Invited to fill the Thought for the Day spot on the Today show on Radio 4 on Maundy Thursday, the Archbishop of Canterbury (for the moment Rowan Williams) took the opportunity to preach about charity.
Starting from the traditional Maundy Thursday rite of washing the feet of the poor Williams said that it exists to remind the powerful
… that power constantly needs to be reminded of what it’s for. Power exists, in the Church or the state or anywhere else, so that ordinary people may be treasured and looked after, especially those who don’t have the resources to look after themselves.
Ordinary people may be ‘treasured and looked after’? Really? If by that he means that I shouldn’t have to worry about being persecuted by an overwhelming state and/or religion then I can agree with him. If however he thinks it means a religion and/or state has the right to protect me from myself than he can take a log walk off of a short pier. Ordinary people don’t need to be looked after, they mostly just want to get on with their lives with as little interference as possible from do-gooders who think they know better.
And those who don’t have the resources to look after themselves? Before anyone calls me a heartless cow, can we please differentiate between those who are unable to help themselves and those who choose not to? The former should be supported (and I hope that I will be hard pressed to find someone who disagrees on that) whilst the latter shouldn’t be. If you choose to opt out of taking responsibility for yourself I don’t see why I or anyone else, indirectly via either state of religion, should support you.
He then goes on to extend this thought with the following suggestion:
What about having a new law that made all cabinet members and leaders of political parties, editors of national papers and the hundred most successful financiers in the UK, spend a couple of hours every year serving dinners in a primary school on a council estate? Or cleaning bathrooms in a residential home? Walking around the streets of a busy town at night as a street pastor, ready to pick up and absorb something of the chaos and human mess you’ll find there especially among young people?
Seriously? I know that my English, first language or not, isn’t brilliant but I could have sworn that charitable activities are voluntary acts, done by people who want to help rather than being forced to do so by an overarching state because otherwise they will be punished in some way – not that he indicates what sort of consequence he envisages for disobedience.
Lets go back to his list of potential ‘charitable’ acts though. Serving dinners in a primary school? Cleaning bathrooms in a residential home? I think we call those two activities jobs. Minimum wage jobs they might be but they are still paid employment so where is the sense in wanting people to do them ‘voluntarily’? Is he really advocating reducing the potential employment activities for the unskilled end of the workforce? That doesn’t strike me as particularly charitable.
It is only the last example that can be accurately described as a voluntary activity and if people wish to do that then more power to their elbows. The uniformed social workers (police) who usually have to deal with the violent and rowdy or incapable drunks will probably welcome the assistance.
The muddled thinking moves towards a conclusion with this pair spectacularly unthought through sentences:
I’ve no doubt some of our public figures do this sort of thing privately, and good for them. But maybe having to do it, to do it in public and not to be able to make any sort of capital out of it because they had no choice?
If someone is doing good deeds privately then they are deliberately choosing not to make any capital out of it, thus making a lie of the second. If people were forced to do their charitable deeds in public then I can foresee it turning into nothing more than a glorified photo-op in the case of several people, such as politicians and ‘celebrities’. Anyone else remember a certain catwalk model’s community service? Turned into fashion shoot if I recall correctly.
Well, perhaps that’s just a nice fantasy to mull over during the holiday weekend.
And long may it remain so! Forcing people to do charitable acts will just result in resentment on the part of those forced and thoughts of ‘only here because s/he has to be’ on the part of the recipient. Coercion would not be acceptable in any other job so why should it be so because you happen to be rich or ‘powerful’?
May I kindly suggest to the Archbishop that he sticks to his job and doesn’t stick his head above the parapet again unless he has actually thought about what it is that he is saying?