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Press: Easter coverage — conjuring tricks with words

06 April 2018


I THINK that the tone of the press coverage at Easter is slowly shifting. Jordan Peterson, the currently fashionable Canadian psychologist, got a bigger billing in The Sunday Times than the Archbishop of Canterbury, though both men were, in rather different ways, talking up Christianity.

Older traditions were represented: on the Guardian’s website there was one piece of utter nonsense about Easter being a pagan festival. I think that there might be a hormone that rises in spring and causes people to claim that everything is pagan — Eostregen.

The Mail on Sunday published something harking back to an even earlier tradition in which a bishop is had up for saying something sensible. In this instance, it was the Archbishop of Wales. “One of Britain’s leading Anglican clerics has sparked controversy by casting doubts over the resurrection of Jesus — just before Easter.

“The 65-year-old Archbishop, who was elected in September to head the Church in Wales — the Welsh equivalent of the Church of England — said something ‘radical’ had happened that had changed people’s lives.

“But he then referred to one of the Church’s most contentious theologians, the late Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, who was accused of blasphemy for questioning the physical nature of the Resurrection when he described it as ‘a conjuring trick with bones’.”

This is pretty dreadful. Jonathan Petre, whose name is on the story, was around at the time of the Jenkins stories, and knows perfectly well that what Bishop Jenkins actually said was the opposite, that it could not be described as just a conjuring trick with bones.

The story continues: “Echoing Bishop Jenkins’ remarks, Archbishop Davies, a former solicitor, said the Resurrection was ‘about something far more than a dead body coming back to life — it is the complete renewal of the being of Christ’.”

Perhaps next year we can combine the two genres into one story about how a druid has been attacked for saying that the sun may not literally rise as a result of the ceremonies performed at the solstice.

THE other man under fire for this sort of thing was Pope Francis, who was reported to have told an Italian journalist that there was no such place as hell.

The problem, which has arisen before with this journalist, Eugenio Scalfari, is that there are no notes or records taken of the interview. This is a perfect recipe for false memory.

So, while it is entirely possible that the Pope did in fact say: “They are not punished, those who repent obtain the forgiveness of God and go among the ranks of the souls who contemplate him, but those who do not repent, and therefore cannot be forgiven, disappear,” as The New York Times translated the report, this would not mean that hell has been abolished. It would merely mean that he is an abolitionist, a position held by such radicals as the late John Stott, though hardly by all Evangelicals.

It is, in fact, impossible to imagine any pope, conscious of the weight of tradition and the looming threat of infallibility, saying under any circumstances that hell did not exist. That it is certain to exist (whatever that might mean) but may be empty is, on the other hand, a perfectly orthodox position, as I understand it.

THAT may seem like a bit of contorted reasoning, but you don’t get to be a bishop, let alone a cardinal or pope, in the Roman Catholic Church without a certain facility with words. Consider the statement of Bishop Guo Xijin, an “underground” bishop in China, who is recognised by the Vatican but not by the central government, quoted in the Financial Times.

The Bishop, from the eastern province of Fujian, denied reports in the RC media that he had been “kidnapped”. But he confirmed that he was taken to the nearby city of Xiamen for three days last week under the supervision of Communist-party officials, before returning on Saturday.

“You can’t imagine a bishop leaving his church during Holy Week except under special circumstances. I can’t say I was forced, but under certain circumstances there is no other option.”

THERE was a lovely interview with Archbishop Welby by Rachel Cooke in The Observer, which managed to combine his impression of sincerity with the PR operation that stands all around watching: he had three people present for the interview, more, she remarks, than either the former Prime Ministers David Cameron or Tony Blair had found necessary on similar occasions. Then he goes and refers to Lambeth Palace as “Hogwarts”.

AFTER that, a real story: Kaya Burgess in The Times reports that the police are looking into the allegations by Matthew Ineson that five current bishops, among them the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, failed to respond appropriately to his accusations of abuse against another priest, who later took his own life, when facing unrelated charges.

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