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Press: Losing the vocabulary of the Christian faith

19 October 2018


The Queen holds the Order of Service for the marriage of Princess Eugenie and Jack Brooksbank in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, last Friday  

The Queen holds the Order of Service for the marriage of Princess Eugenie and Jack Brooksbank in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, last Friday...

PERHAPS like most recipients of the Church of England’s daily media briefing, I spent a few seconds last week shuddering away from the lead item, day after day: a list of five or ten stories on the upcoming wedding of whoever it was to whoever else it was at St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

I had the good fortune, or the good taste, to be thrown out of both the schools attended by Fergie’s daughters; so I am not envious of anyone who gets to mix with them. But what did strike me about all the coverage was how very unchristian it was.

Yes, the wedding was in church, and was solemnised by the Dean of Windsor, who no doubt spoke to the couple sternly on the duties of chastity. I was winding up for a joke there about Lambeth 1.10 and its condemnation of all sex outside marriage, but, when I came to check the wording, that is not quite what it does. It actually says: “Abstinence is right for those not called to marriage.” It does not need to make explicit the corollary.

The point, however, is that the ceremony was about celebrity and tradition. In the eyes of the public, this had nothing at all to do with religion, still less Christianity. This is not entirely a result of the fastidious shudder with which many of the clergy will have greeted the prospect of this latest ceremony. It is also the case that the Churches are now seen as entirely divorced from their doctrinal message.


THERE was support for this this in a recent post on the Non Religion and Secularity blog by the researcher Charlotte Hobson. She showed videos of the last coronation to people, and discovered that they entirely failed to recognise it as any kind of religious service.

“Coronation rituals were often separated from their intended religious meanings and their worth calculated with this in mind. Apparently, traditions were not viewed favourably because of their Christian nature but almost in spite of it.

“For most, the ceremony wasn’t perceived as a religious event, and even after viewing video clips of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation — resplendent with explicitly religious imagery, objects, and language — when asked if any alterations should be made for future coronations, they fixated on notions of respecting history and preserving tradition which make such events ‘more official’ and ‘authentic’, adding ‘significance’ to and ‘respect’ for the ceremony. Implied in this is the notion that religion doesn’t.”

This is a problem, I think, that all rural churches and most cathedrals face.


RELATED to this was an article in The New York Times: the writer and pastor Jonathan Merritt described his experience of moving to New York from the suburbs of Atlanta: “Spiritual conversations, once a natural part of each day for me, suddenly became a struggle. . . Whenever I used religious terms I considered common — like ‘gospel’ and ‘saved’ — my conversation partner often stopped me mid-thought to ask for a definition, please.

“I’d try to rephrase those words in ordinary vernacular, but I couldn’t seem to articulate their meanings. Some words, like ‘sin’, now felt so negative that they lodged in my throat. Others, like ‘grace’, I’d spoken so often that I no longer knew what they meant.”

He went on to cite a 2012 study that examined the use of virtue words in Google’s gigantic corpus of 20th-century American texts. It’s true — great numbers of them fell during the past century: “virtue”, “decency”, “conscience”, “righteousness”, and “rectitude” all fell in frequency by at least 40 per cent over the century, and “conscience” by more than two-thirds.

The sermon writes itself.

The researchers then gave their study an interesting twist. They asked a panel of Amazon Turkish workers which of 80 words they thought constituted a virtue today. Women, incidentally, answered with more enthusiasm. The process eliminated 30 obsolete virtue terms, among them prudence, hope, discretion, thrift, and (of course) chastity.

I’m going to want royalties on all these sermons.


I ONCE met Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist murdered and dismembered, allegedly, by a Saudi hit squad in their consulate in Istanbul. He came to talk to a group of us at The Guardian; so I take his death more seriously than that of the tens of thousands of children who have died as a result of the Saudi war in the Yemen (which he, by the way, opposed).

This is rather a shaming illustration of Adam Smith’s realism about our moral sentiments. But it’s not just me: it took the death of this one man to make the ghastly character of the Saudi regime clear to the media. I was most shocked, though, by President Trump’s claim that he could have been the victim of “rogue killers”.

This was more shocking that his frank claim that the arms trade mattered more, because it marks the point where language ceases to convey any meaning at all, except a sort of derisive, chimpanzee hooting about the power to lie.

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