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New year? Bring out the dead

09 January 2015

VERY little Church of England news this week, though Jonathan Petre demonstrated again his unnerving gift of resurrection with a story claiming: "The Church of England is embroiled in a row over proposals to sweep away laws that forbid a full Christian funeral to people who have taken their own lives." 

When dead stories arise at Petre's com­mand there is always a witness: not the gar­dener, but the Senior Member. Sure enough, he turned up this week: "One senior member said: 'The Church has always opposed suicide on the basis of the commandment Thou Shalt Not Kill, and that includes yourself.'"

Petre is, of course, a good journalist, and he understands very well that the story is based entirely on the make-believe that synodical debates represent "the Church". Four or five paragraphs in, you discover that "Under centuries-old church rules, it is technically illegal for clergy to use official funeral services to bury those who have 'laid violent hands' upon themselves, particularly while of 'sound mind', although in reality the law is almost universally ignored."

Never mind: he got Lord Tebbit to de­­nounce the Church for changing its mind, and that will do for the first week in January. 

THE Episcopal Church in the United States supplied some real news, with the genuinely shocking and dis­­grace­­ful story of the Rt Revd Heather Cook, who was elected Suffragan Bishop of Maryland last year, despite an arrest four years ago for extremely drunk driving while smoking mari­juana. In December, she killed a cyclist with her car and fled the scene of the crime. 

What compounds the story is the sugges­tion in The Washington Post that the diocesan authorities knew of her earlier conviction, but that this knowledge was withheld from the wider electorate who chose her. 

I know that Episcopalians are genteel folk, but it's difficult to imagine that her rivals would have made no use of the story: "I would like to share about the astonishing grace which enabled our sister Heather to recover from her DUI. I find it so inspiring I can hardly bring myself to stand against her."

I leave out of consideration the kind of self-knowledge that might have stopped her from putting her name forward at all. That she appears to have lacked entirely. This should, in itself, have disqualified her. 

IN The Paris Review, there was an extraordin­ary interview with the French novelist Michel Houellebeck, whose latest book foresees the 2022 presidential election as between Martine Le Pen, of the National Front, and the imagin­ary leader of a "Muslim Party", who wins. 

I have no opinion of Houellebeck's literary merits. He has won prestigious French
prizes, but we need not hold that against him. What makes the interview worthy of note is that he sees the triumph of Islam as a consequence of conversion, not of immigra­tion. 

The rise of the hypothetical "Muslim party" he compares to that of the Communists: "If we look atthe way the Muslim Brotherhood has done it, we see regional networks, charities, cultural centres, prayer centres, vacation centres, health care, something not unlike what the Communist Party did. 

"If you ask me, in a country where poverty will continue to spread, this party could attract a lot more than just 'average' Muslims, if I can put it that way, because really there is no longer such a thing as an 'average' Muslim, since we now have people converting who are not at all of North African origin."

What makes the interview so interesting is that his interviewer is one of those people who simply can't see the point or attraction of religion. Houellebeck says: "I think there is a real need for God and that the return of religion is not a slogan but a reality, and that it is very much on the rise." 

The interviewer re­­torts: "That hypo­thesis is central to the book, but we know that it has been dis­­credited for many years by numerous re­­searchers, who have shown that we are actually witnes­sing a pro­gressive sec­ular­isation of Islam, and that violence and radi­calism should be understood as the death throes of Islam­ism."

To this the reply is simply: "This is not what I have observed, although in North and South America, Islam has benefited less than the Evan­gelicals. This is not a French phenomenon, it's almost global. . . I remain in many ways a Comtean, and I don't believe that a society can survive without religion.

"The book started with a conversion to Catholicism that should have taken place but didn't. The despair comes from saying good­bye to a civilisation, however ancient. But in the end, the Koran turns out to be much better than I thought, now that I've reread it - or rather, read it."

I find it difficult to imagine a well-regarded British novelist saying these things. It cer­tainly wouldn't be one of those conventionally regarded as shocking, like Martin Amis, or Ian McEwan.

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