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Stop press: bishop talks sense

26 September 2014


THE iron rule that any time a bishop says anything obvious it's potential news has been confirmed again, this time by Jonathan Wynne Jones in The Independent, who had unearthed from a philosophy blog the lucubrations of the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres.

The interviewer here was the interesting young philosopher Jules Evans, and the whole thing is worth reading: "If I'm a Christian, do I have to agree with everything St Paul says?" he asks.

"I wouldn't say that, because the holy scriptures are . . . symphonic," says the Bishop. "If you believe you live on a pinnacle of enlightenment and eminence from which you can judge all times and places, there's very little hope for you. If you're prepared to read the scriptures with people from other ages and cultures, and prepared to say 'I can't take that' while continuing with engagement, you may find some of those difficult passages yield as our musical taste changes, as our understanding of life and the great pattern changes, you may find they have a different valency.

"But I don't think you have to say, at this particular point, that because St Paul wanted, in Philemon, to return a slave to his master, that you're committed to upholding the institution of slavery, as Cardinal Newman thought. That shows the limitation of Cardinal Newman."

Alas, that, though a squelch for the ages, was too refined for the readers of The Independent, who were told instead: "Much religion is 'really dangerous and lethal,' the Bishop of London has warned, although he claims that the Church's biggest problem is not its attitude to gays and women but that it is 'lacking in distinction'.

"Richard Chartres, one of the Church of England's most senior bishops, says 'civilization is in grave peril,' adding that it is arrogant and deeply needy.

"The traditionalist bishop argues that the Church of England is not counter-cultural enough. 'The real trouble with the Church is not that it has retrograde social attitudes, or hasn't embraced the emancipation of women - it's that it's spiritual [sic] incredible. It's just as shallow as the rest of us.'

"'The church has accommodated itself so much, and is so lacking in distinction'."

The other thing of interest to insiders is his judgement of Holy Trinity, Brompton: "One of the wonderful things about the Church of England in London is that, for various reasons, the Charismatic stream has not absolutised itself, has not decided to lead a sectarian apart life, and to leave the Church. In fact it is revivifying the Church within, and is being saved from folly and rigidity, which always happens when you become sectarian."

But to see that this is news, or genuinely controversial, you need to know a lot more about the Church than readers of the national press can safely be assumed to do. One of my cleverest and most impressive colleagues on The Guardian thought it remarkable that a bishop would say that religion could be dangerous - yet it's almost impossible to read a story that suggests it's even harmless.

The assumption is that bishops are like the CEOs of polluting firms, obliged by their jobs to deny what everyone knows to be true. Buying into the managerial model of Church doesn't actually get bishops any power - merely the suspicion which would rightly attach to them if they had any real power.

TALKING of dangerous religions, the Mail on Sunday had a curious little story about the new Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan. She is apparently planning to ensure that the religious-studies GCSE course requires children to study more than one religion. The purpose of this is to ensure that Muslim children learn about Christianity. It is opposed, according to the Mail story, by Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary: "a government source" says that he supposes it is just meddling, "and it will have a knock-on effect on the freedom of Catholic and Jewish schools to restrict their teaching to just their faith and preserve their distinctive ethos."

Personally, I can't think of any further recommendation. This isn't just because some Jewish schools have attempted astonishing deviations from the national curriculum, like blacking out exam questions on the theory of evolution. It's about spreading the real understanding that other people are different but have the same rights and dignities as we have.

The measure could obviously be sabotaged, just as RE teaching today is almost certainly sabotaged in some schools by being taught as the study of something palpably false. But that is no excuse for not trying. If a school genuinely practises Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism, this will impress itself on the pupils in ways that go far outside the religious-studies classroom where they learn about other faiths. And if its practice is fake, who cares what is taught in the classroom?

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