2012. Officially regarded as the most historic year ever*. Rupert Murdoch on trial (sort of), the Diamond Jubilee’s weird combination of street parties and a Thames flotilla, and of course, the explosion of sporting triumph and impassioned patriotism that was the Olympics. How on earth do you follow that?
What surprised us all, then, was that hot on the heels of one extraordinary year would follow another, with more monumental happenings than one might imagine possible in such a short space of time. A new Pope! A new prince! And most extraordinarily of all, a British man winning Wimbledon! 2013 was another definitive year, not least for the Church.
*heat magazine. Probably.
The year began with the conclusion of 2012’s last big story ? the re-election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Obama was sworn in for his second term on 20th January, having seen off the challenge of Mitt Romney, the Mormon Republican who’d enlisted the support of evangelical leaders. Supporters called it ‘historic’, but the second honeymoon didn’t last long ? Obama was soon thrust back into the heart of the battle that will either define or derail his presidency: his fight to deliver a basic level of free, or at least cheaper, healthcare for the millions of Americans who can’t afford it.
Dubbed ‘Obamacare’, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, passed into law back in 2010, is fiercely opposed by most Republicans. That strength of feeling is matched in large areas of the US Church, which many find difficult to understand from a distance. These opponents aren’t giving up without a fight ? and the disagreement surrounding the Bill was one of the major factors that led to a historic 16-day ‘shutdown’ of the US government in October.
In a 2012 interview, Obama said this of the perspective his own Christian faith gives him on his job: ‘I’m not perfect. What I can do is just keep on following Him, and serve others ? trying to make folks’ lives a little better using this humbling position that I hold.’ His efforts to do that continue to struggle against opposition; as much coming from within the Church as outside it.
One of 2012’s great heroes ? South African athlete Oscar Pistorius ? became one of 2013’s most notorious villains…allegedly, at least. Last year, the man dubbed ‘Blade Runner’ lit up London 2012 by being the first double leg amputee to compete in the Olympic games, before going on to win two gold medals and break world records at the Paralympics.
This year the world was stunned to wake up on Valentine’s Day to the news that Pistorius had shot and killed his girlfriend ? model Reeva Steenkamp ? at his home in Pretoria. While admitting to the shooting, Pistorius protested his innocence, claiming that he thought he was shooting a middle-of-the-night intruder.
A predictable media circus ensued, quickly dispensing with the notion that someone is innocent until proven guilty. Rolling news programmes, in-depth documentaries and gossip columns alike have already concluded that Pistorius ? like Steenkamp, a confirmed Christian ? is a murderer; his trial is set for March 2014.
In February, Pope Benedict XVI made the unprecedented step of announcing his resignation from the papacy ? the first man to willingly step down from the role since 1294. In March the world met ? and instantly fell in love with ? his successor, the warm-hearted Argentinian Jim Bowen lookalike formerly known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
Rebranded as Pope Francis on 13th March, the former Jesuit priest wasted no time in letting the world know his commitment to practising simplicity. On the night of his election, he reportedly rejected the papal car in favour of taking the bus. In his first address as Pope, he talked of his desire for ‘a poor church…And for the poor.’
God hadn’t finished reshuffling his pack, though. Just eight days after Francis’ election, Justin Portal Welby was installed as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury. From taking on Wonga.com to headhunting a West Wing-style backroom staff, and drawing the Church’s focus towards evangelism, Welby shares his predecessor Dr Rowan Williams’ intelligence, but adds a boldness and a sharpness to the role. While he’s already attracted critics, he so far seems unafraid of them, although the Wonga episode ? in which he claimed he’d put the payday loan giant out of business ? ended in embarrassment when it was revealed that the CofE had indirectly invested in it.
For some, the dual emergence of these two new leaders is a sign that God is signalling an exciting new chapter for the global Church.
Proverbs 24:17 reminds us ‘do not gloat when your enemy falls’. Not too many people heeded that advice when former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died at London’s Ritz hotel after suffering a stroke. She was 87 years old.
In line with her wishes, Thatcher was controversially given a state funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral. Thatcher often described herself as a committed Christian, but the Church was restrained in its appreciation. Even a House of Lords tribute by the Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, was littered with references to her divisive nature.
Many could not forgive her legacy and took out their ire online; as The New York Times put it: ‘Thatcher was put in the stocks of the Internet Age.’ Posts on websites, blogs and social media dispensed with the taboo about speaking ill of the dead, as widespread vitriol was unleashed. A Facebook campaign to get the song ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ (from the soundtrack of The Wizard of Oz) to number one was a single chart place from succeeding, and the whole episode only seemed to demonstrate that interaction via computer screen has made the world a crueller place.
A natural disaster in America followed one which humanity had at least contributed to, in Bangladesh. The Moore Tornado, which swept across the ground of an Oklahoma city for 39 devastating minutes on 20th May, led to 25 deaths, 377 injuries and an estimated $2bn of damage. Despite following a similar path to an even deadlier 1999 tornado, few of the homes or schools destroyed by the storm had purpose-built shelters, leading to widespread criticism of the local authorities for not funding them.
Just a few weeks earlier, Dhaka had been the scene of one of the worst building collapses in history, as the eight-storey Rana Plaza building fell seemingly without warning, killing 1,129 people, most of them poorly paid factory workers. A further 2,515 people were pulled from the wreckage alive. The subsequent inquest threw up a catalogue of alleged causes for the scale of the tragedy, including the fact that the building had been built without proper permits, and reports that despite inspectors requesting a full evacuation one day earlier after cracks were found, none took place. Bangladeshi media reported that workers who refused to come to work in the building on the day of the collapse were threatened with having a month’s pay withheld.
I think both tragedies offered a salutary lesson that, in this world at least, God is not in control. Indeed, these two stories are linked by the suspicion that it was greed and human error that caused the scale of the casualties involved. Natural disasters are always more serious in poorer countries because their infrastructure is generally weaker ? a challenge to the West that still uses those places as a source of cheap labour and manufacture.
Formerly beloved TV and radio personality Stuart Hall became the latest in a depressingly long line of entertainers to be exposed for sexual offences against minors when he was jailed in June. The It’s a Knockout host pleaded guilty to the indecent assaults of 13 girls aged between nine and 17 in the 1970s and 80s.
Hall, who was stripped of his OBE in October, joins a list including the disgraced Gary Glitter and Jonathan King in being jailed for such offences, but that list could yet increase substantially. At the time of writing, TV presenters Rolf Harris, DJ Dave Lee Travis, and PR guru Max Clifford also face similar charges of abuse. Their charges are a result of Operation Yewtree, the major coordinated police operation launched in the light of revelations about Jimmy Savile. For years, the victims of each of these men had chosen to remain silent, with only the cascading effect of others coming forward leading them to finally do likewise.
These horrific revelations offer another reminder, if one were needed, that we must remain utterly vigilant in the area of child protection.
A month of major celebration followed, as Britain got a new heir to the throne and the race for Sports Personality of the Year was sewn up in a single summer afternoon.
Having established themselves as the bright new faces of the royal family, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge dutifully delivered Prince George to an adoring public on 22nd July. In a fairly quiet news month, the scene outside the hospital ? as crowds gathered and nothing happened ? took on a faintly comic tone. BBC reporter George McCoy, forced to give yet another rolling news update, admitted ‘there is no news’
Meanwhile the Prince’s October christening, performed by new archbishop Justin Welby, provided an opportunity for the primate to suggest people should reconsider the ceremony.
‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone’ ? WH Auden’s famous poem concerns grief; yet it’s also an apt description of the way a nation collectively held its breath as a young British (when he wins) man stepped out on Wimbledon’s Centre Court and stared destiny in the face. More accurately, Andy Murray stared down world number one Novak Djokovic, and as history will record it, he fairly blew his opponent away with a straight sets Wimbledon victory.
At home, Britain was treated to a fine summer, but elsewhere, in North Africa and the Middle East, events were reaching boiling point. Egypt’s President Morsi was deposed in a July coup, and the Arab Spring threatened to turn into an Arab Winter as violent clashes between the country’s various factions escalated and increased. A complex cauldron of religious and political issues had been bubbling since Morsi ? the country’s first democratically elected leader ? was installed 13 months earlier; the intervention by the Egyptian army was seen as a necessary move by figures including the head of the Coptic Church. As clashes continue, however, ahead of Morsi’s trial in January 2014, notions of democracy remain fragile.
A few hundred miles away in Syria, the situation was even more grave, as under-fire dictator President Assad stood accused of using chemical weapons on his own people. A deadly chemical attack took place near Damascus on 21st August, killing at least 355 people, and affecting an estimated 3,600 victims. While Assad denied responsibility for it, he admitted to holding a large stockpile of chemical weapons and ? under heavy international pressure, including the threat of a US-led invasion ? agreed to destroy it within one year. The British government, which had initially backed a military intervention, stood down from this position after a landmark parliamentary debate refused to mandate it.
In an age of austerity and recession, where unemployment in Spain stands at over 25%, it seems ludicrous that a Spanish football team would choose to pay £85m for a Welsh bloke with a decent left peg. Yet that’s exactly what happened when Gareth Bale became the world’s most expensive footballer on 1st September, transferring from Tottenham to Real Madrid. He joins Cristiano Ronaldo ? a relative bargain at just £80m ? in the world’s most expensive football team, a former club of renowned underwear salesman David Beckham. DB hung up his boots in the summer after an illustrious career; he’ll now focus on charity work, continuing to develop football in America, and sitting around in his pants.
Bale’s move was just one of the big stories of another extraordinary sporting year, which included the achievements of that tennis player from Dunblane, a successful rugby tour of Australia by the British and Irish Lions, and a now-customary Ashes victory for England’s once-woeful cricketers. Taking into account Chris Froome’s Tour de France win, 2013’s summer of sport very nearly surpassed its extraordinary predecessor. But not quite.
As America’s public services became paralysed by a government shutdown (see January), the country had another, equally significant, problem. Thanks to the revelations of whistleblower and former CIA and NSA employee Edward Snowden, some of America’s closest allies ? including Britain ? received confirmation that the US had been spying on them.
Snowden’s leaks ? made to The Guardian newspaper and others ? included details of the NSA’s mass surveillance operation, which is capable of keeping watch on the online behaviour of up to a billion people worldwide. In a speech worthy of a conspiracy movie, Snowden told the paper: ‘They [the NSA] can use the system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.’
For the US, the revelations have caused incalculable relational damage among their allies; for Snowden, they could spell a lengthy prison sentence. He is now considered a fugitive, and is living under temporary asylum in Russia.
As the year began to draw to a close, the greatest tragedy of the year rightly grabbed the headlines after Typhoon Haiyan ? one of the strongest tropical cyclones on record ? devastated the Philippines. An estimated 5,000 people died as a result of the storm, which affected more than 11 million people and left many of them homeless. A significant aid and relief effort was launched in response ? including a major financial donation from the Vatican, and an extraordinary gift from the UK government that dwarfed the contribution of every other nation.
Meanwhile, in the Church of England, a landmark moment arrived when the General Synod ? which in 2012 had voted against the ordination of female bishops ? agreed revised proposals which should pave the way for a successful vote next year. The conclusive poll ? a majority of 378 to eight, with 25 abstentions ? means the July 2014 synod is almost certain to pass the necessary legislation to allow women bishops. All in all, a very significant year for the Church.
I’ll level with you. Owing to the nature of monthly magazine deadlines, I’m writing this at the end of November ? so of course I don’t know exactly what will/did happen in December. According to every reliable forecasting source, however, the major topic of conversation in Britain is likely to be the unwelcome (after the first, fun day) return of the powdery white stuff that’sbecome a feature of recent winters. An educated guess would suggest that the expected ‘exceptionally severe’ weather will lead the Daily Mail to run headlines like ‘A country brought to its knees’
Another, much more troubling story emerging in the final weeks of the year concerns the little-known Central African Republic (CAR), a country the size of France which ? according to some new sources ? stands on the brink of genocide while, as The Guardian’s David Smith put it, ‘the world looks the other way’. A major conflict is underway between Muslim and Christian groups in the nation, and it appears to be set to escalate unless the UN intervenes. Among the countries that deserve our urgent prayers ? and more ? at the turn of a new year, the CAR stands particularly tall.
So there you have it: a year of sporting highs and bright new beacons of hope at home; of tragedy and uncertainty overseas. 2013 is likely to get a sizeable entry when they’re writing up the all-time history books; I for one would be quite happy with a fairly quiet 2014...
2013 in numbers
264 Number of people injured by bombs near the finish line of April's Boston Marathon. Remarkably, only three people lost their lives
5 Series of Breaking Bad, the US TV show about one man's utter moral decline, which turned white hot in this year's final season
265 Number of popes ? including Francis ? since St Peter himself
28 Member number of Croatia, which joined the European Union in July
142.4 Price, in millions of dollars, achieved by Francis Bacon's ? Three Studies of Lucian Freud ? at auction in November
Who are ya? Four people you’d never heard of before 2013
The ‘Blurred Lines’ singer penned the most controversial song of the decade, and contributed to the ongoing meltdown of one-time Disney sweetheart Miley Cyrus, with whom he shared a lurid dance at a televised awards show. His misogynistic number one is now banned in 20 UK universities.
If her star turn in gazillion-dollar movie franchise The Hunger Games wasn’t going to make her a household name, then tripping up on her way to the stage at February’s Oscars certainly did the trick.
The UKIP member now sits as an independent MEP, after losing the party whip in September. This happened because he hit a journalist with a brochure, and then made a derogatory joke about women at his party’s conference. Charming man.
It’s perhaps an indictment on the state of the England football team that a new player can emerge and instantly become its strongest weapon ? the Tottenham winger wowed crowds who saw his name on the team sheet and asked: who?