Why Should the Devil Have All the Best Tunes (and Words)?

by the Rt Revd Dr David Walker, Bishop of Manchester


My music teacher at secondary school was fond of the saying, “Why should the devil have all the best tunes?” Under his tutelage, morning assemblies went far beyond the contents of Ancient and Modern, affording us glimpses into how a wider musical repertoire might be employed in our collective worship. Nearly fifty years on, I’m beginning to wonder if his complaint about music applies to vocabulary too. Does the devil have all the best words?

It’s certainly true that the shortest and sharpest messages, the ones that are easiest to get across in a contested situation, are often the most negative or polemical. In last year’s US presidential election, Donald Trump proved adept at consistently applying the same single, simple negative adjective ahead of his uttering the name of whichever rival he wanted to beat at that moment. Each rival had their own personalised pejorative epithet. And they stuck. In Church debates the same techniques apply. Terms such as “Revisionist” and “Homophobe” are regularly thrown around; whilst during recent events in Sheffield the relative subtleties of the “Five Guiding Principles” were drowned out by more visceral cries of sexism or intolerance.

Increasingly, I find the only way to counter this is to seek to set up an equally short and simple vocabulary, but one aimed at helping us value each other and live with difference better. In my last foray for Via Media I sought to develop the notion of “Paradox” as a way of adding to the positive vocabulary. I’d want to invite readers to put their own minds to thinking through a language fit for irenical debate. What does an accessible and tested set of words, that help us engage and differ constructively, look like? And then how can we put those words into our conversation, with Trump-like regularity, in order to develop their meanings and use?

So let me offer one more word by way of example, Solidarity. It’s a term that seems to have been almost exclusively used in UK circles as part of the political rhetoric of the left. Most often it presupposes some common enemy against whole different groups are invited to unite. However, in continental Europe versions of it have borne a wider currency. To stand in solidarity with someone is not to agree with them on everything, indeed the word is predicated on some basic difference for which solidarity is the bridge across the divide. Solidarity takes us far beyond the grudging tolerance that is often all that wider society believes is achievable in the face of disagreement. As a nation, I think that we need the concept of solidarity to take us beyond the polarisation of the 2016 referendum process. We need to accept that we can differ hugely as to the wisdom of leaving the European Union, but it is in all our interests now to do it as well as we possibly can.

When, a few days ago, I attended, robed and received communion at the Chrism Mass presided over by the Bishop of Beverley, nobody imagined that my strong convictions on the full inclusion of women in the Church’s ordained ministry were wavering. What I hoped they recognised was that, just as I had done at the same service last year, I wanted to express my solidarity with a significant cohort of the priests and laity of my diocese. I regularly find myself standing on platforms with the leaders of the other major world faiths represented in Manchester, often as we express our solidarity with one another in favour of some societal good. But sometimes  our solidarity doesn’t require any specific common cause beyond itself. We are people of faith and belief, and that is enough to create the bond.

I don’t imagine for a moment that a single new concept, or the rehabilitation of a somewhat forgotten word, will clear us a path through the deep divisions that continue to face Christian Churches. But I do believe that building a new vocabulary, where the language of peace is at least as strong and clear as that of war, could play a significant role. The devil doesn’t need to have all the best words or tunes.



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10 Responses to Why Should the Devil Have All the Best Tunes (and Words)?

  1. Pete Jermey says:

    Perhaps surprisingly the most common use of those negative terms is to ignore people’s genuine questions. I have seen it when I have asked conservative church leaders how banning gay people from relationships is consistent with Christ’s summary of the law. I have seen it when others were asking genuine questions about the practicalities of having a diocesan bishop who believes women are, spiritually, inferior to men.

    I agree that we need a softer language, but I think far more we need to actually listen and understand each other’s concerns … and try to find answers to these, rather than treating every question as an insult.

  2. Darren Hackett says:

    I still take the view that a tenant explained to me when I was a harassment office. When mediation was suggested to solve her racist neighbours behaviour, her response was, I’m black what’s to mediate! Indeed.

  3. Yrieithydd says:

    The problem with your act of solidarity at that Chrism mass is that it is not something the Bishops of Newcastle or Gloucester could do..

  4. Martin Sewell says:

    Interestingly, I decided not to join in our study group on sexuality last General Synod but rather to stand with the gay Christians who stood outside those discussions and who were hurting at the inadequacy of the conclusions of the Bishop’s report. I struggled with what was the right response; I would not have redefined marriage ( for legal/social/ practical reasons – not theological). When corresponding with a Synod friend discussing whether to stand outside the process of the conversations or remain within, the clinching argument for me was when he summed up why I was needed outside the process in a word – “solidarity”.

    So yes, Bishop David, you have identified one important word in constructing a lexicon for dialogue.

    My own selections would be reclamations.

    I regard myself as a classic “liberal” who is “tolerant” of people and ideas I disagree with. The former has become synonymous with “progressive” (which can be very intolerant) and I know some folk resist the very concept of being “tolerated”. I think both terms need to be reclaimed for their original associations of open mindedness and ascribing respect and a proper place for those with whom one is in dialogue but not yet agreement.

  5. Ian Stubbs says:

    Sorry I do not agree. I think this is an anodine establishment view that covers the uneven playing field. Solidarity in Poland In the 1980s was a broad anti-bureaucratic social movement, using the methods of civil resistance to advance the causes of workers’ rights and social change. In the end the authorities were forced to accept round table discussions resulting in radical changes. This is the kind of movement we need for change in the CofE to defend equal priesthood and work for gender and sexual equality.

  6. To me I deplore the term as used by Bishop David as SSA – same sex attraction, I identify as Gay and I’m happy to be so!

  7. Erika Baker says:

    True solidarity across any divide only works if there is equality. Where there is an imbalance of power solidarity would mean for the powerful side to give up its power to make the rules for the others. Otherwise it’s no more than asking g the weaker side to be complicit in their status.

  8. Erika Baker says:

    It strikes me that the only people who can have genuine solidarity across any divide are people whose lives are not impacted by the cause of the divide.
    We need those people as mediators, but they should be clear that theirs is a special, third position in an argument. The solidarity they can live out is not possible for those who have a personal stake in the outcome of a debate.

  9. Fr Andrew says:

    Yet another apologia for the bigotry of the Church and its support of those who demean and degrade us. What is it with these Bishops? Why can’t they just say, ‘actually, homophobia is wrong, and the people who express it are wrong and I won’t stand along side them to express ‘solidarity”. Is it really that hard for them to get that standing alongside those who actually wish us harm isn’t something we are going to want to do! Kelvin Holdsworth would call this ‘institutional homophobia’. He is not wrong

  10. Richard Ashby says:

    Bishop, this really won’t do. How can one stand in solidarity with people who think I am less than human, deny my affections, try to prohibit my relationships, threaten me with hellfire if I don’t accept their warped theology, threaten me with death and indeed do kill people like me as is happening Chechnya right now and happens in those many African and other countries where so called Anglican Christians are stiring up hatred against us for their own political and power ends. NO. I stand in solidarity with those who oppose oppression, who fight injustice, who won’t compromise with evil.

    You and the other bishops put ‘solidarity’ before truth, compromise with evil and want a quiet life. The recent bishops’ report was yet another attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable, at the expense of LGBT people who will no longer tolerate such patronising treatment. We know that the Bishoos are split down the middle. What we want from you all is real honesty about where you really stand. Not further fudge where LGBT people are asked yet again to be patient while the homophobes somehow catch up with the real world.

    PS We are all still awaiting a definition of the Archbishops’ ‘radical inclusion’, or is that just another platitude empty of meaning?

Any thoughts?