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No longer the arena for morals

06 December 2013

Some attention: religious stories inThe Timeslast Friday

Some attention: religious stories inThe Timeslast Friday

ONE way of considering how much the world cares for the opinions of the Church of England is to play with Google. Take two news stories about homosexuality in the past week. A search on "Joseph Pilling" brings up 21,000 results, which is impressive for a retired civil servant. A search for Tom Daley and "gay" brings up 11 million hits, which I find a little suspicious.

Let's try instead on Google News alone. There have been 74,500 news stories indexed by Google on the theme of Tom Daley's sexuality. The Pilling report, in contrast, produced 938. Four of the top five concentrated on the opposition to the proposals, modest though they were.

It seems to me that these figures dramatise the threat to the Church of England in a way that little else could do. It is no longer the arena in which, or through which, people consider their moral concerns. This is not because the members are dramatically out of step with society - although there is a certain conservatism that shows through the polling figures - but because the official, synodical discussion is. When that is what gets reported, there is a real problem for everyone involved.

It is not as if the nuances fool anyone in the outside world. For all the stuff about this being merely a discussion document which would lead to "facilitated conversations", the Mail's take on the story was straightforward, and, I think, generally accurate: "Gay couples should be allowed to have their relationships blessed in church, the Church of England said yesterday.

"Bishops should lift their official ban on ceremonies to mark civil partnerships and the relationships of gay and lesbian churchgoers, a long-awaited C of E report said. "It signalled an end to the Church's longstanding insistence that gay relationships are sinful and less worthy than heterosexual marriage."

It is also worth noting the response of Reform to the proposal that it reasons through their differences with the rest of the Church: "The Council reiterated its belief that the Anglican approach to doctrine and ethics can only be based on Scripture and therefore was not open to negotiation in facilitated conversations."

It is against this kind of backdrop that we note the utter silence around the Archbishop of Canterbury's remarks on AIDS, and in particular his claim, made in Africa, that the struggle against the disease required that we ensure "that no groups - and here I'm clearly thinking about LGTB groups - face discrimination which creates barriers to accessing testing and treatment".

This is almost a platitude - remarkable only because it is one of those platitudes that the Anglican Church in Uganda has been trying to make punishable with a prison sentence. After all, it is clearly promoting homosexuality to say that lesbians should be treated just as if they were normal people. But it has somehow fallen out of the class of platitudes that become news when an Archbishop says them.


ON THE other side of the Atlantic, there was a great deal of pleasure to be had from the reaction of American right-wingers to the Pope's Apostolic Exhortation. As The Guardian reported it, the document "Attacked unfettered capitalism as 'a new tyranny', urging global leaders to poverty and growing inequality."

So we have the reaction from the "shock jock" Rush Limbaugh: "What this is, somebody has either written this for him or gotten to him. This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope. I'm not Catholic, but I know enough to know that this would have been unthinkable for a pope to believe or say just a few years ago."

But, again, what was most striking was what was not written. If you publish 50,000 words, no journalist is going to read them: the demand for immediate reaction and analysis is just too pressing; and the next day there will be another story to pursue. I have not read the whole thing myself, and I am not a news journalist. So it was from a blog on the National Catholic Reporter that I lifted the really rather wonderful quote that follows:

"The great danger in today's world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience."

This seems to me to be travelling in the same direction as the Revd Dr Jessica Martin's reflections at the start of the Pilling report (a section that I did read, carefully - twice). It is more startling than the headlines because it is addressed to the ordinary believer, not to to world leaders.

It has hardly made any noise at all in the media: 35,000 hits on Google news - half those on Daley's sex life, and only 20 times as many as the Pilling report. But it is clearly the most important news story of the week.

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