Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Sympathy for the Taliban? Sympathy for the bishop?

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Bishop Stephen Venner

Bishop Stephen Venner

The habit of being given a pulpit from which to speak one’s mind, and receiving “Nice sermon, vicar!” as the only for of constructive criticism gives clergy little understanding of our communication skills. This becomes painfully obvious when we speak to the media; under pressure, drivel and nonsense utters forth. Perhaps, clergy are the worst people from whom to expect a carefully nuanced response to sensitive issues in the media.

I don’t know about sympathy for the Taliban, but I have sympathy for Bishop Stephen Venner. He has retired from being Bishop of Dover, which entails looking after the C of E in East Kent on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury (who is far too busy wrestling with lesbian bishops and Ugandan homophobes), and has become Bishop to the Forces, which entails looking after the spiritual needs of the British armed forces on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury (who is far too busy…). For the last couple of years Bishop Venner has also added Bishop for the Falkland Islands to his pointy hats, a role he performs on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury (who is far too busy…). You do get the impression of someone who has always been in the shadows, keeping the church running while his boss pontificates. As Bishop to the Forces, Venner succeeds Bishop David Connor, who remains at his rather pointless job of head polisher of the second great shrine of royalist pomp that is Windsor Chapel.

As any polisher of royal haloes would have told Bishop Venner, the Bishop to the Forces is not supposed to bring nuance to the role. In an interview with the Torygraph yesterday, he stated that “We’ve been too simplistic in our attitude towards the Taliban” — uh oh, it sounds like the bishop is introducing nuance into his new role! He goes on to say that,

“There’s a large number of things that the Taliban say and stand for which none of us in the West could approve, but simply to say therefore that everything they do is bad is not helping the situation. The Taliban can perhaps be admired for their conviction to their faith and their sense of loyalty to each other”.

Oh dear, not quite as prominent and well-thought through as Runcie’s praying for the Argentine war dead, but it’s up there. This was followed by a chorus of a few old brass and right-wing journos and politicians (including the steadily rightward moving Bob Russell of the Lib Dems) doing the full-on denunciation. After that sharp fusillade, there was nothing for Venner to do but apologize and recant. Now, he’s right where the establishment want him: cowed into playing along without the burden of doubt brought by nuance.

The Taliban have an ideology that should be resisted by all uphold human dignity. Afghanistan would be better without these teachings, but one is unable to defeat a teaching with an army. I believe that foreign military forces should be withdrawn from the country, in phases to avoid sudden power vacuums. A proud country needs to be able to make its own future, given that bad mistakes will be made. The majority of Brits think our soldiers are great, but wants them out of Afghanistan. I think most soldiers understand that, but their commanders and our government consider this to be morale destroying, not stopping to consider that low morale is a reflection on them. As a Christian leader, what is one to say about war? All war is evil, but it might sometimes be necessary to meet force with force as a final option when it is the lesser of two evils (unless you want to be strictly pacifist). A Christian is also called to see and make known the humanity of the outsider, the enemy. All of this is the burden of a Bishop to the Forces, expected to be an establishment pawn, not so much pro patria mori, but a very English ‘do your best and I hope you pull through’. The C of E is not so much a part of the establishment, as beaten into shape by it so that it might fit the traditional role. There are plenty of problems with being the establishment church: church schools, coronations, oaths of allegiance and the military. I think that having a venerable church leader responsible for the pastoral care of our armed forces is commendable, but being robbed of independent thought by the establishment only makes a mockery of the role.

I hope and pray for Bishop Venner in this role, that he might find a way to channel the thoughts and feelings of the servicemen and women, their friends, families and supporters, being their voice, not that of establishment.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

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