Customers drinking in an East End pub, London, circa 1970. (Photo by Steve Lewis/Getty Images)
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Wining and dining = reconciling

If turbulent priests can reach an accord over food and drink, then so can politicians

This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum. Well, not the Forum strictly speaking. I mean the General Synod of the Church of England — but as forum and synod share much of a meaning (as places of meeting for coming together and deliberation) I stand with the funny thing happening on the way to the Forum. And, indeed, at it.

The Church of England, for all its reputation as being a bit wet, is not known for being especially peaceable. That brings with it a great burden: we are always seen scrapping in public, and those whose churches like to pretend to a uniformity of thought enjoy sneering at the church which allows true contestation of thought and theology.

This is nothing new. Look, for example, at T.S. Eliot’s opening to his (incredibly long) essay on the Lambeth Conference in 1930:

The Church of England washes its dirty linen in public. It is convenient and brief to begin with this metaphorical statement. In contrast to some other institutions both civil and ecclesiastical, the linen does get washed. To have linen to wash is something; and to assert that one’s linen never needed washing would be a suspicious boast.

Now with the washing of dirty linen often comes quite a bit of acrimony; people focus anger (righteous or otherwise) on their opponents, and say things which makes reconciliation less likely.

How can people say the Bible is boring?

This is nothing new. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians doesn’t pull many punches (it’s a lot more interesting than the passage so often chosen for weddings), and his letter to the Galatians is so intemperate he wishes that those arguing for the circumcision of his new Christian converts would see their knife slip and castrate themselves. (How can people say the Bible is boring?)

In the Church of England we’re a little more middle of the road than that, but bishops generally do not like criticism or challenge. The Save the Parish movement, born a year ago this month, has seen its leaders chided as “rascally voices” by Archbishops, and roundly condemned by certain more excitable bishops (generally the ones closing parishes). They have, in their turn, received their share of brickbats too.

But something happened on the way to the Forum. We actually spoke. Properly, rather than intemperately across the pages of the media or formally in a strip-light-lit meeting room. Once a year the General Synod meets in York, the C of E’s way of reminding its south-heavy mindset that one of our two Provinces is in the colder half of the kingdom, and centred around the ancient second city of England.

So once a year we all trundle up to York and get whisked to its margins and incarcerated in the student rooms of the university there, a little too far from anywhere else to avoid having to share meals and bars with all of the other delegates there, regardless of their theological, philosophical, or political opinions. And over much food and much drink, we talked.

Much good seemed to come of it

And much good seemed to come of it. The sessions were marked with much more respect than the others I have been on. The Archbishop of York came to the Save the Parish conference and was interrogated by Giles Fraser. The Archbishop of Canterbury expressed himself surprised to find himself on the same side of an argument as me. Much discussion was had in the margins of the hard work of our team of financiers and auditors who have been going through the Church’s budgets (and there are many of them, spread across all the 42 dioceses and all the national church institutions).

And much talking was done. It remains to be seen if talk turns into any action, but talking has begun — and it began over much food and much wine.

Which is why we need to be so careful of the siren voices of modern Puritans calling for an end to the food and drink which our politicians enjoy in the Palace of Westminster. It is when you socialise with those you disagree with that you make friends, discover shared passions, and uncover surprising points of convergence.

A parliament which only meets to debate is one made for conflict. As more and more of our discourse gets sucked into the vortex of the Culture War this is the very last thing we should be encouraging.

By contrast, we need our politicians, of all stripes, to remember what is good, decent, and human about their opponents. And they will do that over food and, even more importantly, over drink. It’s where the human starts to show, where the barriers come down, where honesty starts to emerge. It’s where we show each other our weaknesses. Seeing those weaknesses, and sharing our own, when safely in our cups, makes us a little less inclined to shout over our opponents (who may now be our friends) and a little more inclined to talk with them.

We may not convince them; they may not convince us. But we might understand each other, and that is half the battle.

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