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The state, a bad guide

30 August 2013


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 Harrogate.

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 their promise.

"But the St Paul's Harrogate troop has now agreed to use the new secular oath, following a meeting with Girlguiding UK last week."

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 that.

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 First Things.

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.

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