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Press: Pew iconoclasts get their arguments in first

24 August 2018


THE Chancellor of the diocese of Gloucester got a good blast at the Victorian Society into The Daily Telegraph: “Middle-class churchgoers are obsessed with pews and heritage at the expense of religious belief, a Church of England judge has said.

“Ruling that a Victorian church could remove its pews as part of a £2 million overhaul, the Chancellor of the Diocese of Gloucester said the plans had been blocked by ‘architectural purists’ who cared more about the appearance of the church than its religious purpose.

“The congregation of St Philip and St James in Cheltenham had been forced into a 17-year battle with conservationists over plans to build glass ‘pods’ for meeting rooms and install underfloor heating.

“Chancellor June Rodgers warned that the congregation’s wishes were being blocked by ‘professional objectors’ who ‘can be indifferent to the actual use of a church’ but who are ‘besotted with the purity/rareness/example of a particular architect’.

“Artistic heritage, on occasions, can appear to become [a] professional middle class substitute for religious observance or belief,’ she said in her ruling.”

It is not often that this view — which must, I think, be very widely held among the clergy and active churchgoers — gets into the national press. Normally, it is the objectors who put their arguments first. The only thing that I would quibble with is the conflation of religious observance with religious belief. There must be a fair number of people who go to church for the architecture, or the aesthetic qualities of worship more widely, while cringing at the impossibilities, or the moral darkness, of the belief entailed by the lessons.

The trouble with that theory, though, is that it suggests that the churches the conservationists will fight in court to preserve are in fact aesthetically striking. This is not true. In every single case of which I have had any detailed knowledge, faith must do double duty, first to believe what is preached, and then to see anything spiritual in the architecture.

Still, God is not mocked. The ultimate destination of most fogeys is the Roman Catholic Church, where they must suffer through folk masses in plain red-brick barns. 

OTHERWISE, the religious news of the week was not Anglican. The Boris Johnson burqa row continued to rumble on (News, 10 August, Paul Vallely, 17 August). Not many people picked up on one of its most important features, which is that he displayed enormous rhetorical skill in making an argument that was legally and factually in favour of keeping the burqa on British streets, while emotionally making the opposite case.

He managed thus to wrongfoot almost all his opponents. Most of them were no more enthusiastic about burqa-wearing than he is. They are just repelled either by him personally or by the sentiments that he quite deliberately stirred up. Only Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, among the commentators, noticed what Johnson had actually written, and criticised him for not wanting a wider ban in public places, in an article for The Mail on Sunday.

THE entanglement of religion with identity and values rather than explicit belief came out from two European stories, one of which provoked a marvellous headline in The Guardian: “Spaghetti injunction: Pastafarianism is not a religion, Dutch court rules”.

The story was about the demand of a Dutch student that she be allowed to wear a colander on her head in ID photos. This is sometimes practised by followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, an internet joke against creationism whose followers pretend to believe that the world was created by a creature like a giant jellyfish, whose tentacles are made of strings of pasta. This is recognised as a religion in New Zealand, where Pastafarians are permitted to celebrate weddings.

The highest Dutch court held that this is not entitled to the protections of a real religion, and so the headgear must be doffed for driving-licence photos. The next step will be an attempt to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. The absurdity of Pastafarianism is, of course, its point. One is meant to deduce from it that the tenets of all other religions are equally absurd, and, in one sense, they are. But it is not very helpful to point out that myths have no empirical foundation. Neither has the belief in human rights. What makes any of these beliefs real, or worthy of respect, is the willingness of their followers to die for them. Until the first Pastafarian martyrs are boiled in giant saucepans, I will demand that they doff their colanders for driving-licence photos.

IN SWITZERLAND, meanwhile, AFP reported that the city of Lausanne “has blocked a Muslim couple’s bid to become Swiss nationals over their refusal to shake hands with members of the opposite sex.

“The mayor refused to divulge the couple’s nationalities or other identifying details, but said they ‘did not shake hands with people of the opposite sex’.” It’s not clear from the story how it was known that they were Muslims and not Haredi Jews, who observe the same taboo.

Although the decision is a perfectly reasonable one, it’s salutary to imagine the very different outcry had they turned out to be Haredim. “Religion”, even monotheistic religion, is always defined by its context, not its content.

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