Page 10, 25th July 2008

25th July 2008
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Page 10, 25th July 2008 — Lord, preserve us from niceness and cleverness
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Lord, preserve us from niceness and cleverness

Catholics and Anglicans are masters at stitching together wordy clichés, says Harry Mount Earlier this summer I attended a church service in the little Anglican chapel of Flimston in Pembrokeshire. Flimston is on the Castlemartin Army Range — one of the few strips of British coast where tanks can fire out to sea at will. As I left the church I spotted a few of these tanks rumbling along the horizon, their new yellow desert camouflage paint already scarred with splashes of dark Welsh mud. I wondered whether the mud would look odd in the sands of Iraq or Afghanistan.

The service was taken by an Army chaplain — a barrel-shaped Scot with an attractive bass voice. Most moving of all. though. was the service book we used — a field service book, about the size of a pocket diary.

Alongside little sketches of helmets dangling on rifles, standing in for gravestones, there were religious instructions for men on the battlefield: an abbreviated Last Rites for a soldier to say over a dying comrade; a super-quick funeral service for a dead one.

It was moving because it was direct and honest about death and war. There were no euphemisms: no "passed on" instead of "died"; no handwringing or self-flagellation about the problems of putting Christianity before any other religion.

Compare this straight talk with a recent evasive sermon by Bishop Crispian Hollis of Portsmouth, which he gave last month at an Iraqi Mass in Westminster Cathedral. In passing, he mentioned the kidnapping and death of Archbishop Rahho of Mosul. When the archbishop was kidnapped earlier this year by terrorists. his bodyguards and driver were murdered in a spray of bullets aimed at their car. Before he was killed, the archbishop managed to get on his mobile and tell his associates not to pay the $3m ransom because the money would only be used for more killing.

The Bishop of Portsmouth said little of all this in his sermon. Instead, he was swayed by the force that destroys most modern sermons and most speeches by leading churchmen — niceness.

Disturbed by the unseemly details of four brutal murders, he swiftly moved on to the really nice news — that, in Ainkawa, he had found 27 young men studying for the priesthood.

The Archbishop of Canterbury's address to the Lambeth Conference this week was also enveloped in a warm, crushingly soft blanket of niceness.

Faced with the awkward prospect of the schism of the Church of England, the Archbishop entered into an extended bout of on-the-one-hand-on-theother-hand-ism.

"The greatest need of the Communion now is for transformed relationships," the archbishop said. "This does not mean simply warm feelings about each other, but new habits of respect, patience and understanding."

Now that's all very well. Only puppy-dog-hating baby-eaters take against cuddly things like warmth, understanding and respect. But it doesn't get you very far. Nuclear blasts of niceness won't make the pro-gay lobby anti-gay, or vice versa.

Alongside those Olympian powers of niceness, Rowan Williams has another weapon to avoid straight talk — intelligence. Among his stack of academic honours, he has an Oxford BA, DPhil and professorship, alongside a Cambridge lectureship.

Because he's known to be so clever. when people don't understand him they put it down to themselves being too stupid, rather than him being a bad writer.

Sorry not to be very nice, but Fm in the second camp. The thing about academics is that, unlike journalists, politicians or local radio DJs, they're never judged by popular opinion. No one ever says: "Nope, didn't understand that. Couldn't get to the end of that one. Too bloody boring." But write a brilliant, yet unreadable, doctorate that four other dons can understand, and you're on your way to a lifetime of intellectual honours, unburdened by the need to engage the interest of the reader.

And so, presumably, no one ever said: "Whoa, hold on, surely you could phrase this one a little differently, Rowan," when he came up with this carcrash of a sentence for his Lambeth address: "An ensemble of purely national or local churches both ignores the complexities of a globalised society and economy and seems to make little of the historic and biblical sense of churches in diverse places learning from each other, challenging one another and showing responsibility to each other."

Not only is this sentence 47 words long: it doesn't really mean much more than "Apart bad; together — good."

Words like "complexities" and "globalised" — words that people rarely use in everyday speech — are doubly effective. They make the speaker sound awfully clever and they stop the listeners' ears from working. As George Orwell said, Latinate words obscure the truth like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details.

using these two weapons of supercharged niceness and wilfully obscure language, you get out of having to deal with an issue head on.

Speeches become a doddle. You just reach for various clauses wrapped in Latinate words — diversity, consent and prayerful consultation are good ones — and you stitch them together into a nice-sounding, meaningless melange.

The net result is like postmatch interviews with footballers. Put the interchangeable clichés in the appropriate order: "I'm not going to Real Madrid I Arsenal I Accrington Stanley for the money per se, Garth I Clive / Gary" — and you fill the appropriate amount of airtime without having to think too hard.

And without having to answer the question. By talking about those nice 27 priests in Ainkawa, the Bishop of Portsmouth didn't have to deal with the pricklier question of what to do about people who fire lots of bullets at Iraqi archbishops.

And, by sitting on the fence on the gay priest question. the nice Archbishop of Canterbury does nothing to bring together the two warring factions.

Both bishop and archbishop are dealing with battlefields of one kind or another. How sad that the whizz of bullets doesn't concentrate their minds the way it did that of the author of the field service book.

Harry Mount is the author of Amo, Amas, Amat and All That: How to Become a Latin Lover (Short Books, £12.99)




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