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Widdecombe resurrected to admonish Welby

20 January 2017


ONE of the difficult judgements in journalism is when to take seriously a story that is built on complaints.

At one extreme is the patrician style, which I admit I favour, in which every story containing the words “is supported by the Christian Legal Centre” is immediately written off as a publicity stunt.

At the other extreme, this week, is Jonathan Petre, who made a story out of Ann Widdecombe’s being upset about something. Her name on a quote is a Proustian reminder of the days of lost innocence, when the mark of a story being total nonsense was not the phrase “took to Twitter to express their outrage”.

Miss Widdecombe was a Twitter account before the internet was thought of. But it was still a surprise to find her resurrected to add wind beneath the wings of a complaint that the Archbishop of Canterbury is to apologise for the excesses of the Reformation. “Modern Christians are not responsible for what happened in the Reformation,” she told the Mail on Sunday. This is how to turn “Archbishop of Canterbury not in favour of burning heretics” into a news story.


SOMEWHERE in the middle of these extremes is the campaign against St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, for including a reading from the Qur’an during an Epiphany eucharist (News, 13 January).

The Times has been floundering over this story: it described one of the most vocal critics, the Revd Dr Gavin Ashenden, as “the Queen’s Chaplain”, as if there were only one, but also reported the abuse heaped on the Provost, the Very Revd Kelvin Holdsworth.

For what my opinion is worth, it was foolish, if not wrong, to have a Muslim stand in the middle of a eucharist and read out a passage denying the divinity of Christ, even if it was done in a language which no one else present could understand. I do not think that there is any reasonable objection to this happening in other contexts in a church — it’s not as if Jesus would be convinced by arguments against his divinity — but there really would be no point to the eucharist if the Qur’an was right, and no point in reading the passage out if it was wrong.

That said, Dr Ashenden’s suggestion that this would give offence to Christians suffering persecution in the Middle East seems exceptionally far-fetched. They have enough to worry about.

And the meaning of symbols is always found in context. It is entirely possible that the congregation understood the gesture as one of fellowship with Muslims, and thought (as the Provost did) that the significant aspect was that the Muslim in question was a woman, thus upsetting conservatives of every religion.


BUT news is always, almost by definition, something taken out of context; and the internet makes it possible to take anything out of context and expose it to a gigantic audience.

The protests against St Mary’s Cathedral were picked up by the far-right American site Breitbart News, and from there copied to more than 20,000 Facebook pages. So, now, the cathedral has shut off all American comments on its own Facebook site.

The publisher of Breitbart News, Stephen Bannon, is now Donald Trump’s chief of staff. He has not said much in public in the past couple of years, but, in 2014, he spoke to a Vatican conference organised by an institute chaired by Cardinal Raymond Burke. His remarks then were published by the online news website BuzzFeed.

Mr Bannon’s view of capitalism is worth looking at another time, but it is his views on war that really leap out. First, he described the Second World War as “this great war, really the Judeo-Christian West versus atheists, right?”, a summary which does not quite do justice to Stalin.

Then he went on to the present situation: “We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it. . . And trust me, that is going to come to Europe. That is going to come to Central Europe, it’s going to come to Western Europe, it’s going to come to the United Kingdom. . .

“I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam. And I realize there are other aspects that are not as militant and not as aggressive and that’s fine.

“If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours.”

It is hard to reconcile this view of history with Pope Francis’s attitude to refugees: the victors of Vienna, or of Tours, would surely have rejoiced to see the infidels drowning in the Mediterranean. The latest skirmish between Cardinal Burke and Pope Francis centres on the Knights of Malta, and it is suddenly obvious that their crusading roots are still important now.

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