Voices in the wilderness
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Date: 22 September, 2005

Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams

Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams

'What did religion make of it? Where was God when the gunmen opened fire?'


A new poll by Gallup International says a majority of those questioned across the world trust religious leaders more than any other group of people in their lives. As public confidence in politicians wanes, Susan Roberts asks, should these religious figures play a more active role in public debate?

It’s particularly true at times of crisis, when a boundary seems to have been crossed. It was true after Beslan, when viewers across the world watched live television footage of the exterior walls of a school as inside more than 330 hostages – 186 children among them - were slaughtered by pro-Chechen gunmen.

The following day, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme. People were horrified and confused, struggling to understand. Politicians had explanations and some even seemed to try and make capital out of it. What did religion make of it? Where was God when the gunmen opened fire?

It was hard to imagine what Dr Williams could possibly say. But he did have an answer. The suffering of children deeply challenged anyone’s faith, he said. But 'God was where he always is, with people who were trying to comfort and bring light in any such situation… older children putting arms around younger children.'

It was a memorable moment – not just a Christian voice, but a voice of reason and insight.

The voice of a spiritual leader can be powerful when the moral compass seems to have broken. It can ring out powerfully on a level that has nothing to do with political manoeuvring, spin and ‘selling a message’. Another memorable example came from the Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks after the 7 July bombings in London. This was the rage of the angry against the defenceless and the innocent, he said.

Church of England bishops recently spoke out about the war in Iraq. In a report exploring ways of countering terrorism, they criticised American foreign policy and said churches had a visionary role to play. Human dignity should be a moral principle in relationships between states, just as it should be between individuals.

The report – appearing as the maelstrom of bloodshed and violence worsened in Iraq – hit the headlines. Why in a society which is apparently becoming increasingly secular? Perhaps because words like grace, redemption and forgiveness – part and parcel of the spiritual life - are rarely heard in the public debate.

The recent results of the Gallup International’s Voice of the People survey, commissioned in part by the BBC, indicate that people across the world value the contribution religion can make to society.

Globally, people said religious leaders were the among the people they trusted most in their lives - more than politicians, the military and police, business leaders and journalists. Of those questioned, 33 per cent said they trusted religious leaders more than military and police (26 per cent). Only 13 per cent said politicians were amongst the groups of people they trusted most.

These figures do hide huge differences. While in North America religious leaders came top with 49 per cent and in South East Asia with 68 per cent, in Scandinavia, they were the lowest scoring category (12 per cent). In Western Europe, the figures were 25 per cent for religious leaders, while slightly more – 35 per cent – trusted the military and police.

But interestingly, too, a significant percentage of people across the world said that they thought religious leaders ought to be given more power. In North America, 40 per cent of those questioned thought this should happen.

The challenges of getting the voice of a spiritual leader into the public debate are considerable, say people who work in their press offices. Generally, the media is sceptical of a ‘religious’ message. A common preconception is that it could be judgemental and blinkered - dull, worthy, reactionary and out of touch.

Such preconceptions are fuelled when press coverage of protests like January’s against the BBC’s showing of Jerry Springer - The Opera focuses on the extreme rather than the mainstream. The evangelical lobby group Christian Voice courted publicity by publishing the addresses and phone numbers of BBC executives on its website – and got it. In the ensuing media coverage, this overshadowed the fact that record numbers - more than 45,000 people – had called the BBC to protest against its language and content.

Another difficult issue is managing the relationship of a spiritual leader with the media. The head of a religion should not, perhaps, be caught up in the daily news agenda. The stature of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Pope or Chief Rabbi could be diminished or eroded by media pressure for instant interviews and sound bites.

Spiritual leaders, too, speak for a body of people, their religion, not just as individuals. Statements on any issues with a political resonance – such as abortion or cloning – can often be made only after careful consultation to ensure that the views of the constituency are correctly represented.

There are difficulties and challenges. But many believe that there is not just a need, but a duty to overcome them, as Dr Daleep Mukarji, director of Christian Aid, recently told surefish.

'Being involved with politics with a small ‘p’ and being involved with politics with a capital ‘P’ are different things. If this agency and the churches are true to their tradition, then we speak out with what we see… ,’ he said.

'That’s the history of the Christian church and the Jewish faith too, because it talks about taking the sides of widows and orphans and people who are strangers, it talks about loving your neighbour and your enemy, helping other people.'


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