Andrew Brown: Parsonage passion reaches The Daily Telegraph

22 September 2017

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I CAN see why rural communities want their churches to persist, even when the congregations would never support full-time clergy. I can see why the Church would go along with this, and would want to have a human, as well as an architectural, presence in every community.

But there is a strand of English folk religion which I find astonishing: a pressure group that has raised its head in the Church Times from time to time since 1994, and that wants the Church to maintain an old rectory or vicarage in every village, and not just a church.

Olivia Rudgard’s story in The Daily Telegraph about a campaign to stop the diocese of Bath & Wells from selling off the old vicarage in East Coker, where T. S. Eliot is buried, relied solely on quotes from the campaigners. While it is perfectly possible that the Church has made less money from its housing stock than a really dedicated property speculator might have done, the arguments put forward in this piece were entirely ridiculous.

In fact, I don’t think I have ever read a purer expression of the belief of a certain kind of Telegraph reader that the world must be arranged entirely for his or her benefit. The Church of England might be £8 billion richer, the article claimed, had it not sold 8000 parsonages since the Second World War. The bill for heating, cleaning, and maintaining all those places would presumably have been paid by a grateful nation.

Then there is the claim that “While a parsonage was once the centre of the community, it no longer is because the dioceses say they should have their privacy. In the past everyone knew where the vicar was and now they wouldn’t because he’s on a housing estate,” the most-quoted campaigner, Anthony Jennings, of Save Our Parsonages, said. I love that use of “everyone”. The people on the estate might know who “the vicar” was if he lived there, but they are not part of “everyone”.

Given the poetic associations of the place, I hope the diocese sells the house to Benjamin Zephaniah.

 

THE SUN had an interesting feature on the Revd Richard Coles rehearsing in his church for a performance on Strictly Come Dancing: notably, he was treated as just another sleb, one who lives with his civil partner, David, and their four dachshunds, rather than some kind of weird Christian. I think that he and the Revd Kate Bottley are by far the most successful public faces of the Church right now, and neither is famous for banging on about Jesus. They just manage to act like human beings who live as Christians.

 

I AM enchanted, meanwhile, to discover from Twitter the expostulations of Hannah Hart, the humanist celebrant at what she thought was a naming ceremony for some squillionaire property developer’s baby. The whole thing was featured in Hello! magazine, which photographed all the “godparents” (supermodels) at the “christening”. I’ve always said the humanism in this country is an Anglican heresy, and here are humanists having their theologies ignored just as if they were real parsons.

 

THERE are some weeks when I feel that all media criticism ought really to be about Google and Facebook, since they are incomparably the largest and most influential media businesses in the world today.

This is especially true of Facebook: Google is hugely powerful, but it does not have the same intimate reach as the social network. Both of them offer advertisers what appears to be direct access to the thoughts and desires of their audiences, whatever these may be.

Last week, BuzzFeed discovered, for instance, that Google’s ad-targeting was remarkably broadminded and helpful. If you write an ad targeted to users who ask “Why do Jews ruin everything?” — and you could do that, until the story came out — the software suggested other phrases that you might want your ad to appear beside, such as “Jews ruin the world” and “Jewish parasites”. After all, people interested in one phrase are probably interested in the others.

This is unpleasant and worrying, but unlikely to swing elections. The charge against Facebook, still unproven, but certainly not disproven either, is that the Russians, and others, used it to swing last year’s elections that gave us Donald Trump. It’s clear that they hacked the Democratic National Committee, which would have supplied plenty of geographical data about the location of crucial swing voters. It’s also known that Russian fronts bought Facebook ads, and believed that some of these were aimed at keeping Democratic voters away from the polls.

It’s also known, from experiments conducted in 2012, that small tweaks to the Facebook news feed can affect voter turnout significantly. But Facebook has not allowed that research to be repeated, and refuses to disclose the contents of these ads to researchers.

So perhaps the biggest media story of the week is the Wall Street Journal report that Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor looking into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia, has obtained from Facebook full details of what ads it showed on behalf of the Russians, when, and to whom.

This could well turn out to be the most interesting journalistic news of the century so far.

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