I SPENT most of last week in a tranquil region of the Swedish
countryside. The nearest we came to excitement was the sight of a
couple of sea eagles drifting above the pine trees.
So secluded was I that no whisper reached me of the anguish of a
prominent bishop over the outrageous persecution of Christians in
Full marks to John Bingham of The Daily Telegraph for
avoiding The Times's use of "leading" here, for one might
very well question whom the bishop in question is leading, and
where. Yes, it is the martyrdom of the Girl Guides, their hapless
corpses once more piled on the sand of the arena after they refuse
to swear an oath to Caesar:
"A prominent bishop has called on other Christian Guide and
Brownies volunteers to mirror the decision by the leaders of one
troop who have pledged to retain the traditional promise which
contains references to God and country.
"The Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali [for it is he], the former Bishop
of Rochester, said that he hoped 'many others' would follow the
stance taken by the women in Harrogate, North Yorks."
Alas, this story was promptly followed by another: "Guide
leaders from Harrogate, North Yorkshire, announced publicly that
they would keep the old oath after the UK-wide organisation
demanded in June that all Guides abandon any reference to God in
"But the St Paul's Harrogate troop has now agreed to use the new
secular oath, following a meeting with Girlguiding UK last
ACTUALLY, the story did have a peculiar resonance in Sweden, since
the big religious story there was a pitch by the leader of the
reactionary and anti-immigrant party, the Sweden Democrats (SD),
for votes in the Swedish Church's upcoming elections. Since the SD
is, in British terms, something between UKIP and the BNP, the
out-come may be interesting. Jimmie Åkesson, the party leader, said
that the Swedish state Church was now less Swedish and less
Christian than it needed to be.
It was fascinating to me to hear the echoes in his complaint:
"Intolerance against dissenters is spreading within the Church.
Priests who dare to oppose the politically correct regime within
the Church are isolated, reprimanded, or transferred. Leading
voices in the Church have begun to call for . . . a ban on the
ordination of critics of immigration or conservative patriots. But
to split the Swedish from the Christian is as difficult as to get
the egg out of a sponge cake once it's baked."
I would not have supposed 30 years ago that the Swedish state
Church would have become an important part of the political debate
there. Yet here it is. The SD wins ten per cent of the vote. It
stands, overwhelmingly, for the proposition that things were better
before. Hostility to foreigners, and especially to immigrants, is
the most visible part of this, but the unashamed resentment of the
modern world is a sentiment that goes much deeper and wider than
The established nature of the Swedish Church has played a part
in this, since elections for its governing body are contested by
political parties, if unofficially. It is a nice question for
supporters of establishment whether this kind of relevance is
better for either Church or state than the alternative irrelevance
so completely embodied by our own dear Synod.
THE tides of political and religious conservatism ebb sometimes,
too. The US RC magazine Commonweal printed a reflection on
gay marriage by Joseph Bottum, who used to edit
Commonweal's deadly intellectual rival, the right-wing
This started with common sense: "In the context of the deserved
contempt that followed [the child-abuse scandals], what kind of
loony, pie-eyed judgment could lead the Bishops to engage in a
sex-based public-policy debate they are doomed to lose - feeding
mockery of the Church while engaged in the expensive process of
losing that fight?"
But, as he recognises, common sense and appeals to pragmatism
are not enough. Nor should they be: what makes the Church's opinion
dangerous, he says, is that it is wrong theologically: "The thin
notions of natural law deployed against same-sex marriage in recent
times are unpersuasive, and, what's more, they deserve to be
unpersuasive - for their thinness reflects their lack of rich truth
about the spiritual meanings present in this created world."
There is a great deal more - the essay is nearly 10,000 words
long - but the essential point, and what will surely prove most
influential, is that the case for gay marriage is not an
abandonment of Christian values, but an attempt to discern what
they ought actually to entail.