ON THE question whether people prefer fictional Christianity to the real thing, we have some evidence. Last week, the BBC showed a snippet on the work of two pastors in Burnley, one a Baptist and one an Anglo-Catholic. They have combined to help the poor in their parish. Both men wept at what they saw in the film, and it was hugely affecting if anyone watched it. The Observer followed it with a moving piece by Harriet Sherwood: “Pastor Mick Fleming is on the frontline of the pandemic — not in hospital wards and care homes but battling with loan sharks and landlords who are propelling debt-encumbered, low-income families towards an ever more precarious future.
“‘I’m with people every day for whom gas and electricity are luxuries. People are getting into debt to pay for basics, and small loans quickly turn into colossal sums. It borders on evil the way some people prey on the most vulnerable,’ Fleming told the Observer.
“’We take food parcels to people, but what’s the point if they can’t cook the food because there’s no gas or electric? So now we provide hot, cooked meals as well.’”
That was one piece. Nicky Gumbel had a Godslot in The Times, talking about the same phenomenon. But readers of the Telegraph or the Mail were quite untroubled by what went on in Burnley — and, of course, in many other places. The Mail Online, however, ran a total of ten stories about The Vicar of Dibley. One, in particular, would have made an interesting pairing with the news from Burnley: “Dawn French has revealed she would eat curry for breakfast during the UK’s first coronavirus lockdown earlier this year.
“The comedian, 63 — who famously lost over seven and a half stone stone in 2014 — shared how she’d fuel her mornings with the hearty meal, before writing her novel Because Of You.”
It took two bylines to bring that news to the readers.
THE only other piece of British religious news was the sudden “resignation” of Janet Daby MP, the Shadow Minister for Faith. Ms Daby had done a Zoom interview with the Religion Media Centre, and was asked whether there should be accommodations made for the consciences of registrars who found themselves unable to approve of same-sex marriages. Until then, she had been avoiding any interesting answers with the concentration of a child jumping along an invisible hopscotch course on the pavement to avoid the monsters underneath. But then she said that she thought some provision ought to be made for those people — and you can’t think that out loud if you’re a Labour MP. Catherine Pepinster picked up the story for The Sunday Telegraph, and Ms Daby’s career was over.
THE NEW YORK TIMES ran a really decent, sensitive piece by Ruth Graham on the most recent Evangelical scandal, this time in Hillsong’s New York outpost. The Pastor there, Carl Lentz, came unglued last month after an affair with a (female) Palestinian dress designer. Before that, Mr Lentz had mostly been famous for his friendship with the pop singer Justin Bieber, which meant that he was very famous indeed to people who care about celebrities.
“The association with Mr. Bieber catapulted Mr. Lentz, 42, into a new stratosphere of fame, in which he became not just a friend to celebrities but a celebrity himself,” Ms Graham reported. “He was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, and showed up on Kourtney Kardashian’s Instagram. He mixed with a jet-setting group of other hip pastors, including Rich Wilkerson Jr., a Miami pastor who performed the wedding ceremony for Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.”
But that was then. Now, in the brief interval between his fall and his redemption by Oprah, Mr Lentz is excoriated by all who knew him. Brian Houston, who leads Hillsong, told the staff of the East Coast branch, which Mr Lentz led, that the church had found evidence of more than one affair. “Mr. Houston also connected Mr. Lentz’s dismissal to ‘general narcissistic behavior, manipulating, mistreating people,’ as well as ‘breaches of trust connected to lying, and constantly lying.’”
This must have come as a dreadful shock to him, since he had first employed Mr Lentz as an intern and then hand-picked him to lead the East Coast operation.
AND so to a thoughtful piece in the New Statesman, about the way in which even Buddhist practices are now emptied of their theological content and remarketed as self-help: “Its preoccupation is with the self and personal freedom, and its adherents speak of “knowing myself”, “finding myself”, “honouring myself”, “being true to me”, and of “becoming who I really am”. Faith is placed in the capacity of individuals to know their own heart, find their own path, and thus throw off the repressive restrictions of society.
St Paul, of course, in his letter to to the Hillsingers, advised celebrities to keep their inner selves safely in their trousers. But that might not have left them feeling better about themselves, as Hillsong sermons are supposed to do.