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Welby speaks out, but who is listening?

06 January 2017


TWO successive headlines from the Daily Mail, presented without comment, to show how journalism works: “Archbishop of Can­terbury says God will ‘chase away fear of terror’ in Christmas sermon”, followed almost immediately by “Nigel Farage hits out over Archbishop’s ‘negative messages’”.

Being invited by the media to say rude things about the Archbishop of Canterbury shows — if further proof were needed — that you have arrived as a politician in this coun­try. And, of course, there is no connection, really, between whatever the Archbishop said and the politician’s response. What is slightly worrying is that there does not seem to be any connection between what he said and any­thing outside the Church.

He does have a weakness for framing what he has to say in the context of suffering in distant countries. Fortunately, he has dropped from his repertoire the homily he used to give, describing some horrific massacre scene in Africa and concluding from this experience that Jeffrey John must never be a bishop. But the replacement talk, describing some horrific suffering abroad, and concluding from it that the miserable are better Christians than his comfortable domestic audience, won’t actually play much better.

Now that I write this out, I see that both are variations on the same theme, and the same basic criticism applies: the message is some­thing that will have force only for a particular sort of Evangelical Christian audience.

It is difficult to overestimate just how un­interesting it is to the wider world — partly because it is also incredible to them — for the Archbishop to say that “it is amongst those on the edge, those ignored, and amongst persecuted believers that I have most clearly seen the glory of God this year, a glory that chases away the fear of terror, the power of death, and the economies of injustice, and presents a path to a more just, more Christlike world.”

It is worth making this criticism because he can do better, and, on occasion, has done. The moments when he caught the country’s im­­agination were when he concentrated on domestic misery: the assault on payday len­ders was lucky in the way that it turned out, but it was also effective.

It is, of course, much safer politically to concentrate on suffering in Lahore rather than Walsall or Sunderland. But if Nigel Farage is going to have a pop at you, whatever you do, what’s to lose? Besides, there is always the chance, however remote, that the Church of England could actually do something about Sunder­land.


HARRIET SHERWOOD, in The Guardian, had a piece on something less traditional and almost certainly more important: the in­­creasing deliberate use of digital media by central church bodies. It had one paragraph that left me wanting to know a great deal more: “The C of E is targeting Facebook users who are posting about Christmas, pushing links to A Christmas Near You to people who would not naturally search for faith content online.”

Presumably this means inserting ads into people’s Facebook feeds. That would certainly be the best way to get out narrow targeted Christmas messages.

Sherwood also had a piece on the rise of a Nigerian Pentecostal church, which showed its deft handling of statistics: “The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), which already has almost 800 places of worship in the UK, plans to open another 100 next year, ac­­cording to one of its leading pastors.

”‘We might not hit 100 but if we hit half that it will still be significant,’ Agu Irukwu told the Guardian.”

So, not 100, but hopes for 50. Still, it is an encouraging sign that people are getting stories about Black Pentecostal churches into the paper.


AND so the Pope. I think that this year’s biggest religious story will be whether the Roman Catholic reactionaries manage to get their schism on. If they fail, it will be almost as significant as if they succeed. There are a couple of stories suggesting that married priests are going to be the next battleground.

The Times reported that Cardinal Walter Kasper had told the Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, who had in turn told a German newspaper, that the Brazilian bishops had asked for permission to ordain married men because there were now 140 million Roman Catholics and only 18,000 priests. This is an astonishing statistic, and what makes the story even more credible is that Brazil is distinguished from all the Anglophone countries with a priest shortage, in that there is no worldwide movement to learn Portuguese.

Of course, it might be tried and fail, anyway. The example of the Ordinariate shows that. A more serious roadblock came in The Guardian’s story about pressure for a married priesthood in Ireland, which pointed out that the subject had been pushed off the agenda for the next synod of bishops in Rome.

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