Welby should learn from Gervais

I’m sure you’ll agree that archbishops like Justin Welby and comedians like Ricky Gervais should satisfy different job requirements.

New Archbishop of Canterbury?

Archbishops preach the sacred truth of God, while comedians hold nothing sacred, including God. An archbishop’s job is to lead people to Jesus Christ; a comedian’s job is to make them laugh.

Archbishops are supposed to believe in God; comedians (or humourists and satirists) aren’t, although they may do so in the after-hours. For archbishops, the church is their workplace; for comedians, it’s a legitimate target.

This was the case even when the church still wielded a considerable secular power. Yet it was viciously lampooned by satirists, such as Boccaccio (d. 1375), Rabelais (d. 1553) or Aretino (d. 1556). And even that venerable Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Jonathan Swift (d. 1745), didn’t spare the institution he served.

Their readers laughed and sometimes cried. For some of those lampoons concealed a serious message that was a cause for tears, not guffaws. Humour, unless it’s limited to pratfalls or one-line puns, can often act as a medium for moral messages, and these are often scary.

Getting back to Gervais, a reader of mine correctly identified him as an anti-theist – Ricky’s contempt for faith transcends common-or-garden atheism. So much more surprising it is then that his mockery of women with penises conveyed the kind of moral stand more befitting an archbishop.

With a few expertly delivered jokes Gervais skewered the whole trans mania by showing how utterly ludicrous and destructive it is. Gervais thus trespassed on the territory signposted for Archbishop Welby, doing the job His Grace should be doing.

However, His Grace is doing a very different job, that of kowtowing to the worst aspects of modernity – including the one Ricky Gervais sent up so mercilessly.

A woman, said the Archbishop of Canterbury, is “someone who is sexually a woman, who is born and identifies as a woman or who has transitioned”. There was no mention of women’s penises that so amused Gervais, but it was clear contextually that His Grace sees no problem there.

Where he does see a problem is in the moral equivalence (superiority?) that transsexuals are sometimes so regrettably denied. There is, he said, “a difference between how you identify a woman and how you ensure that trans people are valued and cared for in exactly the same way as every other human being. They’re not less, they have their particular challenges, every human being has their particular challenges.”

His Grace’s convoluted English makes it hard to grasp his meaning. But I suppose he means that transsexuals are in no way inferior to people who muddle through life with the organs normally associated with their sex.

This is a message one would expect from a Guardian columnist, a BBC commentator or indeed a comedian – not from a prelate in the established Church of a formerly Christian country.

Yet Welby disagrees with that description of Britain: “I don’t think we ever were a Christian country… In the 19th century, there was a very strong Christian morality, but there were 80,000 child prostitutes in London… It’s always been that tension between how we should behave and how we do because people are human.”

This is poor even by his standards. This Christian prelate doesn’t seem to know what a Christian country is. For the tension he thinks disqualified Britain from that distinction even in the past will only ever be eliminated in heaven.

Heavenly goodness is the ideal towards which a Christian country should strive, not something it can be realistically expected to achieve in this world. A Christian country is one that makes that effort, not one that invariably succeeds.

We are indeed human, the Archbishop is right about that. That means we are fallible sinners, but some of us, increasingly few, rely on God and his Church for the propitiation of our sins. A country where such people set the tone of public life is a country with “a very strong Christian morality”, which Britain used to be.

It no longer is, which isn’t surprising when its spiritual leader doesn’t know what makes a country Christian. His Grace seems to be more interested in transient politics than in transcendent truth.

According to Welby, “…every decision we make is a political decision”. And there I was, thinking every decision is moral, not political.

But His Grace persists in pronouncing on political matters, leaving moral judgement to the likes of Ricky Gervais. Alas, the Archbishop’s grasp of political matters is wholly informed by the small cadre of Guardian readers and writers.

Hence he approves wholeheartedly HMG’s attempt to spend its way out of economic trouble. Yet any literate economist knows that a drastic reduction in taxation and public spending is the only way out of the inflationary doldrums.

Our (Conservative!) Chancellor is doing exactly the opposite – he is spending like a beached sailor and taxing like a street mugger. The government hopes to mollify the suffering voters enough for them to let the Tories hang on to power a while longer.

The message is that there’s no point voting for any other party because the Tories can out-Labour Labour. Chancellor Sunak openly boasts that he is spending more than any Labour colleague ever would, which fiscal promiscuity is supposed to be a real feather in his cap, rather than a metaphorical bullet through his head.

One would think that, once His Grace has decided to barge into the kingdom of this world, he would be scathing of such a cynical, self-serving attempt at economic suicide. One would think wrong. He approves wholeheartedly: “I think the moves are really positive about the cost of living – very brave moves politically.”

Quite. And every decision in life is political and nothing but that, if I understand His Grace correctly.

I wonder if Ricky Gervais is contemplating a career change. He couldn’t possibly make a worse Archbishop of Canterbury. Or perhaps Chancellor of the Exchequer.

8 thoughts on “Welby should learn from Gervais”

  1. Christ himself seems to have been something of a comedian. Certainly more humorous than Moses or Mohammed. I suppose that has been Christianity’s greatest strength and greatest weakness – the faithful are left wondering “did he really mean that!?”

    1. But the best joke in the Bible comes from Genesis 29, of which Moses is traditionally considered the author. Jacob thinks he’s married his beloved Rachel but, “It came to pass that in the morning, behold, it was Leah!” (The Hebrew, with only five short words, preserves more of the timing of history’s first stand-up comedian: “And-it-was in-the-morning, and-behold: she Leah!” (The original audience might also have detected a naughty pun, because “Leah” means “weary”.)

        1. Yes, it seems to have been an Aramaic pun that surely made the disciples laugh at Simon’s expense. (It doesn’t really work in Greek or English.) Later they understood that, like all the best jokes, it had a useful meaning too.

          There’s nothing better in this world of suffering and death than laughter, and I hope nobody will accuse me of impiety if I suspect that the best jokes of all are the ones that the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost tell each other.

          Perhaps when we’re most helpless with laughter we’re closest to the life of the kingdom of heaven.

  2. I’d rather have an “out” atheist as Archbishop of Canterbury than a “closet” atheist, which is what Dr Welby seems to be.

    Just as Christians regard St John the Baptist as a forerunner of Christ, so Dr Welby seems to regard Christ as a forerunner of Karl Marx – and as nothing more than that. Is Dr Welby (and are other “Christian Socialists”) aware of the commandment “Thou shalt not steal”? If so, why aren’t they denouncing the government’s “windfall” banditry?

  3. Applying the Archbishop’s logic (a country is not Christian if it contains sinners) to individual people, then no person, living or dead – other than Jesus Christ Himself – is or was Christian. Has the man ever read his bible or any theological works? Scandalous! I think I read somewhere that causing scandal is a sin. Where would that have been? Ah, yes! It was in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “2284 – Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.” A strange position for an archbishop to take.

    Pope Pius X warned us that Modernism is the synthesis of all heresies. Perhaps the good Archbishop misread that as the synthesis of all theology? Anyway, what is the purpose of the Church if she is just to spout the zeitgeist? The job of all religious is to get sinners to Heaven. Does Archbishop Welby know that? Or believe in Heaven?

    1. The vast majority of theists are in fact closet atheists. If I believed in eternal life and love everlasting, I would run through the streets naked, shouting: “no one ever dies!!!”

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