Andrew Brown: Balliol ban provokes silliness at The Times 

20 October 2017

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“Silly”: Balliol College, Oxford, where the Junior Common Room’s decision to ban the Christian Union from exhibiting at the freshers’ fair continues to prompt comment in the press

“Silly”: Balliol College, Oxford, where the Junior Common Room’s decision to ban the Christian Union from exhibiting at the freshers’ fair continues t...

FIRST, an anecdote from the New York Times obituaries, for the benefit of those clerks in holy orders who have to deal with the gentry. This is from the obituary of a woman ,”Bunny” Mellon, who was, by modern stan­d­ards, a billionaire.

“In such circles,” the obituarist helpfully ex­­plains, “nicknames are passwords into a closed society that, like the mob, runs on its own rules and customs. Nobody messed with Anthony ‘Whack-Whack’ Indelicato or Antonio ‘Bootsie’ Tomasulo, and the same rule applies in higher society. Childish names signal cliquishness and the immunity to ridicule that comes with money and power. ‘I don’t really come by to pray,’ Mellon once told the rector of an Episcopalian church in the Norman medieval style that she financed and helped design. ‘I come in to talk with God because he’s a dear, dear friend of mine.’”

There is more than the punchline to savour in that glimpse of Episcopalian life: the throw­away phrase “financed and helped to design” — if the lady wants a 50-foot marble unicorn in the porch, that’s what the lady gets — and the best name possible for an archdeacon: the Venerable Anthony “Whack-Whack” In­­deli­cato.

 

PRESUMABLY, it is the exhortations of men such as “Whack-Whack” and “Bootsie” that are responsible for the rise in parish giving reported by The Times. This was a significant story in itself — to have raised more than a billion pounds in a year is a feat beyond any other voluntary organisation — but also the note, six paragraphs down, to the effect that, although this is the highest nominal figure ever recorded, it is not as much, in real terms, as the £899 million raised in 2007, just before the financial crisis.

The coming economic catastrophe of Brexit is not going to help. It is all happening rather slowly, as if the Niagara Falls were made of treacle rather than water, but we’re still stuck in the barrel and wobbling towards the brink.

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THE Balliol College JCR story, which I glanced at last week (Press, News, 13 October), con­tinued to rumble on. It provoked a remarkably silly piece in The Times by Cath­erine Nixey, who was the inspiration behind Matt Ridley’s jeremiad the other week.

She has a book to plug, and, to judge from the reviews on Amazon, she knows her market well: “A Stunning Revelation — though I read many books about world history, never have I encountered such a revealing account of the sheer brutality of early Christians, exposing the total hypocracy of their claims as a com­­passionate, caring and forgiving religion, and their claims to have been the victims rather than the perpertrators of unforgivable acts,” one reviewer writes, enthusiasm outstripping orthography, before going on to speculate that the Archbishop of Canterbury would, if he could, burn the book and execute the author. This is a little harsh when he wouldn’t even do that to me and Linda Woodhead. I hope.

In any case, Nixey’s Times piece was more ingenious. “In trying to edit out beliefs they consider harmful, the Balliol students are indulging in one of the oldest Christian trad­i­tions of all: censorship.”

The ignorant reader might be excused for supposing from this that the Christian Church had invented censorship; so that the idea had never occurred to anyone before. “From the 1st century to the 6th, those who didn’t fall into step with its beliefs were pursued in every possible way: social, legal, financial, and phys­ical. Their altars were upturned and their temples demolished, their statues hacked to pieces and their priests killed,” the book’s blurb says. From the first century? Really?

Of course, you cannot hold an author re­­­spon­­s­ible for the blurb, but the Times piece was not much better: “In AD 388 arguing about religion in public was outlawed as a ‘damn­able audacity’. By the turn of the 6th century, non-Christian philosophers found themselves flogged and impoverished. This was not because Christians were cruel, or uncaring. On the contrary. Just like those concerned students, they were doing this from love. Today, if you believe the wrong thing you might get flamed on Twitter. Then, the wrong belief could get you scorched in Hell for all eternity. It was a Christian duty to save you from this.

“When people think of censors, they think of people with large scissors and fierce expres­sions. But as Michael Rosen has said of fascists, their approach is gentle. Censors come with love in their hearts and concern in their breasts. They won’t be harming you. They will be saving you. And nothing could be more dan­­gerous.”

It may not be much a defence of Christians to point out that this is profoundly anachron­istic: you could point out with more justice that in the 16th century Christians did not censor books with as much enthusiasm as they burnt their authors for the good of their souls. This was not much of an advance on pagan­ism, but neither was it much of a moral re­­treat: from the point of view of the martyr, was it really better to be eaten by lions than to burn?

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