Shaping debate on religion in public life.

A Prayer called Paddington

5 Dec 2017

Following a trip to the cinema, Simon Reader ponders our shared values and Justin Welby’s hard stare.

If we’re kind and polite, the world will be right.”
Aunt Lucy

I highly recommend the latest Paddington movie if you haven’t yet had the chance to see it at the pictures. Having our niece to stay at the weekend was the perfect excuse, but there’s plenty to recommend for grown-ups in this delightful, very funny and, at times, moving sequel – not least a scene-stealing turn by Hugh Grant.

As with the first film – and the books – I think it has quite a lot to say to us. At a time when society seems so very fractured, and amidst so much hand-wringing about our national identity, Paddington is a reassuring reminder of the kinds of values that we still aspire to. It’s been said lately that we don’t really have shared values, but I don’t think that’s right – we may not be very good at living out our values, but that’s a different thing. At the recent William Temple Foundation Annual Lecture, Jonathan Bartley quoted GK Chesterton saying that “the problem with Christianity is not that it has been tried and found wanting, but rather that it has been wanted and never tried.”

The latest Paddington film is, amongst other things, about the redemptive effects of acting with kindness, courtesy and compassion – and doing so unerringly. It’s perhaps this disarming constancy which makes Paddington a challenging figure for many of those he meets in a more cynical world. He innocently lives out the values he was instructed in by his Aunt Lucy in a way that continuously rubs up against the norms, pace and habits of the rest of us. But gradually Paddington’s conduct has a redemptive ripple effect on those around him, inspiring people to find and realise those same values in themselves.

For Christians, it’s actually a very familiar story. An unusual stranger is delivered remarkably into a broken world, radically challenges its values and priorities, and through his goodness offers a kind of salvation to those who encounter him.

The vices that Paddington is pitted against in the film are principally those of greed and deception – the villain of the piece is an avaricious, delusional dissembler. This obviously calls to mind certain powerful contemporary figures and themes that Christians need to be calling out and challenging today. It was good to see Justin Welby recently criticising the US President in public, and re-affirming this country’s values of tolerance and solidarity.

And, of course, Paddington continues to speak to us on the theme of welcome and hospitality, arriving, as he did, as an immigrant from Peru on a station platform with a label around his neck saying: “Please look after this bear. Thank You.” As Michael Morpurgo has written, “What’s extraordinary is how powerful that story is today. We only have to see that bear to see the predicament of a Syrian child.”

These predicaments are, sadly, nothing new. On the theme of hospitality and immigration, next week sees the publication of a new Temple Tract on the role of Archbishop William Temple during the Second World War in drawing attention to the plight of Jews in occupied Europe, and his petitions to the UK Government to provide asylum to those able to leave enemy-occupied territories. Rob Thompson, Programme Manager at the Council of Christians and Jews, has been through the Lambeth Palace Archives to put together a fuller picture of Temple’s advocacy and courage, and writes in his forthcoming tract of Temple’s example of the idea that “every little act of good will towards our friends or strangers is enough and can change the world.”

I’d suggest that Paddington isn’t a bad example either!

Speaking about his creation in a 2014 interview, Michael Bond reminds us that one quality that’s sometimes overlooked is Paddington’s courage: “he stands up for things, he’s not afraid of going straight to the top and giving them a hard stare.” I imagine William Temple as having a pretty good hard stare, and I like to imagine Justin Welby and others confronting the present government in the same way over the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

Perhaps this might be an effective ploy when Donald Trump finally makes his infamous state visit to the UK, rumoured to be scheduled around the end of February 2018. Imagine thousands of protestors not chanting, jeering and waving placards but stood silently at every roadside giving the President a Paddington-style hard stare. That would be quite something.

In the meantime, I hope that we don’t give up on the idea that we share values; I think they’re all around if we look for them. Maybe we just need to work harder to cultivate a society that makes Aunt Lucy’s maxim more true.

Rob Thompson’s Temple Tract, At the Bar of History, Humanity and God, will be available online on Monday 11th December 2017.

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