Friday, November 11, 2011

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS - The West needs props to cling to its sense of entitlement

By Swapan Dasgupta

Meddlesome priests, especially those blessed with exaggerated self-righteousness, have always been the butt of jokes. In a society where the quest of the material has easily outstripped the spiritual void, the Church of England in particular has struggled to retain its relevance in an increasingly irreverent land. Once a pillar of the Establishment, the Anglican Church has, like the monarchy and the Conservative Party, suffered from the post-War remaking of England. Nominally it has kept its toehold as the established national Church of England, with the Queen at the pinnacle, but its ability to epitomise the Christian consensus has eroded.  Plagued by theological bickering, over issues that range from gay priests to women clergy, it has yielded its Christian certitude to the Church of Rome and the newly-emergent evangelical churches. The slightly dotty, parish priest who used to be as central to local communities as the local squire and the Women’s Institute is almost facing extinction in the 21st century.

Last month, the Church of England flickered back to life briefly, courtesy the Occupy the City movement that arrived in Britain as a spin-off from the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York. Originally conceived as an expression of revulsion against the unbridled greed of fat cats in the financial world, the movement has so far left the proletariat unmoved. However, it did strike an emotional chord among those on the fringes of ‘respectable’ society—those committed to ‘fair trade’, organic food, justice for the Third World, anti-globalisation and environmentally sustainable living. Some saw in the Occupy Wall Street stir an answer to the Tea Party movement but its self-image was never so overtly political.

The anti-greed protests embraced three distinct types. There were the remnants of the hippie movement tempered by feminism—the type of protestors who made a lifestyle statement by camping outside the US Air Force base in Greenham Common for nearly three years in the mid-1980s. Then there were the professional anti-globalisation protestors that are drawn to every meeting of the G-20 leaders and World Trade Organisation summits. And, finally, there were the professional Leftists, usually from fringe organisations that have made a virtue of their own irrelevance. In the 1980s, the satirical weekly Private Eye, dubbed them the ‘Sparts’, after a slightly bizarre left-wing sect that bore the name of Rosa Luxemburg’s old Sparticist League. I am happy to see that the usage of the term has been revived.

The picketing of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, arguably Anglican England’s most spectacular basilica, by this rag-tag bunch should have ideally attracted modest attention. Protests of this sort are dime-a-dozen in democracies and the law enforcement agencies are well equipped to get them to move on with a minimum of fuss and violence. Unfortunately, this is when the meddlesome priests stepped into the scene.

Unable to countenance the authorities clearing the area to prevent the protesters being a public nuisance and posing a fire hazard, Reverend Dr Giles Fraser, the Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, resigned from his post. He was so overwhelmed by the Christian piety of the protestors that he proclaimed “I could imagine Jesus being born in the camp.” He also declared that it was fitting
that a tented community had sprung up around St Paul’s because the
Saint had been a tentmaker in real life. In the index of woolly-headedness, Dr Fraser had few equals.  

Dr Fraser’s curious resignation and his depiction of the protestors as noble, pure souls whose voices had to be heard was the signal for the most spectacular display of humbug since the Abdication of 1936. The Church of England went all weak in the knees and the Archbishop of Canterbury declared that the “Church of England is a place where the unspoken anxieties of society can often find a voice, for good and ill.” In an article in Financial Times, Dr Rowan Williams went on to endorse a “Robin Hood tax” of 0.05 per cent on “share, bond and currency transactions and their derivatives, with the resulting funds being designated for investment in the ‘real’ economy…” The tax, which has the backing of the G-20 and the likes of George Soros, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, is expected to yield around $410 billion globally—maybe enough to bail out Greece and Italy.

On his part, Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband chipped in with the discovery that there was “a gap between people’s values and the way our country is run”—an observation that was endorsed, among others, by the Army chief who spoke of a loss of the nation’s moral compass. At this rate, an endorsement of the Robin Hood tax by the Duchess of Cambridge or even Wayne Rooney wasn’t out of place.

The Church, as the representative of Christ on earth, is naturally expected to attend to the “anxieties” and concerns of its flock, presuming, of course, that those who camped in the City were loyal and devoted members of the congregation. If the congregation is agitated by the fiscal crisis that all responsible economists say is upon the West, it therefore follows that the Church must intervene, just as it did during the wars of empire and subsequently.

However, in the process, the important distinction between rendering unto God what is God’s and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s stands in danger of being blurred. The Church can ideally wish less hardship on its flock but to actually endorse a fresh tax is about as relevant as advocating a tithe on the commercial corporations. For all its insights into the spiritual life of the faithful, the clergy’s insights into economic remedies for the nation seem suspect. What is beyond the ken of Swami Ramdev in India can hardly be said to be among the Archbishop of Canterbury’s core competence.

Actually, the Church’s meddlesome ways mask its desperate desire to gloss over some hard choices that need to be exercised. The advanced capitalist societies in the West have hitherto enjoyed standards of living that are out of proportion to the actual generation of wealth in these societies. The welfare state which was built on the ruins of a war-damaged Europe could sustain itself for five decades because the West controlled the levers of the world economy. This, unfortunately, is no longer the case. The West is increasingly looking patchy in its performance. Against the innovative efficiencies of a Germany, a Switzerland and even California and Texas, is the laggardness of Italy, Portugal, Greece and even France—economies that are spending much more than they earn and living beyond their means. Today’s crisis is Europe and, indeed, in the US has been triggered by the reluctance of the people to adjust to a lesser standard of living. Capitalism was OK as long as the West was top dog but it has to be humanised once it is apparent that the centre of gravity has shifted eastwards. This is what the European Union (Germany apart) is resisting and the sense of entitlement has been conferred a moral halo by the modern Church.

There was a time, some centuries ago, when the Church attended to people’s miseries and played the role of a palliative. Today, Christ in Europe is increasingly being made to play the role of a saviour of a community that wants to cling on to untenable privileges. At the risk of repeating a discredited Marxist formulation, it seems a case of spreading ‘false consciousness.’ The message from the East to the Western churches should be unambiguous: get real. 

The Telegraph, November 11, 2011

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very well written! (Going even by your usual high standards)!