at a local level, it is just not very high up the agenda. (Perhaps it should, be; I am describing the church scene as I see it, not defending it.)

The Archbishop’s expressed concern over business ethics seems to me both more newsworthy, and more representative of the sorts of things that actually get talked about in British churches; unfortunately, this theme does not fit the only story our press seem to know how to tell.

4 Comments

  1. Housman
    Dec 26, 2012

    “… but in approaching twenty five years of weekly, often twice-weekly, attendance at a variety of evangelical churches, I have heard precisely one sermon on the issue of homosexuality (a sermon which took as its text ‘let him who is without sin cast the first stone,’ incidentally). ”

    I know its not your point, but I find that incredibly sad. Growing up as gay and Christian, if I haven’t been met with hostility by various Christians, churches etc. along with secular people groups etc. (because I was also Christian), I met with complete silence.

    Its sad when you group up and those are the only options you have. Negativity or silence.

    • steve
      Dec 26, 2012

      Yes, I take that point – although I am only talking about sermons, which are a peculiarly blunt instrument; I know enough about some of the churches I was in to know that pastoral care and counsel was being offered to individuals routinely.

  2. Alastair
    Dec 27, 2012

    One of the most interesting things to me about all of this is the annoyance that the Church should raise a socially or politically controversial issue at Christmas of all times. Beneath the reaction in part lies a cultural notion of Christmas as a time when the Church must be culturally affirming, non-confrontational, and preach the sorts of messages that wouldn’t put anyone’s noses out of joint, the sorts of messages that maintain the ‘magic’ of Christmas, all about celebrating (temporarily) suspended disbelief, rather than calling for costly and committed belief.

  3. Symon Hill
    Dec 28, 2012

    Thanks very much for this, Steve. It’s really helpful and I’m annoyed with parts of the media for implying that comments made in an interview were made in a Christmas sermon, as well as for ignoring other aspects of Nichols’ sermon.

    Vincent Nichols is someone who I respect but with whom I strongly disagree about marriage and sexuality. He is more media-savvy than many church leaders. Therefore, I find it difficult to believe that he was not aware that comments he made in his interview were likely to be conflated with comments in his sermon when they were reported. I objected to his comments in themselves, not because of the context in which he made them.

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