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Press: US Evangelicals feel the heat

16 August 2007

by Andrew Brown

“Vicars becoming women”: the story about gender balance among clerics in The Sunday Telegraph

“Vicars becoming women”: the story about gender balance among clerics in The Sunday Telegraph

THE important piece of industry gossip is that The Guardian has appointed a successor to Stephen Bates. It is Riazat Butt, who is a non-practising Muslim woman.

This is a shrewd appointment. She’s clever, energetic, and honest. It’s also a pretty clear statement that the days are past when knowing or caring much about the Church of England was the most important qualification for a religious-affairs writer.

Nor are there many Anglican stories around, apart from an extremely worrying headline in Monday’s Daily Mail: “Half of all vicars will be women ‘by 2025’”. I read this as meaning that half of all current male priests will have changed sex by then. No wonder so many of them are growing beards.

BUT there were two long stories in the US press that deserved note. The first was Juliet Eilperin’s account, in The Washington Post, of the ways in which a slightly younger generation of Evangelical leaders are beginning to accept the reality of global warming. I have written about aspects of this story before — in particular, the failed coup against Richard Cizik, Washington lobbyist for the National Organisation of Evangelicals, who was attacked for suggesting that climate change might be an issue that changed the world more than gay marriage.

But Eilperin’s story put real flesh on these bones. In particular, she concentrated on one Florida megachurch whose leader, Joel Hunter, has decided to push the issue: “At 8 on a Saturday morning, just as the heat was permeating this sprawling Orlando suburb, Denise Kirsop donned a white plastic moon suit and began sorting through the trash produced by Northland Church.

“She and several fellow parishioners picked apart the garbage to analyse exactly how much and what kind of waste their megachurch produces, looking for ways to reduce the congregation’s contribution to global warming.

“‘I prayed about it, and God really revealed to me that I had a passion about creation,’ said Kirsop, who has since traded in her family’s sport-utility vehicle for a hybrid Toyota Prius to help cut her greenhouse-gas emissions.”

All this was partly brought about by the work of English Evangelicals, and that is the other interest of Eilperin’s piece: she describes how Sir John Houghton, the Welsh climate scientist, has used St George’s House, in Windsor Castle, to schmooze American Evangelicals for years — even Prince Charles was brought into the effort — until some of them, at least, came to believe that global warming was not a liberal plot like evolution.

IN The New York Review of Books, meanwhile, Malise Ruthven penned a long and measured demolition of Tariq Ramadan. This matters a great deal, since the objection to Ramadan is not that he is a terrorist, nor a terrorist sympathiser: he clearly is not, and it was ludicrous and shaming of the US authorities to prevent him from taking up a tenured position at Notre Dame University. What Ruthven makes clear is that Ramadan is operating inside a very rigid framework; and that he is more interested in preaching to the converted than dialogue with outsiders.

“Fluent in French, English, and Arabic, with degrees in Western philosophy. . . Ramadan is admirably qualified to interpret Islam and its founder to uninformed, sceptical, or just curious Western readers. But for a nonbeliever, In the Footsteps of the Prophet is disappointing. One would have expected him — at the very least — to have alluded to the vigorous scholarly debate surrounding the origins of Islam, if only to dismiss it — as several orthodox Muslim scholars have done — as a conspiracy to undermine Islam at its source. Instead he has produced a faith-promoting narrative, pleasant enough, but bland and colourless.”

Above all, he claims that Ramadan is “dangerously utopian and optimistic. In several unguarded passages he gives himself away: unlike Western Christianity the shared faith of Islam — ‘the brotherhood of Faith — is opposed to any idea of tragic consciousness.’ This is an astounding statement because it excludes, consciously or otherwise, the whole of the Shia minority tradition, which is suffused with a tragic sense of loss and betrayal.”

The claim that Ruthven here is making, at least by implication, is much more interesting — much more frightening — than the hackneyed one that Islam needs a Reformation. It is that Islam cannot understand European secularisation because it has not yet had its Thirty Years’ War.

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