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What religious journalism can do

22 July 2016

Social conscience with matching car: the Revd Sally Smith in The Guardian on Monday

Social conscience with matching car: the Revd Sally Smith in The Guardian on Monday

A COUPLE of unusually illuminating pieces in The Guardian this week. One was by Canon Giles Fraser on the Christianity of Theresa May; another was by Nazia Parveen, on the conversion of refugees.

I love the second piece for all sorts of reasons: it’s a thoroughly researched and reported story; it happens a long way from London; and it has unexpected wrinkles. It is not just a story of Christian charity or successful evangelism, even though St Mark’s, Shelton, is apparently making three or four converts a week among refugees.

“In just three years, the Rev Sally Smith has presided over this total transformation of St Mark’s from a middle-class church to something resembling a refugee processing centre. . . .

“She is defiant, determined, but not naive. Smith — known as Mother Sally by the refugees — concedes that some do convert solely because they believe it will help with their asylum application, but she says these are few and far between. Others claim they have had the doors closed on them by mosques, who have turned them away in their hour of need, leaving them starving and homeless.

“At St Mark’s they receive a warm welcome — the building is packed to the rafters with donations of everything required to set up a new home and food parcels are handed out twice a week. They are given bus fares if needed and Smith even takes them into her own home if they are homeless. Smith says: ‘It is about being part of a kingdom where there are no border agency officials, where there are no passports necessary, where there are no immigration detention centres. One worldwide family where there are no dividing barriers.’”

But, of course, there are dividing barriers, and part of the story is taken up with the reluctance — and, indeed, resistance — that she has had from parts of her existing congregation to the new work. A great many have apparently left, complaining that she cares more for those outside the church than inside. She feels that that’s what the Church ought to do, but it looks as if converting some members of her existing congregation will be harder than making new ones.

The other interesting and grown-up part of the report was that the religious reasons people gave for converting were not in the least bit theological. They want a place to pray in, Ms Smith says, “and they are not too bothered, as bothered as we may think, about how that faith is expressed”.

I would be very surprised if this act of Christian concern is not denounced by Christian Concern or some such right-wing group as soon as it reads her words: “The most important thing for me is for people to be able to pray in our church whatever their faith.”


ELSEWHERE in the paper, Canon Fraser considered the part played by Christianity in the life of Theresa May. Her father, who trained at Mirfield, was the Vicar of Wheatley, the parish down the hill from Cuddesdon.

“Unlike the patchy public school religion of her predecessor, her faith feels entirely convincing to me. Among her Desert Island Discs picks were two hymns, including Therefore We, Before Him Bending.

“Now this really is a fascinating choice. First, because no one who wasn’t a proper churchgoer would ever have heard of it. And, second, because it betrays the enormous sacramental influence of her High Church father. Benediction, the worship of the blessed sacrament — or ‘wafer worship’ as Protestant scoffers often describe it — is pretty hardcore Anglo-Catholic stuff.

“That’s why she was named after a 500-year-old Catholic saint. As time goes on, this background is bound to shape her ministry — and yes, that’s how she will think of it.”

Both these pieces seem to me to point towards the future function of religious journalism. This is not, obviously, to write about church politics. Nor is it to proselytise either for a particular religion or against all of them. What it can do, in the kind of confused and various society we now inhabit, is to allow us to share in other people’s imaginative worlds, and thus to broaden our sympathies and to sharpen our understanding. To show how people think is far more illuminating than merely reporting what they say, although it relies on the boring stuff, too.

This treatment of religion as primarily a quality of the imagination rather than of belief has sinister consequences as well. There was heated debate within The Guardian about the motives of the Tunisian who slaughtered 84 people in Nice. Was he just a pork-eating, boozy wife-beater who went insane? Or was he a Muslim terrorist as well?

The answer, I think, is clear. He was a very bad Muslim indeed, in both senses: a bad man informed by a bad understanding of his religion. You cannot leave that out of the story and still understand it.

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