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Press: Decisive action framed as humbling retreat

18 December 2020

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EVERY now and then, an old pro takes a short cut. Take the Daily Mail’s coverage of the latest tiny development in the administration of clergy discipline. The Church Times had reported it thus (News, 11 December): “On Friday, the official working group chaired by the Bishop at Lambeth, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, released a progress report. . . A key recommendation from the working group is the setting up of a central office to deal with serious complaints against clergy. For their part, clergy would be encouraged to be part of a union.”

The Mail’s lead was different. Under the headline, “The English Inquisition: Church of England team get power to probe and charge sex abuse clergy”, the story started: “The first English inquisition to investigate and charge clergy accused of child sexual abuse is being set up by the Church of England.

“This ‘central office’ would be the first organisation set up to police clergy in England in nearly 1000 years.

“It mirrors the Vatican organisation — the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [CDF] — charged by Pope Francis with investigating allegations of child sex abuse against Roman Catholic priests.

“The Church of England’s move to follow the Roman Catholic example reflects its embarrassment and financial loss after decades of allegations of child sex abuse against clergy.”

Never mind that it was actually Benedict XVI who put the CDF in charge of sex-abuse allegations; never mind that this is an interim proposal that may very well come to nothing. Here is a story in which the Church of England is seen to take decisive action about something — except that it is framed as a humiliating retreat into which it has been forced by a series of catastrophic safeguarding failures.

I don’t think myself that these can be blamed on the Clergy Discipline Measure. On the contrary, that is bad law, partly because it blurs the distinction between an accusation and a finding of guilt. The really big scandals, like the Smyth case, involve networks that the CDM can’t touch.

 

THE intellectual magazines are starting to take Christianity more seriously, but the daily papers are still largely blind to religion. I have mentioned before the excellence of the New Statesman’s coverage; Prospect now has a long and sympathetic review by Nick Spencer of Julian Baggini’s book about the ethics of Jesus.

“When the ethical Jesus is asked to stand up, the authoritative, existential, perhaps even divine figure comes with him, sticking to the moral man like his own shadow . . . ultimately, I don’t think you can strip away those elements and retain a coherent figure. The reader is left with the same nagging question that Jesus put to his first followers: ‘Who do you say I am?’”

Tom Clark, Prospect’s editor, was a friend (and boss) at The Guardian, and I don’t suppose that he thinks that question urgent at all. But he does see that it matters to a great many people, and an editor needs to know what matters to other people quite as much, though no more, than they have a clear idea of what matters to them.

 

MISSING that point was nicely illustrated by the secular media’s coverage of a Trumpist rally in Washington over the weekend.

The coverage concentrated on the street brawls surrounding a group of neo-fascist thugs, the Proud Boys, and largely ignored the speakers, who included Archbishop Viganò and Eric Metaxas, a revered Evangelical author of bestselling biographies of, among others, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. That he has ended up siding with the nearest that America has to the SA is something for historians of the American understanding of the Second World War to note.

The message of the rally was that Donald Trump had, in fact, won the election, and by a landslide. The evidence was supplied by prophets — the word of God himself. Anyone who failed to believe was either lacking in faith or under the sway of demonic powers.

And it was conservative religious bloggers who were properly horrified by what they heard. “It is hard to overstate how much credibility Viganò has with a large number of conservative Catholics,” Rod Dreher noted. David French, another sane Republican, pointed out the way in which to be a churchgoing Evangelical in the US entwines the Church and its teaching with every aspect of daily life.

This kind of deep inculturation is the peat in which the fire of Trumpism can smoulder for decades, constantly ready to burst out in consuming flames again.

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