ONLY the indefatigable John Bingham in The Daily Telegraph found anything religious in the mainstream press this week. He skewered a hapless Tory backbencher who had suggested that the Government’s new policy on clamping down on non-violent extremism could mean that teachers who used the classroom to teach that gay marriage was wrong could be falling foul of the law.
Mark Spencer, the MP for Sherwood in Nottinghamshire, had written to a constituent who was worried about precisely that. Instead of offering reassurance, he explained that teachers would be quite free to oppose gay marriage, and to campaign against it, unless they did so in the classroom, when they might fall foul of the new law. I am not certain that this is true: surely what happens in the classroom is covered by other regulations anyway.
But it did have the strange and wonderful effect of uniting the Christian Institute and the National Secular Society in condemnation. It is frightening to realise that I might agree with both of them. In any case, it also illuminated the extent to which this legislation appears to at least some Tories to be so squarely directed at Muslims that they cannot imagine why anyone else would be worried.
THERE was an interesting interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury in Newsweek — not because he said anything remarkable, but because the interviewer, Robert Chalmers, seems to have gone in determined to rile his victim, and was rather more subtle about it than most people. Telling the Archbishop that “I can spot an old Etonian a mile off, and your defining characteristic is precisely that kind of phoney diffidence” is a remarkably well-judged insult, and sure enough, by the end of the interview, the victim was thumping the table to emphasise his points.
“People say, ‘Give the church’s money away.’ We do,” he adds, with some warmth. “We have [a thud as he strikes the table] 8,000 clergy working [thud] for communities [thud] day [thud] in and day out. We have [thud] chaplains in every regiment, [thud] every prison, [thud] every hospital. [Thud] Working their guts out. We pay them. That’s giving money away.”
Yet, however effective it may have been as an insult, I don’t think it was a very illuminating one. Of course the Archbishop can do well-bred self-deprecation with the best — or, as he would say, with the rest of the third-raters. And of course there is an impatient streak in him. But neither of these could possibly be called his defining characteristic, which seems to me, on very limited acquaintance, to be something a great deal closer to diffidence or self-distrust. I’d say that he was one of those people who are extremely good at games, whether mental or social, but never certain that he is playing the right one.
THE other stories this week come from the kind of neglected blogs where religious coverage has retreated inside some mainstream organisation. Reuters’ excellent religion blog seems a very intermittent thing, and is mostly interested in offbeat stories. I liked the recent one about the rise of religion inside the Chinese Communist Party: a banquet is held in secret at a Beijing restaurant, where a Buddhist master is the guest of honour:
“The master looked around the room and into the eyes of each of the dozen or so attendees, according to one of those present, who spoke on condition of anonymity as officials and Communist Party members are not supposed to believe in ‘superstition’.
“‘He picked people out depending on the shape of their eyes and told them whether they had been touched by luck or misfortune,’ the source, a government official with ties to the leadership, told Reuters.
“A few months later, one of the people present whose eyes told of misfortune to come was under investigation for abuse of power, the source added.
“‘At times like this with so much uncertainty, lots of us are looking for ways to foresee our fortunes,’ the source said.”
This story encapsulates so much of what it is to leave under a truly arbitrary government. Of course, it is unlikely that the shape of your eyes indicates your fate — but in a society where everyone is guilty, and punishment entirely arbitrary, the shape of your eyes is as good an indicator of fate as anything.
MEANWHILE, The Economist’s Erasmus blog had a lovely piece on another post-communist country: in Russia, religious enthusiasm has waned since the days of post-communist liberation. Now 65 per cent of the population still say they are sometimes “helped” by religion in their lives, but only a third of them think that religion does more good than harm in society, while 23 per cent think it does more harm than good.
This contrasts, or perhaps corresponds with, the increasing use of approved religion by the Russian State. Unapproved religion is still, of course, quite brutally suppressed. As the blog says, under a 2007 law, just about any religion could be charged with “inciting religious discord” merely for asserting the truth of its own beliefs. So this is pretty much were we started.