At an uncongenial hour, I find myself on Radio 4’s excellent Sunday programme, telling Ed Stourton that I can’t imagine that Justin Welby has ever thrown a bread roll in a restaurant in his life. Others were discussing the new Archbishop of Canterbury’s churchmanship, but there isn’t a serious issue that I’m not prepared to overlook when I’m at the BBC – just call me George “Entwistle” Pitcher.
What I was really trying to say is that Archbishop-elect Welby isn’t an Old Etonian in the Boris Johnson and David Cameron tradition. He’s about as far from the Bullingdon Club of Boorish Hoorays as it’s possible to be. Well, as far as Cambridge is from Oxford, anyway.
But it made me wonder, in the early hours of Sunday on national radio, if I was indulging in a gratuitous and offensive stereotype of Etonians.
Is it possible to be “Etonist”? We’re all at it – those of us who weren’t at Eton, that is. An Anglican bishop friend told me last week, for instance, that Etonians have a full range of views right across the political spectrum, “all the way from Cameron to Johnson”. Such biting satire, of course, assumes that all Old Etonians are bun-throwing Tories, which may go some way to explaining the collective groan in some quarters that yet another “establishment” position has been filled by an old boy from the same elitist educational institution. It’s just a case of the old school dog collar.
Another view, which I find increasingly attractive, is that that’s all nonsense. Welby broadly supports the Occupy protest camp that pitched outside St Paul’s Cathedral (Johnson cried: “In the name of God and Mammon, go!”) opposes gay marriage (Cameron passionately supports it) and is unequivocally critical of bankers (who sponsor the Conservative Party). Somehow I can’t see Welby being the Prime Minister’s fag.
So it may well be that Etonism is an under-policed area of discrimination. It certainly is when it comes to sexuality. I haven’t heard Cameron’s support for gay marriage ascribed to this, but Eton, along with less famous English public schools, is assumed by a significant tranche of the day school population practically to have invented homosexuality.
In this respect, Etonism was apparent in the final episode of the latest series of Downton Abbey, when Lord Grantham remarked casually: “If I shouted blue murder every time someone tried to kiss me at Eton, I’d be hoarse within a month.”
I shall be writing to the BBC to complain about this flagrant discrimination. Yes, I know Downton Abbey is an ITV production, but everything is the BBC’s fault in broadcasting at the moment.
I am mightily relieved that Bishop Welby is capable of corpsing – that is, collapsing in uncontrollable giggles. Rowan Williams has a wonderful sense of humour and is a great mimic, but seldom laughs properly – at least in front of his staff.
I gather from my friend John Bingham at the Daily Telegraph that Welby has the head of a small rodent carved into the handle of his crozier, a leaving gift from Liverpool Cathedral. This commemorates the occasion he was reading a Bible lesson in the Good News version from Leviticus, with its tedious litany of animals which ancient Judeans mustn’t eat. One category that was right out apparently was “rock badgers”. Poor Dean (as he was) Welby lost it at this point completely, shaking as tears rolled down his cheeks.
But I have an inquiry. Didn’t the Rock Badgers support Jethro Tull in the 1970s? I must ask the band’s front man, Ian Anderson, when he plays his annual Christmas benefit gig for the Church of England next month, this time at Newcastle Cathedral. Not far from Durham, which Bishop Rock-Badger has just passed through.
I took a cheap shot at the BBC at the top of this column. But actually it’s only the latest cherished British institution – again, part of the “establishment” (I use quote marks because it doesn’t exist anymore) – to have been exposed as morally bankrupt. Since 2008, we’ve had the shaming of Parliament with the MPs’ expenses scandal, the exposure of the City as a bunch of street hucksters and the Murdoch press has brought British journalism into disrepute with phone-hacking.
The Royal family has patched things up lately, but became something of a soap opera in the 1980s. And now the BBC has squandered all the moral grandeur of Lord Reith.
The Church, of course, has also been brought low by the greatest betrayals of public trust. But I do wonder whether the Christian faith is where we can find renewal in our public life. You can talk about corporate ethics and regulation all you like, but in the end our institutions need to re-locate a source of integrity that’s sustainable. Loving your neighbour as yourself may be a good place to start. And, yes, I include our churches in that too.
At the time of writing, I’m preparing for a public interview at a local pub called the Beehive. The poster proclaims: “Not a Word of Truth – Journalists and Christianity!” Apparently, it’s a sell-out, which might give you an idea of what’s considered “celebrity” in this part of East Sussex. I shall try
to make the point above about our faith, but I fear
I might just be clamped in the stocks and pelted. People feel like that at the moment about journalism. It used to be quite cool to say you were a journalist. These days, I’m looked at like I’m morally compromised. Perhaps I should lie and say I own a lap-dancing club.
It wasn’t ever thus. I remember an editor telling me, when we decided to settle a libel action and I objected that the offending story was completely true: “Listen, George. There’s your truth. There’s my truth. And there’s the truth.” That’s theologically quite profound. But, then again, he might have just been making the point that truth isn’t an absolute, it’s malleable. Well, he probably went to Eton.
George Pitcher is an Anglican priest, freelance journalist and writer