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Where belief is optional

29 April 2016

The faithful are sent empty away: The Guardian’s report on Monday of a Canadian lawsuit

The faithful are sent empty away: The Guardian’s report on Monday of a Canadian lawsuit

A TROUBLING story of Church-state relations from Nigeria, where a small mob attacked a Pentecostal church, apparently at the urging of a local politician.

The Nigerian newspaper Vanguard reports: “The Bishop of Mountain of Prayer Ministry [is] alleged to have slept with the wife of the President General of Idjerhe Clan Development Union, ICDU, Chief Austin Omonode, under the guise of rendering special prayers for her.”

So a gang of youths interrupted the Sunday-school service in search of the Bishop, and, when they couldn’t find him, smashed up the interior instead. Chief Omonode denied having anything to do with this, but told the paper that: “The Bishop has been sleeping with my wife for the past two years and I reported the matter to the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, yet he continued in his heinous act.”


FORTUNATELY, all of the parties in the Nigerian tale are orthodox, supposedly. This is not the case in a Canadian lawsuit reported by The Guardian. “‘I do not believe in a theistic, supernatural being called God,’ says Gretta Vosper, the United Church of Canada minister who has led West Hill since 1997.

“‘I don’t believe in what I think 99.99% of the world thinks you mean when you use that word.’ To her, God is instead a metaphor for goodness and a life lived with compassion and justice.”

So there is to be a formal review of her position (this is Canada: they do not have heresy trials), and she seems resigned to losing it, having already spent $60,000 on legal fees trying to stop the trial.

What is delightful about this story is the way in which her church has converged on the model of moralistic therapeutic deism from the other side, so to speak. It helps to understand the gap in the market which the Sunday Assembly is trying to fill: it is moralistic therapeutic atheism.

What do people talk about when they do not talk about God? The Guardian went to her church. “The service begins with a nod to the First Nations land on which the church stands, and goes on to mention human rights in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Palestine. Global concern is coupled with community-building, with members invited to share significant moments of the past week.

“‘I’ve lost 25 pounds in the past five months,’ announces one man shyly — and each revelation meets with applause. A tall totem pole graces the front of the church, and more than half the pews have been changed out for more comfortable chairs.”

All that is missing from this story are the vicious fights about music and the flower arrangements. It certainly rings true that, while Vosper preached about atheism for ten years or so, the faithful kept coming. It was only when she dropped the Lord’s Prayer that that two-thirds of the congregation left. This proves that in church, as in the media, people really attend only to the noise that they make themselves.


STILL, I would rather have earnest Canadians than Rod Liddle, who teed off against Muslims in The Spectator. “The term ‘extremist’ and ‘moderate’ serve only to reinforce our collective delusions. They make no sense. They lead to the kind of problems we are now seeing with our state-sponsored Muslim chaplains, as they wander from cell to cell disseminating hatred or idiocies.

“The Deobandis were also regarded as ‘moderate’, you see — and indeed, compared to some of the Salafist and Wahabi maniacs, they are a little more amenable in general. Not all of them yearn for the annihilation of the Ahmadiyyas or whatever other sect fails to believe precisely what they believe.

“But while there is a healthy trickle of clear blue water between what most British Muslims believe and what, for example, is believed by the Islamic State, there is an ocean between what they believe and what the rest of us here in the UK believe.”

There is enough truth in this kind of rant to ensure that it will flourish. It seems to me that the problem is more one of Pakistani society than of Islam itself, but this is not very helpful, even if it is true.


MEANWHILE, the fear of the dirty alien spreads, and the EU referendum does nothing to diminish it. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams had a moving article in The Observer on the resettlement of 3000 child refugees in England (which the Government, of course, opposes), which illuminated — perhaps unintentionally — the huge gap between democratic politics and Christian impulses.

“Independent medical assessments have found that nearly half of all unaccompanied minors carry a sexually transmitted disease, testament to the terrible dangers they face along the way to Europe.” To Lord Williams, this statistic shows our duty of care and compassion; but I cannot think that it makes the children more attractive to the voting public.

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