It's not pleasant to think of George Osborne fiddling about with one's feet.
But the Archbishop of Canterbury was on to something when he called this week for the nation's leaders to harness that Maundy feeling. In his traditional Maundy address, delivered on the day in the Christian calendar when clerics, in imitation of Christ's attentions to his disciples at the Last Supper, wash the feet of parishioners, Dr Rowan Williams called for the rich and powerful to put themselves directly at the service of the community.
"What about having a new law that made all cabinet members and leaders of political parties, editors of national papers and the 100 most successful financiers in the UK spend a couple of hours every year serving dinners in a primary school on a council estate?" the archbishop suggested. "Or cleaning bathrooms in a residential home? Walking around the streets of a busy town ... ready to pick up and absorb something of the chaos and human mess?"
The British Bankers' Association declined to comment on the archbishop's plan, while Francis Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office, "absolutely agreed" in principle while confirming that any such legislation was totally out of the question. Which is, I think, a shame, because even if it served no other purpose, compulsory mingling of politicians and hoi polloi might choke the endless stream of television programmes in which Michael Portillo (or someone of that ilk) lives like a poor person for a week and discovers that all it takes is the right attitude and some cunning ways with chicken livers to live a happy, productive life on 40p a day.
If the "Toffs in Toilets" Bill never makes it to a green paper, it is still a point worth making. Not least because in the prevailing piety of "sharing the pain", nobody on the political spectrum seems much interested in inequality any more. As the Coalition hammers the less fortunate into the ground and Labour looks on in eerie silence, the established church has effectively become the nearest thing we have to an organised counter-culture.
It's not the first time Dr Williams has stepped into the echoing space where an Opposition should be. Right back in July 2010, while most of us were dutifully sifting the Big Society rhetoric for some shard of meaningful policy, Williams voiced his scepticism about an "exercise in buck-passing". He scarcely needed special powers of prophesy when he warned that the Big Society was "just an alibi for cuts and a way back to government washing its hands", but what with the long white beard and the lasering intellect, it has been convenient for this Government and the last to dismiss the archbishop, politely, as a dealer in impossible ideals. In truth, Dr Williams is no stranger to compromise – his climbdown over women bishops and gay bishops in the interests of "church unity" was a severe disappointment to many – but it is fair to say that traditional church/state complicity – the old, conservative alliance that led Diderot to proclaim that "man will never be free until the last politician is strangled with the gut of the last priest" – has dissolved in the heat of the archbishop's social conscience.
Nor is Williams a lone voice among Anglicans. This week the Right Reverend John Pritchard, the left-leaning Bishop of Oxford and chairman of the CofE's board of education, sparked panic in the aisles when he urged a radical shake-up of church schools' admission policies. In the interests of serving the wider community, Pritchard is keen to "cap" the number of places reserved for practising Anglicans at 10 per cent and open church schools to all faiths. His gentle assertion that the mission of CofE schools is not to "collect nice Christians into safe places" but rather to "release the gospel into the community" has been claimed as a significant victory for those who argue that church schools are fundamentally white, middle-class bastions.
I'm all for widening cultural inclusiveness in schools, though as a former governor of a CofE primary, I've never been 100 per cent convinced by the "class ghetto" argument; the church, it seems to me, is one of very few British institutions where lack of income is no bar to membership. On the other hand, it takes considerable financial clout to buy your way into the catchment area of a popular school.
Either way, Pritchard's comments have had the bracing effect of dynamite lobbed into a shark pool, as competitive parents absorb the shock of the new directive. Just as non-church-going parents who fight tooth and nail to secure a place for their child in a church school are apt to complain that "it's all a bit churchy" when they get there (did they not read the sign on the gate?), I suspect that some of those campaigning for more community places – ie non-church places – may find the bishop's expanded idea of community rather more than they can handle.
In an increasingly secular society, will the pronouncements of priests, troublesome or otherwise, ultimately matter? The philosopher Charles Taylor believes that it is precisely because of the decline in church attendance and the consequent loosening of establishment ties that CofE clerics feel able to speak out with confidence on political matters. I think it may be simpler than that. I think what we're hearing now from Williams, Pritchard et al is conviction politics. It's terribly old-fashioned. And it might just work.
It's a case of strange ways here we come when publishers panic
The bidding war for Morrissey's memoirs has taken a turn that surely must have the famously miserable singer laughing all the way to the bank. Publishers have offered multimillion-pound sums for the as yet uncompleted autobiography, which is expected to blow the gaff on the writer's strictly guarded sexuality. Throwing corporate dignity to the winds, the prestigious house of Faber and Faber sent the singer a toe-curling open letter begging him to join their list. "History commands it." wrote publishing director Lee Brackstone. "Destiny commands it."
Morrissey, pictured, apparently, is more inclined to Penguin, but only if his outpourings are published under the company's Classic imprint, alongside the life stories of fellow icons Gandhi and Malcolm X.
Personally, I have never seen the allure of Morrissey's brand of wincing sensitivity. (I'm with the divine Oscar, who feared the sensitive man as one "who takes care to step only on other people's corns".) "The world is full of crashing bores," Morrissey once sang, "I'm not one." Let's hope – for his publisher's sake – he didn't protest too much.
At least I now know what's the best thing I can confiscate
The findings of a poll by the think tank Demos that 16-19-year-old girls prize their mobile phones and computers above all possessions will come as no surprise to mothers of teenagers. The report also found that girls overwhelmingly use the internet for social networking (unlike teenage boys, who, one imagines, might log on for more solitary pleasures).
You're never alone with 300 Facebook friends, and while I accept that a total Facebook ban for a 15-year-old is the modern equivalent of refusing to let your child attend any party ever, this is precisely what I mistrust about it. The art of being alone, properly alone, to study or think or dream, is one I fear today's teenagers may never learn.
On a less elevated note, I'm glad of the think tank's findings. With a decreasing list of parental sanctions at one's disposal, at least it's good to know there's something worth confiscating, if only temporarily. I expect to find myself posted as the world's most unreasonable mother any minute now.Reuse content