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
"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
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
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
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?