The Way We Live Now

The last decade of the last century has not yet been denominated. But as surely as the 1890s were ‘naughty’, so the 1990s were the decade of ‘spin’. New Labour, having successfully jettisoned the principles which had guided the movement from its inception, engaged with ferocity in the only activity available to the unprincipled: propaganda. The rise and fall of Alistair Campbell was watched by millions (some of whom had also watched ‘Citizen Cane’ and were aware of the damage to democracy which could be done if government were reduced to mere media manipulation). They were not, for the most part, impressed.

‘Spin’ can best be defined as the art of imposing plausible interpretations on implausible scenarios. And of course, as the last few weeks in the ever-eventful history of the Anglican Communion have shown, that is (or has become) a defining Anglican activity. As both liberals and conservatives attempted to ‘spin’ the deliciously ambiguous statement of the Lambeth Primates as a success for their opposing causes, the truth finally dawned on me.

Anglicanism is not a Church, a Communion, or even a ‘communion of churches’. It best described as the final, ultimate and most exalted arena of ‘spin’. You will, of course, suppose that I am an extremist in this view. But consider. What are the optimum conditions for the development of ‘spin’? Any serious observer can witness that it requires the absence of three things: consensus, clarity and conviction.

It requires the absence of conviction, because spin only operates in the vacuum left by Faith. When people have a burning sense of the Truth, when they are convinced of general propositions which override personal options or local considerations, then they have no need of spin. They tell it as it is, neither welcoming nor fearing the popularity or disapprobation which results.

It requires the absence of clarity, because spin can survive only in the dank underworld of moral and intellectual confusion. When people know what is the case and want to do what is right, the spinsters are thrown into confusion and despair. The Light of Truth naturally dispels the beguiling proposition that all things subsist in differing and adjustable shades of grey.

It requires the absence of consensus, for the simple reason that spin exists to create the shifting alliances of personal interest which, in church and commonwealth, uneasily replace real agreement and the common mind. The polity of the spinsters is one, not of community, but of the potential knife in the vulnerable back.

Anglicanism is (and probably has always been) the ideal arena for this nefarious activity, simply because it has made a profession of confusion. ‘The genius of our Anglican tradition’, Gene Robinson told the Today programme, ‘has been its ability to hold opposing views in creative tension. I hope no one will leave the Church because of me.’ Now that really is spin!

Except, of course, that it is largely true. From the ‘Elizabethan Settlement’ (on the very existence of which Diarmid MacCulloch casts interesting doubts in his new blockbuster, Reformation, Allen Lane, 2003, ISBN 0-7139-9379-7 ) to the present interesting confection of private judgement and provincial autonomy (which has given us women clergy and divorced gay bishops) Anglicans have multiplied the occasions for spin.

We Catholics, who now complain bitterly when we are spun against, are past masters at spinning. Gardiner spun 1549 (as well he might); Cosin spun 1662 (with greater skill but less success); Newman spun the Thirty-nine articles with consummate skill; and dear old Dr Dearmer spun the Ornaments Rubric till he was dizzy with his own misplaced ingenuity.

The other side have spun too, from Perkins to Ryle. The Liberals are late arrivals on the scene, but they have rapidly learned the rules and are now masters of the game.

All sides have needed to spin simply because Anglicanism is the only large ecclesial grouping which has managed to subsist for any length of time with neither a definitive confessional statement nor an overriding magisterium. It has no Book of Concord, no Westminster Confession, no Decretals of the Council of Trent and the very antithesis of a Papacy. (The very vulnerability of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s role as primus inter pares invites mischievous children to cock a snook.) In short, in the confessionalist world produced by the continental reformation, the Church of England chose (or was monarchically coerced into adopting) a deliberately uncertain path.

Said Karl Marx in his bitter commentary on the ‘revolution’ of Louis Napoleon: ‘Hegel says somewhere that all great events and personalities in world history reappear in one fashion or another. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’ In the comments of the opposing sides on the recent allocution of the Anglican Primates we are seeing spin reach tragic-comic proportions.

The Primates met, at an expense one can only begin to estimate (funded by whom, one naturally asks), in order to produce what was little more than a statement of the obvious. They had been ruthlessly honest and seriously frank with one another. (They could hardly have said, considering the expense, that their meeting had been shallow and frivolous!) But yet, despite the honesty, frankness and expense, it had issued in nothing which a serious journalist could not have filed with her newsdesk three days before.

Then came the fall out.

The real spin came from Frank Griswold, who assured distressed primates that he shared their pain, and Bill Attwood, who told the whole world that the meeting had been a triumph for Evangelical Christianity, Ekklesia and AAC. Frank will go ahead (in person, as he assured the ladies and gentlemen of the press) with the consecration which provoked the crisis; and Bill is in the uncertain position of not knowing what his expensively marshalled troops will actual do, now war is openly declared.

Whose spin will win?

You will have been holding your breath. As I write, it is impossible to say. But I can tell you this. In a confrontation between one Anglican’s spin and another’s the victim will always be orthodoxy.

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