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Judicial killing . . . and platitudes

23 May 2014


THERE is a kind of perfection to which all press releases aspire but few attain. A true master will avoid any trace of novelty or substance, since either will clog the airy splendour of self-affirmation, just as egg yolk clogs attempts to whip up whites into apparent substance. Complete vacuity combined with self-promotion really isn't easy.

So, the headline on the latest press release from the Archbishops' Council is a triumph that should be taught in schools of journalism. "News from the Church of England", it starts, and then "Church of England commends the moral teaching of Church Schools."

Just stop and savour for a moment.

There are poems from which no word could be removed or added without diminishing them. This is a headline to which you could not add one syllable without making it more unexpected or informative.

"Church of England commends the moral teaching of Church Schools." What else could it possibly say?

The strictest judges would point out that it's not completely and utterly uninteresting. It does raise the question what kind of newspaper, or even local radio, would publish this. On what planet, exactly, does it constitute news that the Church of England commends the moral teaching of church schools? One imagines some place where the sun shines greenish through a methane sky, and vast chitinous swamp creatures trumpet to each other as the signal is decoded: "Church of England commends the moral teaching of church schools," and then debate in earnest booms and squawks what this might tell them about intelligent life in the universe.

COMPARE and contrast a video interview put together by the Episcopal News Service, in which the Archbishop of Canterbury talks about the civil war in South Sudan over a montage of clips, including many corpses. It's a bit of a stretch to put that in a press column, though I did write about it on The Guardian's site. It was extremely effective partly because it wasn't self-promotion. It did praise the efforts of the Sudanese Church at mediation, but it was mostly an attempt to draw attention - and prayer - to something horrible and widely overlooked.

Just how widely overlooked was made clearer by the weekend's next Sudanese horror story: Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, a pregnant Christian woman sentenced to death and a hundred lashes for her faith by a court in the North. This is indeed a truly horrible story. It has made headlines all around the world. But I wonder if it is more of an atrocity than the rape and murder of the church workers at the cathedral in Bor, in the South, which Archbishop Welby has so often talked about. Had that atrocity been committed by a Muslim militia rather than one headed by a Presbyterian it would have had far greater resonance.

In this instance, the horror of the sentence is greater because it purports to be part of a civilised system. The Bor massacre was a war crime committed in hot blood; the judicial murder and flogging of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim has been arranged long in advance, and after a solemn deliberative process in a court. This also gives the outrage some point. There is a chance to save her, while we can do nothing for those who have already died.

It also provided the opportunity for some vacuous grandstanding. The Sunday Times made Lord Carey, a former Archbishop, look idiotic, perhaps unfairly, by quoting him: "Isn't there something fundamentally wrong with Islam at its core that it cannot allow people to change their religion? Moderate Muslims . . . have to say enough is enough.

"It is accepted doctrine in Islam [that] you don't convert, and if you do the penalty may be death. When Muslims do convert they almost go underground, and there are examples of this in Britain."

The story here - if it is true - is that Muslims have to "almost go underground" if they convert in Britain. This is rather different from being executed, or even murdered unofficially. And the only "Muslim leader" that The Sunday Times could find with an opinion on the subject was Inayat Bunglawala. He called it "tragic that in the modern world someone can be executed for wanting to change their religion", and described the Sudanese story as "part of a far wider question that much of the Muslim world is still struggling with - how to reconcile traditional Islamic doctrine with modern notions of human rights".

Again, if there is any news value to this, it lies in the fact that Bunglawala, who used to be a rather silly and nasty radical, now sounds alarmingly like Lord Carey. The world is uniting around a new set of platitudes. And the Church of England commends the moral teaching of church schools.

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