Daily Mail tries to launch a 'holy war'

In a frankly inept example of a newspaper with a huge axe to grind engineering the story it then reports, the Daily Mail yesterday (9 June 2011) attempted to create a 'holy war' between the leaders of England's Anglican and Catholic communities over David Cameron's 'Big Society' - presumably with the aim of defending the latter.

In the aftermath of Dr Rowan Williams' thoughtfully critical article about government policy in the New Statesman magazine, the paper that makes its money by stoking the prejudices of 'Middle England' rather desperately tried to suggest that the RC's Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, was now at loggerheads with the C of E's Archbishop of Canterbury.

'Britain's Bishops at war: Head of Catholics leads furious backlash after Archbishop of Canterbury's attack on Coalition', screamed its headline modestly (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2001848/Archbishop-Canterbury-Ro...).

Pedants (as those concerned with some sort of factual accuracy in reporting might be deemed) could spot five immediate problems with this take on matters.

First, the men concerned are not bishops - unless they have both been unexpectedly demoted overnight. Second, Archbishop Nichols is not the 'head' of his Church, but the Metropolitan of the Province of Westminster and, as a matter of custom, President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales - which is slightly different. Third, there appears to be no "fury" and no "backlash". Fourth, Dr Williams had not "attacked" the Coalition per se (his article was much more mild than some reports suggested), he had subjected its policies and procedures to critical scrutiny from a moral viewpoint. And fifth, as Jonathan Wynne Jones points out in his Telegraph blog (http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/jonathanwynne-jones/100091743/why-the-...), "If you actually look at the comment from Archbishop Vincent Nichols relating to Rowan Williams’ article... it’s not particularly bellicose."

Nichols said: “I was struck by a poll at our conference on April 6 when those present were asked if the Big Society was a cover for cuts. The overwhelming majority said no.” He also praised Mr Cameron for putting marriage and family stability at the centre of policy-making (that bit the Mail got right).

Well, indeed. But then again, back on 16 April 2011, the Telegraph reported (accurately) that "Britain's most senior Catholic leader has warned David Cameron not to use the Big Society as 'a cloak for masking cuts'." He also worried that the PM's rhetoric in this area was "toothless" and said that the government could not simply "cut [public spending], wash its hands of expenditure and expect that the slack will be taken up by greater voluntary activity." (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14592)

In other words, Archbishop Nichols' own views, though no doubt evolving, appear to be more in-tune than out-of-tune with Dr Williams; and the two men enjoy a positive working relationship overall.

The real difference between them, however, is that Archbishop Nichols clearly has a nose for 'doing politics', whereas Dr Williams (despite his insightful opinions about politics) equally plainly does not. Dr Williams' advisers, though they have not always proved especially savvy in the past, were presumably aware that his New Statesman article would elicit a major response - though perhaps they were taken aback by the scale of it. They will also have calculated that, over the past few years, he has deliberately been told to court right-of-centre media more than the left-of-centre variety (partly to counter his own 'bearded lefty' image). But this attempt at longer range 'balance' counts for nothing in the media bear-pit when a firestorm breaks and everyone wants 'the story'. Journalistic memories are startlingly short, and their grasp on context and background slight.

Wynne Jones also suggests, rightly in my view, that Archbishop Nichols has a rather different approach to taking about the government, especially in terms of tone, because he sees the current administration as more 'faith friendly' than the previous one.

While both New Labour and the Con-Dems have been willing to see a major expansion of religious foundation schools (with few questions asked), the rate of expansion has certainly increased under the Coalition. And there are forces within this government who are far more sceptical towards the restraining impetus of equality legislation, and much more keen to dish out public services to faith organisations (again with few questions asked).

Therefore, while the Catholic hierarchy is indeed concerned about the impact on the poor of deep spending cuts and inchoate attempts to patch welfare in terms of voluntary effort, it is are even more concerned about entrenching the Church's own social-moral role and institutions within the constantly evolving political order. To keep some kind of Christendom settlement alive, in other words. The Church of England's leadership shares that agenda, but in less sharply defined terms.

This means that the 'mood music' coming out of the Province of Westminster will continue to vary in order to reflect a range of concerns and priorities. Such subtleties are unlikely to move people in the domain of the Mail, whose own narratives always take precedence over mere facts. But these differences of tone and content are a better guide to the genuine tensions that may emerge within, between and beyond the leaders of Britain's largest Christian churches in the coming months, than tabloid hysteria.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He also has 30 years experience working in the media, and 20 years experience working within the ecumenical movement locally, nationally and internationally.

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