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.