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Comedian tells Christians how it is

18 July 2014

The Church urgently needs a grown-up debate about theology, says Eva McIntyre


Raising questions: Eddie Izzard on stage

Raising questions: Eddie Izzard on stage

I WAS watching a consummate performance by one of the best stand-up comedians in the UK; so why did my thoughts turn to theology? Eddie Izzard's surreal humour - in which God has the voice of James Mason - has a serious dimension.

"If there was a God, don't you think he'd have flicked Hitler's head off?" he asks, to the delight of the audience. He has got a point; I knew this before I came. My discomfort is not at the content of his material - frankly, I don't disagree with his logic or his evidence. No, it is the accurate reflection of the Church that is making me squirm.

The squirming is not from disapproval, but from embarrassment. The Anglican God, apparently, has a fragile ego, and must be propped up with worship - or, as Izzard succinctly puts it: "Please could you possibly mumble positive things towards me on a Sunday, in the coldest building you can find?"

In this comic caricature, Izzard has Christians believing in a literal, Bible version of God that is akin to the Wizard of Oz's pulling levers behind a curtain. Seen in this light, the concept is naïve, and inadequate to meet the questions and needs of our world, where scientific discovery and rational thought prevail.

IN THE backlash from David Cameron's article about his personal Christianity and that of the country (Comment, 17 April), many atheists on social media are dismissing Christianity with broad claims that we all believe such things as "God made the world in seven days."

When I rose to the challenge posed by one such person on Twitter, he struggled with my more liberal approach, quickly assigning me to the "exception" box, and commenting: "My main issue is that people worship the god of the Bible - and whichever filter you put him through, he really is a murdering bastard."

I found his analysis of the Bible and God shockingly fundamentalist, and lacking in academic rigour. I gave up on the conversation; the starting place was wrong, and made the theological road too difficult to travel. It would have been easier if the Church had not, somewhere along the route, ceased to acknowledge publicly the many different views that Christians hold on the Bible.

I mourn the passing of the debates triggered by the Rt Revd David Jenkins in his time as Bishop of Durham. People talked about theology on the streets, down the pub, and at home; he gave them permission to do so. More importantly, he gave them permission to be honest about their doubts, and thereby have integrity.

IN A question-and-answer session later with Izzard, I ask him what he means when he says he is a "spiritual atheist". He is rational in his argument against the existence of a God, yet he also talks with enthusiasm about the connection he can feel between us all in the room; and I can see him grappling for words to describe what is a real experience for him.

Izzard's approach differs from that of the antagonists on social media; he appears completely unthreatened. He is not an angry atheist with an axe to grind about the Church. He is kind when he speaks about religion: "Other people are religious, and that's great."

But this spirituality business is not simply an intellectual exercise; it is intensely personal. Izzard's final comment on my question is: "But I don't believe in God, or why did Hitler live longer than my mum?"

It poses a challenge that cannot be sated with trite phrases such as "God is weeping with you." This kind of platitude would do more to console the person saying it than respond to the palpable grief on Izzard's face.

It would also insult his intelligence. He and all those others who ask the same question deserve a better answer. We owe it to our Church and country to do good theology, and to make it accessible - grown-up theology, which grapples with the nature of God, the historicity of biblical texts, and what we believe we are doing when we pray.

IZZARD is one public face of a logic that illustrates how we have failed to move forward theologically as a Church, shackled by centuries of doctrine that we dare not tamper with, and crippled by a desire to keep all our factions on board. This has created a chasm between the Church and much of society, and it hampers our ministry in communities. Our God is, frankly, too small.

It is late; we needed to step up to the challenge of grass-roots theological debate a long time ago, but, somehow, we got lost in the midst of our domestic issues. There are people who need us to have this debate now: people inside the Church, people who feel unable to be inside the Church, and those who need to find some way to respect us from a distance.

It does not have to be a daunting task: a simple discussion could find #whathappenswhenwepray trending on Twitter, for example. Or the conversation could happen face to face, in informal discussion groups in cafés or pubs, where others can eavesdrop.

Conversations with those who come for baptisms and weddings could be more about "thought" than "taught", and perhaps we could invite theologians to events to encourage dialogue about the Bible.

IF WE fail to hold this honest theological debate, the price will be high. I am alluding not only to the Church of England's sinking into obscurity; there are many Christian charities relying on us to make a difference at home and across the world.

I am concerned about who will sustain this work as numbers decline. Ironically, many of those ardent atheists on Twitter leapt eagerly to donate to the Christian charity the Trussell Trust, after the Mail on Sunday's attack backfired ( News, 25 April).

It is a particularly Anglican activity to hold the door open for those who wish to explore faith in an honest, inclusive, and unthreatening atmosphere. Here, there is grace and space for all - even a spiritual atheist such as Izzard, who loves visiting churches.

He says that he likes the buildings, and thinks that they have wonderful communities, and some good cafés. Most of all, he likes the ones with candles. He always lights one for his mother, who died when he was six years old.

This is our inheritance, for which we have a profound responsibility, and we let it die at great cost to many. It really is time to talk about theology.

The Revd Eva McIntyre is Vicar of Stourport-on-Severn and Wilden, and Director of Green Blade Theatre.

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