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Unexpected conversions

10 June 2016

New converts: the Guardian story about asylum-seekers and the draw of Christianity

New converts: the Guardian story about asylum-seekers and the draw of Christianity

IT IS always good to see ecumenism making inroads at the local level, but the priest who went on an epic binge in the West End of London must now regret, among many other things, that he attempted to escape trouble by shouting at the arresting policeman that he was from the Vatican.

The report came originally from the Court News service, where it was written in traditional journalese: “A Church of England vicar shouted: ‘I’m from the Vatican, you’re f*cked’ as he brawled with police after a vodka-fuelled nightclub binge.

“When paramedic Ian Pollock gently shook the passed-out pastor at 2.30 a.m. to check he was all right, he awoke and growled: ‘I am going to f*ck you up.’

“Jones threatened to attack Mr Pollock but was unable to stand up after downing three bottles of wine, several pints of beer, a number of gin and tonics and vodka during a binge of biblical proportions.”

I don’t think this is quite the danger that Apostolicae Curae was meant to avert.

The story travelled around the world. My son in Hong Kong sent it to me two days after I read it here. But I was struck by the number of Christians in my Twitter feed whose reaction — in at least one case informed by personal knowledge — was compassionate, although I’d be surprised if anyone read the story without at the very least giggling.

Once again, we see the difference between what’s memorable and what is genuinely scandalous: compared with the US bishop who last year killed a cyclist while driving drunk and then fled the scene of the accident, the unfortunate ecumenist did nothing very wicked. Nor has there been any attempt at a cover-up by the authorities here (Bishop Heather Cook had already been arrested while completely incapable at the wheel of her car in 2010).

On the other hand, Bishop Cook got seven years, and Mr Jones got a stiff fine. That seems proportionate. But few people will remember the Cook story in a year’s time.

 

EITHER story would have been easier to sell than John Bingham’s work on schism in the Telegraph: “A deal to avert the break-up of the worldwide Anglican Communion risks collapse amid signals that African churches are reassessing ties with the Church of England over the issue of same-sex marriage.”

This is true, but it is almost impossible to think of a reader to whom it matters very much. The real trouble is that the endless repetition of these shadow-boxing stories tends to increase the sense of a gradual disestablishment of the Church, and the impression that Christianity is a weird thing that Christians do, of no concern to the rest of us.

I can just about remember writing about Bishop Graham Leonard’s intervention in American church affairs, when he flew to Tulsa, Oklahoma. That was interesting because of the various colonial echoes that it raised, and because of the assumption that the affairs of the Church of England were part of the concerns of the ruling elite of England. But I doubt they excited the inhabitants of Tulsa.

 

MEANWHILE, an interesting letter came into me at The Guardian from the people who actually carry out the British Social Attitudes survey. Leigh Marshall, the head of press there, points out that all the stories comparing the BSA figure for “No Religion” with the Census results were wildly misleading, since the questions asked in the two were different. In fact, he says, the BSA figure for “No Religion” has actually come down slightly in recent years. It peaked at 51 per cent in 2009.

There’s no statistically significant difference between the figures, but the story goes once again to show how important the random element is in deciding what makes news.


THE GUARDIAN
had an interesting piece about the phenomenon of Muslim refugees’ converting to Christianity. One in four of the confirmations in Bradford over the past year were of converts from Islam, mostly Iranian asylum-seekers, and there is a weekly Persian service at Liverpool Cathedral. A curate there, the Revd Mohammed Eghtedarian, had an interesting take on the question whether these were false conversions:

“There are many people abusing the system — I’m not ashamed of saying that. But is it the person’s fault or the system’s fault? And who are they deceiving? The Home Office, me as a pastor, or God?

“And look at people who go to church to get their children into good church schools. Is there any difference, morally? You want to find the best school for your child; we want to find the best life for ourselves.

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