THE suspension of the Bishop of Lincoln, the Rt Revd Christopher Lowson, was not the picture that the Church of England likes to have of itself. That came out clearly in The Times’s obituary of Canon Michael Green, who died in February (News, Obituary, 15 February). It started unforgettably:
“When the Diocese of Oxford’s fearsome cricket team took to the pitch for one match in the early 1980s, two figures constructed a heroic seventh-wicket partnership.
“One was the Rev Maurice Wiles, who had contributed to a book called The Myth of God Incarnate, suggesting that it is possible to be Christian without believing that God came to Earth in the human form of Jesus. The other was the Rev Canon Michael Green, who had swiftly published a rebuttal entitled The Truth of God Incarnate, defending the divinity of Christ.
“With the two theologians at the crease, the captain approached the Bishop of Buckingham in the pavilion and said: ‘Look, Bishop, it’s a parable. Myth and truth are batting for the same side’.”
Cricket, scholarship, charm, and an almost fatal smugness — what a picture of the Established Church as it sailed gaily onwards to the rocks.
THE next story comes from the Antipodes of that comfortable world. The first from the Andean jungles of Brazil, where the murder rate is among the highest in the world, as drug gangs contend for control of the coca trade. The churches that matter there are the small Pentecostal congregations, and the Washington Post had an account of their life-saving work there. It is not for the squeamish:
“For years, Brazilian gangs have posted cellphone videos on social media to keep members in line, intimidate rivals and orchestrate attacks. As the violence has intensified, the videos have become increasingly gruesome. In 2016, a gang posted footage of the live decapitation of two men from a rival gang. By 2018, members were extracting the hearts of their decapitated rivals and waving them in front of the camera.
“Barros, pastor of Rio Branco’s Igreja Geração Eleita — the Elected Generation Church — saw these videos circulating on his feeds and decided to co-opt the approach. The social-media-savvy televangelist began to film gang members’ conversions and post them online to declare that the new converts were off-limits.
“The videos show burly men . . . looking tearfully into the camera and making their confessions.
“Standing before bullet-pocked buildings — and often bullet-pocked themselves — they state their names, code names and ID numbers within their gangs. They list their crimes, the number of people they have killed, and announce they are now men of God:
“Barros places a hand on their shoulders and pronounces them free: ‘In the name of Jesus, you are officially unaffiliated.’”
This is an interesting twist on the idea that the truth will set you free.
What lifts the story unexpectedly is the attention that the reporter pays to the failures. Not everyone is truly converted. The gangs apparently monitor church attendance and shoot the converts who appear to be insincere; the threat of being reported to the gang bosses by their pastor is one of the things that keeps the converts attending Bible studies.
At the end of the article is the story of a young man who had started dealing marijuana when he was seven, and worked himself up to a cocaine dealership by the time he went to prison, aged 15. By that time, he said, he had killed 22 people. When he came out of prison last year, he converted, and even found an honest job. But this paid $12 a day instead of the thousand or more he could have made as a dealer; so he returned to crime. After some months, he decided that this was too dangerous, and so recorded another confession and repentance — but, when he was finished, he asked the pastor not to post it just yet. He’d let him know when the time was right.
One of the pastors involved was himself a former gangster, and the whole movement has risen among the people that it treats: it hasn’t been imposed from above. I think that this is a wonderful example of the creative powers of Christianity, made much more credible by the inclusion of failure.
THE other great piece was in First Things magazine, by Chris Arnade, a former Wall Street bond trader who spent five years photographing the losers of America, listening to and learning from them: “Everyone I met there who was living homeless or battling an addiction held a deep faith. Street walking is stunningly dangerous work, and everyone has stories of being cut, attacked, and threatened, or stories of others who were killed. Everyone has to deal with the danger. Few work without a mix of heroin, Xanax, or crack. None without faith. ‘You know what kept me through all that? God. Whenever I got into the car, God got into the car with me’.”
I really, truly, have no idea whether stories like that could be told from Europe or from this country — but I wish that we had the sort of journalistic culture that could find them out. Of course, it’s not cricket.