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Press: Religion provides the imagery, if not the stories

02 August 2019


IN THE week that Boris Johnson was handed the keys to the Kingdom, and seasonal as well as political temperatures reached all-time highs, it was going to be even harder than usual for religious stories to find their way into the papers’ main sections.

Religious imagery, however, was being liberally applied to both phenomena. The “Climate Apocalypse” and “Brexit Armageddon” bore down on us as commentators discussed whether our new Prime Minister was the devil incarnate, the Messiah, or just a very naughty boy. There was much talk about optimism, but little about faith — which, for Mr Johnson, “like Magic FM in the Chilterns, it comes and goes”.

THE BBC’s decision not to transmit its scheduled documentary on the Bruderhof community, Inside the Bruderhof, was, again, due to the Boris effect: viewers who had been expecting to get a glimpse into a century-old Anabaptist community in East Sussex were treated instead to an extended News at Ten, followed by The Truth about . . . Carbs.

The 300-strong community is one of 23 worldwide that seek to follow a radical Christian path of discipleship and sacrificial commitment. The journalists given access were seduced to varying degrees by a lifestyle in which everyone eats, prays, and sings together. All income and resources are pooled, and there is no television or social media. A conservative dress code is adhered to: the women, in particular, look like members of the von Trapp family.

The same members resurfaced in each newspaper article. Eighteen-year-old Hannah is spending a year in the outside world to help her decide whether she can make a commitment to the Bruderhof as an adult. Hardy, now 26, left the community with his family for a while when he was 14; his disruptive teenage behaviour appears to have become too much for it to cope with.

“There are five-year-olds and 75-year-olds on my team, generations brought together by a shared vision,” Sam Wollaston wrote in The Guardian. “It’s a lovely scene — a bunch of people untroubled by money and mortgages and material matters, enjoying themselves and looking after each other.” Pity about the gender roles and the ban on same-sex relationships, he mused.

FOR those who like the idea of community but not of religious belief, there are the “atheist churches”. The magazine The Atlantic reported that the best known of these, the Sunday Assembly, is in trouble. The Sunday Assembly began in London in 2013, and gathers in cities around the world for singing, inspiring talks, and community building (Features, 31 January 2014). But, The Atlantic says, the number of “chapters” is down from 70 three years ago to 40 today.

The movement’s co-founder, the comedian Sanderson Jones, took to Twitter to say that 40 chapters still represented a significant achievement. Indeed it does, but his argument had the feel of the press releases put out by Church House number-crunchers every time the latest churchgoing statistics are published.

Mr Jones said that, without the infrastructure, tradition, and “brand recognition” enjoyed by churches, the Sunday Assembly organisers and volunteers struggled with the amount of work required to run a chapter. The Atlantic offered an interesting perspective from an anthropologist who discovered a positive correlation between the number of sacrifices that religious communes demand of their members and the longevity of the organisation. The correlation did not hold for secular equivalents. So, while I wish the Sunday Assembly well, it may not have the staying power of the Bruderhof.

I WOULD love to know how many letters The Spectator received after Ysenda Maxtone Graham said that East Kent’s predominantly white population is quaking at the prospect of its next Bishop, Prebendary Rose Hudson-Wilkin (News, 5 July).

A letter published in response to the article was a relatively mild rebuke from the Archbishops’ Council’s Head of Parliamentary Affairs, Richard Chapman. He “did not recognise the person described . . . and noted with some concern the author’s emphasis on perceived political agendas.”

No one with a rudimentary grasp of the workings of the Church of England would recognise the author’s description of the process by which bishops are appointed either. (“Totally controlled” by the Archbishop of Canterbury and his appointments secretary, Caroline Boddington).

We hear a great deal about a lack of religious knowledge among journalists in the mainstream media these days. Perhaps they should all be encouraged, early in their careers, to write for religious titles such as this one. That would surely help acquaint them with the basic facts.

Oh, wait a minute, is this the same Ysenda Maxtone Graham who used to write for the Church Times?

Rosie Dawson is a freelance journalist who specialises in religion. Andrew Brown is away.

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