Were the media right to berate Justin Welby’s speech to the TUC?

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Grace Dalton offers some thoughts on Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s recent speech to TUC, and how it was received in the media.

It’s not often that the Archbishop of Canterbury garners attention across the news media. But he made headlines recently for speaking at the TUC (Trades Union Congress).

“There’s a dearth of discussion about whether Welby’s speech bore either prudent economic advice or theologically insightful guidance. Rather, most of the media seized the opportunity to scold an Archbishop. The news trade, in union, berated Welby for his audacity in speaking to Trade Unions.”

What can we learn from how he was reported on? It is, of course, difficult to discern what biases underlie the media commentary of Welby’s politics. Criticism appeared to be fuelled almost entirely by journalists’ pre-existing disdain either for Welby or for the political left, rather than exploring the matters about which he was speaking. There’s a dearth of discussion about whether Welby’s speech bore either prudent economic advice or theologically insightful guidance. Rather, most of the media seized the opportunity to scold an Archbishop. The news trade, in union, berated Welby for his audacity in speaking to Trade Unions.

To some non-Christians, Christendom is an indistinguishable amalgam, such that Welby’s words will be presumed to be representative of all Christians; some non-Christians will instead see the archbishop as a distinct character whose views don’t represent the whole of the Church. The reality is that the Christian community is divided about almost every issue, and Welby is continually criticised by conservative groups such as the Christian Peoples Alliance. Whilst it’s right for us — guided by the New Testament epistles — to discuss with our Christian family their diversions from scripture, the extent of disunity is tragic given the necessity of collaborating to advance God’s word. Rather than attacking Welby about matters for which there is not a clear Biblical precedent, the Christian community should surely strive to convey to our secular society that we have far more important matters than politics to discuss.

The Independent’s article referred to part of Welby’s speech as “a clear swipe at Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson” — though there was no allusion to any individuals at all from Welby; the Independent appears to wish to fuel controversy. If the speech had been a “clear swipe” at Corbyn, he wouldn’t have praised it in his own speech at the Labour conference a week later.

“The Independent’s article referred to part of Welby’s speech as ‘a clear swipe at Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson.’ If the speech had been a “clear swipe” at Corbyn, he wouldn’t have praised it in his own speech at the Labour conference a week later.”

Sky’s report was less critical than some, but still feels overly hysterical about the nature of Welby’s criticism. With vocabulary such as “blistering assault”, “singling out”, “incense” (the verb, not the noun!), “mocking” and “bitterly”, I wonder if Sky may have conveyed a far more brutish impression of the Archbishop than is accurate.

The Times shirks responsibility by focussing on the negative reactions of some Conservative MPs — that is, members of the political party that Times readers are statistically more likely to support. A news outlet need not risk being accused of partiality when it can use selected quotes from other figures. Its editors can trust that the majority of its readership will heed the words of Tory politicians, so they can feign some semblance of neutrality whilst still working to turn readers against Welby. For those who only scan the headline, “Tories blast Archbishop of Canterbury for ‘parroting’ Labour view in TUC speech,” it will merely serve to lessen many readers’ opinions of Welby. If one reads further, still no legitimate rebuttal of Welby is presented; “Charles Walker, MP for Broxbourne, … said that the archbishop was backing ‘John McDonnell’s point of view.’” “Tory MP Ben Bradley tweeted: ‘Not clear to me when or how it can possibly be appropriate for the Archbishop of Canterbury to be appearing at TUC conference or parroting Labour policy.’” No coherent points are given against Welby, but linking him to John McDonnell will potentially spark hostility in the Times right-of-centre readership.

The Daily Express takes the prize for being misleadingly over dramatic, headlining its article “Archbishop of Canterbury told to quit after comparing trade unions to JESUS”. It continues “ARCHBISHOP Justin Welby is under fire after he claimed Jesus had the same values as trade unionists”, arguably an equivocation fallacy, since in highlighting Jesus’ opposition to greed Welby is suggesting a similarity between Christ’s values and those of trade unions — he’s not, as The Express tells us, claiming that their values are the same. If writers, or readers, of the Express were unaware of the facet of Jesus that Welby described, they are woefully uninformed; but the article is economical with facts by failing to quote the speech or explain its headline.

The Guardian presented several scathing opinion pieces following Welby’s TUC speech. Peter Stanford, though a former editor of the Catholic Herald, manages to craft his piece with no mention of God whatsoever. Simon Jenkins asks, “God aside, for whom does Justin Welby speak?” and perplexingly proclaims that Welby’s “views are backed by no consultative procedure, except with the Almighty.” Does he feel that this would be inappropriate, whilst also arguing that Welby should focus on religion rather than democracy? In fact, Welby’s speech draws repeatedly on scripture — the Bible, not personal prayer, is Welby’s defence. He and other Christian leaders seek earnestly to understand and apply the canon of Scripture, that has itself been trusted on account of its revelatory nature being proven, and which was scrupulously compiled during the early centuries of Christianity by the careful consideration of which writings the Christian Church had always regarded as authoritative.

“In concluding his piece with, ‘Leave others to the evils of the gig economy,’ Simon Jenkins ignores the Bible’s many statements regarding justice. God repeatedly implores us to care for the poor and oppressed; so how can a Christian, less still the head of the Church of England, be instructed to leave others to suffer evil?”

In concluding his piece with, “Leave others to the evils of the gig economy,” Jenkins ignores the Bible’s many statements regarding justice. God repeatedly implores us to care for the poor and oppressed; so how can a Christian, less still the head of the Church of England, be instructed to leave others to suffer evil? He might not have given much thought to his use of the word evil, but in doing so he betrays acknowledgment of the moral dimension of the issue of workers’ rights, but then argues that Welby should shut up about the issue on the basis of his Church roles. This is our post-Christian secular culture — morality is presumed to be entirely independent of theism, in spite of the demonstrable fact that belief in God has been the foundation upon which societies have built their concepts of what is right and wrong throughout human history.

Jenkins objects to Welby’s position in the House of Lords. Indeed, it is relatively undemocratic — but not more so than the other peers. Are critics of bishops’ seats in the House of Lords so critical of other Lords’ seats? What about those whose positions are hereditary? Bishops, by nature of their career, have considerable understanding of social issues, that surely makes them more qualified to serve as Lords than many others. Bishops who are Lords have, by viture of their peership experience, more understanding of politics than most. Welby’s appointment to the position of Achbishop, and in turn to the House of Lords, is a result of a democratic process by bishops around the nation. It just so happens that he also has experience in the financial sector.

Welby has recently received criticism for voicing his pro-Remain stance on Brexit given that the majority of Anglicans are Pro-Leave. But does this not demonstrate to critics of his in the secular media that he endeavours to speak from his convictions rather than to be a pawn to push the opinions of congregants?

Perhaps critics find Welby’s words particularly gratifying on account of the act that Theresa May — whose policies Welby is rebuking — is the daughter of a vicar. It must seem amusing to them that Anglicanism is in such disarray.

“We need to refute the misconception that one political party aligns straightforwardly with the Church whilst the other is opposed. The Church must repeatedly exercise allegiance to Christ, overriding perceived party allegiance and forcing society to reconsider its assumptions.”

Would the media have been as critical if Welby had spoken to a mainly Conservative audience? This, according to Jenkins, is what we would predict from the CofE — perhaps the perceived political swing from expectations is part of the reason for the general outcry. Combined of course with the self interest of newspaper owners. It must surely be positive for the media to be forced to reconsider an over simplified party association assumption; we need to refute the misconception that one political party aligns straightforwardly with the Church whilst the other is opposed. The Church must repeatedly exercise allegiance to Christ, overriding perceived party allegiance and forcing society to reconsider its assumptions.

It feels a frustrating omission that commentary on Welby’s speech failed to inform us at all regarding the matters for which he is rebuked for discussing. Why not present some statistics regarding current estimates on the size of the gig economy workforce; data on satisfaction and dissatisfaction amongst those workers; numbers of individuals on Universal Credit; proportions of UC recipients who have struggled because of it; or any other relevant research? It’s perhaps even more ironic in news coverage where it’s being argued that discussion should be faith-free, that objective facts aren’t offered. We’re being commanded by mainstream media to faithfully submit to the new religion, to accept the doctrine of secularism without requiring rationale or evidence. In fact there is empirical reasoning to rebut Welby’s words; whilst 63 per cent of all employees, when surveyed, report that they are either very satisfied or satisfied with their jobs, the figure is 65 per cent for zero-hours contract workers. More than 60 per cent of zero hour workers are happy with their work-life balance, again several % points higher than the wider workforce; and 32 per cent of zero hours contract workers feel under excessive pressure at work several times a week, markedly less than the 41 per cent of all employees who do.* But Welby is scolded simply for having accepted the opportunity to speak to the TUC, rather than having the legitimacy of his arguments assessed. (*According to a new research by CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development.)

Many commentators have argued that the gig economy is helpful to a considerable proportion of the workforce because of the flexibility and autonomy it allows. It seems to me that it would be far more helpful to argue instead against the underpayment of workers, be they in the gig economy or in conventional careers. Top earners should be pressured to take a pay cut so that their lowest paid employees can receive more. Dangerous conditions, harassment of staff, and disregard for workers’ need to be addressed; it’s not zero hours contracts that are at the root of inequity.

News outlets criticising his speech have also furiously decried the supposed anti-Semitism in the Labour party this summer — but now don’t bother to mention Welby’s efforts to address the issue. Of course I don’t dispute Welby’s decision to address the ghoul of anti-Semitism, it’s fantastic that he did. But I wonder why, if “it wouldn’t be right” not to discuss this non-trade-union issue, why he felt it right to say nothing whatsoever about salvation. He might have said something along the lines of: “We know of compelling reasons to conclude that Christ offers life beyond this one, but whilst we inhabit this work-demanding world we are both duty-bound and desirous to strive for justice for the oppressed.” (Undoubtedly, of course, the Archbishop could have worded that sentiment far, far more eloquently.)

“Jesus doesn’t simply denounce greed; He commands His followers to be willing to give up everything for Him. Were Christ’s words regarding wealth and justice too radical and personally challenging to placate an audience? Or is discussion of Jesus broadly, on account of disdain of Christians or of the message of the Gospel, too controversial?”

Good use of certain Bible passages was made by Welby — but I find myself wondering why Jesus’ teachings weren’t central. Was Welby seeking to appeal to Jewish and Catholic communities in using words of Amos and Mary as his key references? But then Jesus doesn’t simply denounce greed; He commands His followers to be willing to give up everything for Him. Were Christ’s words regarding wealth and justice too radical and personally challenging to placate an audience? Or is discussion of Jesus broadly, on account of disdain of Christians or of the message of the Gospel, too controversial?

We might note that zero hours contracts are indeed akin to some of the working world of Jesus’ day. In one of His parables, He describes workmen lingering in the town centre in wait for employment for the day. Today the existence of slavery in the Bible is regularly used as a rebuttal of Christianity; yet Christian scholars have contested that the slavery described in the Bible was very different from what we think of as slavery today — some were very well treated, and ultimately had employment security that most who were free lacked.

The New Testament implores us to respect and obey rulers; but this does not excuse those rulers of selfishness, nor does it mean that we should not engage with those rulers to call for resolution of injustices. Paul urges us not to break the law (though some might argue that this writing to the early Church is not universal), but this is not a prohibition of activism to change laws that are unjust. Yet undoubtedly, we ought to spend more time and energy than we presently do on praying that our political leaders will come to know God, which would in fact be greatest mechanism for advancing social justice — but also for the sake of those politicians’ eternal future.

Disagreements over the extent to which the Christian community should engage in politics will continue; our responsibility is to continually seek God’s guidance and be led by Him first and foremost.

“And [Jesus] said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’”
Matthew 22:37-40

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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