Andrew Brown: Putting the C of E tiaras row into proportion

17 November 2017

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I CANNOT think of another Church of England press release that made The New York Times, but the one about tutus and tiaras for primary-school children made it everywhere. “In new rules to counter bullying in its 4700 schools, the Church of England said on Monday that children should be able to ‘play with the many cloaks of identity’ in the classroom, fuelling a debate over the handling of gender among the very young.”

What sort of a debate, you wonder. Melanie Phillips is ready to help you in the London Times: “The church wants to replace sin, judgment and repentance by ‘good disagreement’. Thus it would give good and bad equal status. In other words, it would vitiate its role as moral arbiter altogether.

“The reason is that the church wants to be inclusive and prevent bullying. It is certainly important for religious bodies, like everyone else, to be sensitive to the needs of those who don’t fit in. Being inclusive, however, does not mean giving powerful interest groups the right to remake society in their own image. Which is precisely what’s happening.”

This is interesting largely for the half-digested gobbets of the conservative Evangelical propaganda lines that it contains. “Good disagreement” has nothing to do with this document, which is absolutely clear that bullying is wrong, and not to be compromised with or tolerated. It is not for a moment giving good or bad equal status, and is, in fact, insisting that teachers function as moral arbiters, to the extent of providing them with sample forms on which to report bullying.

The whole rant simply assumes that Good and Bad are what Andrea Williams and Christian Concern claim them to be. Hence the remarkable suggestion that “powerful interest groups” are remaking society in their own image by not making a fuss if boys and girls dress up in each other’s clothes.

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Indeed, you can tell exactly what Phillips has been reading further down the column, where she gets to the case of “the Queen’s former chaplain, Dr Gavin Ashenden”, who is described as a “dissident conservative Evangelical”, which also seems a rather less than accurate description.

Then we get to Joshua Sutcliffe, “a Christian maths teacher in Oxfordshire” — whose story is lifted straight off a Christian Concern press release. As always with those, there will turn out to be a great chunk of the background which comes out only at the employment tribunal, and makes the foreground story look entirely different. There is about Christian Concern’s stories of persecution something that often reminds me of quarrelling children complaining to a parent — “but he pulled my hair!” — about a fight which both have obviously been spoiling for.

The most sensible remark on the whole story came from a letter to The Times from Aline Templeton, of Edinburgh: “Sir, Allowing primary schoolchildren to ‘self-identify’ is an idea that should be approached with more caution. My six-year-old granddaughter, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, said: “A person who does cookery. Or someone who teaches gymnastics. Or a dog.”

 

THIS is important also because it puts the whole row into proportion. Although the story attracted more attention than anything else that the Church of England has done of late, it was also one of the least important religious stories of the week.

It was less informative even than the Twitter-based row that Tesco had featured a Muslim family in its Christmas advertisement, which led to calls to boycott the company from people who would presumably complain most of the time that Muslims have no interest in assimilation. That is an indicator of rather frightening social tensions.

So, on a wider scale, was the march of 60,000 Polish nationalists through Warsaw, joined by neo-Nazis from several other European countries. They were celebrating Polish independence, but also an idea of Christian Europe as somewhere that is free of Muslims. Some banners called for “a Muslim holocaust”.

Gradually, the idea of Christian Europe comes to be defined as something that is the opposite of Muslim South and East. Of course, in so far as it has popular traction, this idea of dangerous Muslim hordes has far more to do with skin colour than religion.

Say what you like about conservative Evangelicals such as Chris Sugden or Michael Nazir-Ali, both of them are genuinely concerned about the plight of Christians in the Middle East. But neither will get anywhere with these efforts, simply because most of the people who agree with them about Islam cannot see the difference between different kinds of Syrian or Afghan refugees.

 

UNHAPPY the bishop who speaks sense in the House of Lords. The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, demanded that Facebook and Google be more effectively prevented from offering porn to young people. (How this might be done remains unclear: the Children’s Society found that 80 per cent of children under 13 had lied about their age to acquire accounts.)

The lead, of course, was: “A senior Church of England bishop yesterday admitted that he looked at pornography when he was a teenager.”

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