George Austin comes not to bury but to praise

So David Starkey is to earn £75,000 an hour presenting a new series of historical documentaries on Channel 4, making him the highest paid performer on British television. When reports in The Times and the Daily Mail mentioned that he had been described as ‘the rudest man in Britain’, I thought it sounded familiar. Then the Mail went on to comment that he had once said of me, ‘Doesn’t he make you want to vomit – his fatness, his smugness, his absurdity?’ What – fat? Moi?

Morally amazing

This happened about ten years ago on the BBC’s Moral Maze programme. When I had left the studio, Starkey exploded and the interviewee who followed me, Ken Livingstone, together with Rabbi Hugo Gryn and other panel members, remonstrated with him. Some time afterwards a Mail reporter asked me what I thought about him, and I confess I did say that I considered him to be the rudest man on radio and television. It now seems to have become part of the Starkey folklore.

It is probably not entirely unjust, and it may be one of the reasons why, in a recent article in Radio Times, he said I was the person he most hated. But maybe I now share this with The Daily Telegraph journalist who, reporting on the new TV contract, suggested that he should use his new-found wealth ‘to endow a chair of invective, devoted to debunking self-important academics.’ Apparently, he is accused by some fellow historians ‘of being not merely a popularizer but a vulgarian, whose scholarship is inversely related to his earnings.’

In fairness to Starkey, the piece goes on to ask ‘why is should be assumed that Dr Starkey must be a bad historian because he is so entertaining.’ Why indeed? Certainly recent series by Starkey (and by other historians) have attracted a wide audience, and I am among them. The BBC Online History site lists so many that it is clear that history of one kind and another is thought by listeners and viewers to be worthy their time and effort.

Viewable rigour

However, unlike Mark Antony, I come not to bury Caesar but to praise him. For I believe that Starkey not only produces good viewable television, but also brings academic rigour to it. That is not always the case in all programmes, where the presenter sometimes appears to have reached a conclusion and then tries desperately to find the evidence for it, breaching the rules of logic let alone academic integrity, in order to justify such a conclusion.

As it is now fifty years since I studied formal logic as part of my philosophy course at university, some of it is a bit fuzzy. But I do remember being warned against the fallacy of the ‘undistributed middle’. That was not a warning against the perils and temptations of clerical celibacy, but rather against an easy trap within debate and discussion. In explanation it used the phrase from St Paul, ‘All Cretans are liars.’ If that is the case and Timon is a Cretan, then Timon is a liar. But if only some Cretans are liars, you cannot go on to claim that because Timon is a Cretan he is also a liar. He may be among the ‘some’ Cretans who are liars, but may just as well belong to those other Cretans who are not liars.

It is only too easy if a particular conclusion is desired only to use such evidence – the ‘some are’ evidence – that fits that conclusion, while ignoring the ‘some are not’ evidence that raises a serious question mark over it.

Moorman vs Nineham

This was brought home to me at the General Synod many years ago. I slipped out to get a coffee just after the very liberal New Testament scholar, Professor Dennis Nineham, had spoken, only to bump into my old Chichester Principal, John Moorman, by then Bishop of Ripon. He was so obviously angry that I asked him what the matter was.

‘I’m a historian,’ he replied, ‘and I reach conclusions by examining all the evidence and then I produce a conclusion. Nineham comes to his conclusion and then extracts such biblical support that he can and ignores the remainder.’ I believe Starkey falls firmly into the Moorman camp and his programmes are all the more worthwhile for it. Indeed, without that his programmes would not really be worth a penny.

Some readers may have guessed where this is leading. For it does seem to me that some fundamental decisions about the belief and practice of the Church of England simply do not follow the Moorman principle or the Starkey practice.

Conclusions before premises

Take for instance the discussions on remarriage after divorce, which certainly examine a considerable amount of evidence for and against. But always there is the nagging feeling that the decision has already been made – that it must be permitted – and that ways must be found to isolate those who might take a contrary view.

Some processes are designed even more deviously. When the Porvoo Agreement was being constructed, there was some puzzlement that so much effort was being put into relations with Baltic Churches when there is relatively little contact with at any rate some of them. I suspect I am one of the few Anglicans who have ever met a Latvian Lutheran.

But then the light dawned. Could this not be about Baltic Lutheran Churches at all, but really be preparing the way for reunion with Methodism? After all, some of the Lutheran Churches there have retained the apostolic succession and others have not. Would it not defuse the interminable discussions about this when we came to consider reunion at home if it could be pointed out that one stumbling block had already been removed by Porvoo?

Or the present proposals to have just one centre of training for the priesthood. Mention only the financial benefits, the combining of strategic resources, and so on, and you have a very strong argument for accepting this pattern. But a more rigorous approach, which does not avoid the arguments that might undermine the proposals, brings to the fore the blindingly obvious objection that this would destroy the comprehensive nature of the Church of England. But perhaps again that is the hidden agenda.

How much more of this is there around? Is the political correctness of Common Worship in its avoidance of the masculine pronoun for God a way of presenting a fait accompli and simply burying any real debate on the heresy of an androgynous god/goddess in future liturgical ‘advance’? And so on.

Or it is merely that as well as being fat, smug and absurd, I am also paranoid?

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