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The power of the ordinary

09 May 2014

Denying it all: the Prime Minister in Tuesday's Daily Telegraph

Denying it all: the Prime Minister in Tuesday's Daily Telegraph

TWO stories this week which would have been very difficult to imagine when I started writing about the Church of England. First, the big service in St Paul's Cathedral, and in particular the picture of the Archbishop of Canterbury, a lone purple dot in a sea of white-clad women, was moving and spectacular, though for most of the world I suspect 20 years too late. Women in clerical collars have become entirely ordinary. Bad for the news, but good for them.

Then there was another photograph: two ordinary middle-aged men, one taller than the other and rather tubby, neither looking in the least bit episcopal. It accompanied the news that Gene Robinson is to get a divorce after 25 years with his partner. This, too, represents a kind of normalisation: it would be interesting to know how many of the Episcopalian bishops in the US have been married for 25 years to the same person, whatever his or her orientation.

When you think about it, it was precisely this ordinariness that some traditionalists feared about opening up the traditional priesthood. When you consider the stately and glorious procession that the Bishop of London can constitute all on his own as he strides through his cathedral - and, for all I know, even when he deadheads the episcopal roses - it is easy to see the priesthood as a state set far apart and high above.

Worried-looking middle-aged women are much less obviously remarkable. That is one reason why the photograph and procession in London were needed to restore some theatricality and a sense of wonder to something that can now so easily be taken for granted.

 

THE Muslim stories this week were neither reassuring nor to be taken for granted. The Telegraph and The Times continue to hammer away at the "Trojan Horse" plot involving Muslim-majority state schools, where governors are imposing, so far as possible, a version of rural Pakistani values in Birmingham and now Bradford.

In The Sunday Telegraph, Andrew Gilligan had a strong story from Bradford: "Teachers in Bradford are fighting to prevent a takeover of Muslim-majority state schools by a group closely linked to the alleged 'Trojan Horse' plotters in Birmingham.

"Two successful head teachers in the Yorkshire city have left their jobs, and a third has been subject to 'constant' criticism by governors trying to 'drive her out', staff at the schools concerned said.

"Senior Department for Education sources said that coordinated attempts to undermine secular heads had occurred or were suspected in at least five places across the UK: Birmingham, Bradford, Manchester, and the London boroughs of Waltham Forest and Tower Hamlets."

Particularly impressive in this were the personal links that Gilligan had uncovered between the organisers in Birmingham and Bradford. The Bradford group "holds regular and numerous events in Bradford featuring Tahir Alam, the alleged ringleader of the Birmingham plot and chairman of governors at Park View, the Birmingham school at the centre of the 'Trojan Horse' allegations. Mr Alam's mobile phone number was given as a contact at one of the meetings, a protest against sex education in schools."

This may be read as evidence of a tight-knit conspiratorial group, or it may simply be evidence of a rather small one. I suspect thatif you were take some entirely different ideologically motivated group, perhaps the ecumenical Peace and Justice groups, you would find a similar overlap - but they do not have the political traction of the Islamists because they can't appeal to a sense of solidarity among the unreflecting and unpolitical.

As so often, it is the wider social context that determines the meaning of religious beliefs. Fifty years ago, there was nothing outlandish about the Church Society, and yet last week their magazine compared the resistance to women bishops in Synod with the struggle of the Spitfire pilots in the Battle of Britain.

BUT why stop at 50 years ago? In northern Nigeria, the kidnapping of girls by Boko Haram and their subsequent sale as slaves takes us right back a thousand years or more. An interesting report in The Guardian suggested that government tactics bore some responsibility: "Boko Haram's move towards using the kidnapping of women as a tactic appears to have come hand-in-hand with a similar strategy deployed by the Nigerian authorities. From December 2011, the Nigerian police began to detain the wives and children of militant leaders - possibly to put pressure on the group, possibly to bring about negotiations.

"Whatever the reasons, from 2011 to 2012 more than 100 Boko Haram family members were arrested, with no evidence to suggest they had any part in Boko Haram's crimes."

I sometimes wonder if it would really be a wholly retrograde step if all Nigerian men were to turn gay, as the West apparently wants them to.

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