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Willing cleric plays in The Sun

07 February 2014

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THE SUN shone on English Christianity last week, and what it showed was not quite the way the Church sees itself.

There was the sad story of Gemma Moss, a largely ordinary woman who died from smoking dope, or, as The Sun had it, "A church-going mum is believed to be the first person in England to die directly from smoking cannabis. Devout Christian Gemma Moss, 31, was found slumped on her bedroom floor after puffing half a joint to help her sleep."

The Mail took the same line, with a slightly more scrupulous note: "The regular churchgoer, who was found dead in her bedroom, is thought to be the first woman in Britain known to have died directly from cannabis poisoning." It mentioned a man who was earlier thought to have suffered the same fate, and even had a quote from the Baptist church that she attended in Bournemouth.

But the real meat came on The Sun's front page for the same day: "Bring me sun shrine", an exclusive by Rob Pattinson: "Today we urge rain-battered Brits to pray - with the patron saint of good weather. This January is the wettest on record for parts of the UK. Rev Susan Evans, whose Lincs church is named after Patron Saint Medard, last night led prayers - begging "Dear Lord, we've had enough."

Inside, the headline writers had even more fun: "Wet is pray, with the vicar of Dribbly". In case the Almightly would be influenced by a couple of comely handmaidens, they also sent along two page-three girls who posed beneath their umbrellas, wearing unseasonal T-shirts.

This is a story that actually deserves its "Exclusive" tag, since the whole stunt was dreamed up by The Sun, in the finest traditions of tabloid journalism. You have to admire the enterprise that went into finding a patron saint of good weather; no one would spend as much time looking for a living Christian being useful to the community. And the willingness of Ms Evans to play along with the stunt.

 

BOTH stories showed Christians, in their different ways, behaving like entirely normal people. This is a whole lot better than any of the more respectable news. If there was anyone praying for no coverage of the latest developments in the Anglican schism, they were more profitably employed than Ms Evans's congregation: so far as I can see, only the BBC of all the mainstream outlets picked up on the Archbishops' letter denouncing homophobia, and the scornful rejection of it by some African dignitaries.

"Anathema" is a lovely word. It was one of the distinguishing characteristics of Rowan Williams that he could use it with it a completely straight face, most notably in one of his surrender documents to the African homophobes, issued as a communiqué after a meeting of Anglican Primates in Northern Ireland in 2005. "The victimisation or diminishment of human beings whose affections happen to be ordered towards people of the same sex is anathema to us," they then proclaimed.

It was a historic document, because it marked the final abandonment of any pretence that official Anglican pronouncements about sex had anything whatever to do with truth. We all know, and knew even then, that the victimisation and diminishment of gay people - or even "human beings whose affections happen to be ordered towards people of the same sex" - is not in the least anathema to GAFCON Anglicans. It has become their litmus test of orthodoxy, the one unfailing guarantee that they are closer to God than the decadent Westerners.

In 2005, it was still possible to be disappointed by the behaviour of the Primates on this question. Now that looks silly. Perhaps no honest conversation would ever have been possible in public. The change in attitude towards homosexuality, among the generations whose attitude has changed, has been largely a matter of changing private attitudes towards particular gay people rather than biblical exegesis. As Newman observed, the whole man changes, and paper logic follows.

This doesn't account for all the change. Once tolerance or acceptance became the conventional wisdom, young people just imbibed it as they imbibe anti-racism. Itisn't necessary, nowadays, to know actual black people to believe that racism is a bad thing.

First, though, come personal contact, friendships, even enmities. The process requires that gay people be recognised simply as people, and that is the threat that "facilitated conversations" pose to the conservatives. There is a difference between applauding the righteous stoning of sexual deviants, and picking up a rock yourself while looking the victim in the eyes. It is at least possible that the Welby strategy is to force people to question whether they really want to take up their rocks and follow Akinola.

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