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Mail: ‘Church departs from Bible’

23 January 2015

JOHN BINGHAM's Telegraph scoop of both the book On Rock or Sand? and the interview with Archbishop Sentamu was a reward for consistent hard work and accuracy. But the most interesting reaction came in other papers.

I often think that the Financial Times is the most thoughtful left-wing paper in Britain, and its response to the Archbishops' assault on the Government was a case in point. "Throughout English history, the country's leaders have deprecated political interventions from the clergy as the machinations of 'turbulent priests'.

"But a poorer and rather humbler Britain should focus on the Archbishop's central point. 'Today,' he says, 'there is no commonly held story about what is right and good, and what makes for a society of mutual flourishing.' This is a judgement with which many will agree."

The Daily Mail put the boot straight in: "At a time when church attendances are down, traditional believers are persecuted for their convictions, and Christians are being slaughtered in Africa - the apparent priority of the Archbishop of Canterbury and his colleagues is playing Left-wing politics.

"Indeed, it spoke volumes that the person most delighted by yesterday's pamphlet - which approvingly quoted Karl Marx - was Ed Miliband.

"Once, the Church preached the biblical virtues of hard work, diligence and self-reliance. How depressing that - when not obsessing over gay marriage or female bishops - its chief function now would appear to be delivering sermons direct from the Labour Party press office."

I'm sure you can find commendations of hard work, diligence, and self-reliance in the Bible, just as you can find the lilies of the field. There are proof texts for almost anything if you look hard enough (and there must be a verse somewhere that makes just that point). But the effect of this is that the idle rhetorician can simply slap the label of "biblical" on any policy he wishes the Church to adopt. This fault is not confined to leader-writers.

What both writers missed - though the FT hints at it in its last paragraph - is the profound, small-c conservatism of the document. The idea that a good society is one in which there is "a commonly held story about what is right and good" is slippery and dangerous to all political orthodoxies at the moment.

This is obvious if you turn it on its head and say that a good society is one in which there is no commonly held story about what is right and good. Because, obviously, there are lots of people who disagree with that, and you have just robbed yourself of any principle by which they might be reconciled with the liberal orthodoxy, or for that matter with each other.

Like most political disagreements, this one can be resolved by force - although, in the modern world, the force involved is usually economic. The overriding story of the contemporary Western world is that there is nothing that can stand in the way of economic activity. This is taken to be true by almost everyone, and because it is extraordinarily hard to entertain thoughts on which you do not act, it soon appears that there is nothing that should stand in the way of economic activity, either.

There is obviously a huge amount of discontent at this, which does not fit comfortably on to our political map, or even our religious one. I suspect, though, that one of the attractions of Islam for thoughtful people is precisely that it contains resources from which to reject economic determinism.

WHICH brings us to the Muslim stories of the week.

Abdul Hakim Murad, writing in The Sunday Telegraph, urged Muslim lawyers to bring cases under the hate-speech laws to prevent any repeat of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. That would at least make the disagreements over free speech clearer, though it would clearly also fuel some Christian animosity towards Muslims for getting "special treatment", and, if the purpose of these laws is to diminish com- munal tensions, that seems to be self-defeating.

What made my eyeballs revolve in his piece, though, was the statement: "No significant Muslim scholar supports the radicals in Iraq and Syria, but some young people simply pay no heed."

This notion of "significant" needs a lot of work. I know very well what he means: that no respectable Muslim scholar supports the radicals in Iraq and Syria. Even that is pretty absurd. Until the emergence of Islamic State as a distinct military threat, Saudi Arabia was full of preachers urging them on.

But, even if we grant that no well-paid and respectable imam supports IS, that just makes the imams who do support it more significant. Jihadism may be a scholarly aberration, but it is also a genuinely popular religious movement. That makes it significant, and it means that its ideologues are significant, too. They can't be dismissed simply because they are ignorant as well as wicked.

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