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Press: Spectator podcast takes aim at ‘woke’ bishops

24 July 2020

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The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, then Bishop of Chelmsford, speaks at the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature, in Oxfordshire, in February

The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, then Bishop of Chelmsford, speaks at the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature, in Oxfordshire, in February

THE nearest thing to an interesting Anglican story I could find this week was the resumption of Damian Thompson’s campaign against the Church. He was advertising on the Spectator website a podcast with Gavin-Ashenden-a-former-chaplain-to-the-queen: “Archbishop Stephen Cottrell made the headlines even before he was enthroned last week, when he ‘revealed’ that Jesus was black. This came as news to everyone except the far left, race-baiting fanatics of Black Lives Matter. . .

“In this week’s Holy Smoke podcast I talk to Dr Gavin Ashenden, a former chaplain to the Queen, about the implications of this disastrous appointment, which means that for the first time in the history of the Established Church the sees of Canterbury, York and London are all occupied by intellectually challenged bureaucrats with an adolescent enthusiasm for wokeness.”

God moves in rather mysterious ways: Thompson’s old Telegraph blog, also branded as “Holy Smoke”, did much to convince me that I might actually have a soul to be endangered, because I felt so awful after reading it. But there’s a market, and we’ve all got to eat.

The wokeness wars unite two of the fundamental elements of organised religion: the need for sacrilege and the remorseless struggle for status. It’s no coincidence, as Marxists used to say, that they are most fiercely contested in the media and in higher education. Both are trades where the economic underpinning has been ripped away by the internet, and where there is a vast oversupply of labour relative to demand.

I was at a small conference last year for people who had been “cancelled”, or forced out of their jobs, or had faced efforts to force them out of their jobs, as academics. Some had clearly been the victims of monstrous injustice, but what set the problem in perspective for me was a conversation with someone who had a philosophy post at a first-rate university.

There had been 190 applicants for his post, and, in sober reflection, he agreed that any of the top 20 applicants could have done it perfectly well. So the competition for any such post will be decided by criteria that are not strictly meritocratic. Or, as one Guardian executive with a reputation for radical progressive values said to me once, as we were interviewing a job candidate: “Do you know? I’ve never had to interview for a job in my life: people have just asked me to do them.”

The journalistic equivalent of academic over-supply is Beaverbrook’s Law, which states that any journalist may be replaced by any other. This is closer to the truth than is comfortable. In the light of this pressure, the wokeness wars make much more sense. It is not that young people are more censorious or conformist than their elders were at the same age: it’s that the stakes are so much higher, the penalties for failure so much greater, and the criteria for success so much more arbitrary.

And nothing could be more arbitrary than heresy or taboo. Rationalists think that this is a disadvantage, but it’s actually their greatest strength, if you look at fights over resources as contests of brute political strength. People don’t die because eating pork, using particular words, or crossing yourself with three fingers and not two are important in themselves. They are all gestures that become important because people are prepared to die, or kill, around them. Of course, in the West today, we use social death and the murder of reputation instead of the physical sort, but in most of the world that’s only intermittently true.


AND so to Istanbul, where the reconsecration of Hagia Sophia as a mosque (News, Comment, 17 July) drew an unexpected comment on the blog of the London Review of Books (LRB): “Lost in the clash-of-civilisations din is the question of whether cultural heritage sites should be closed off as museums or continue to be lived-in places, including places that are at times used for worship. . . Getting into Hagia Sophia used to cost $15, roughly a day’s work at the national minimum wage, and way beyond the means of the average Turkish family. The mosque will be more accessible to thousands of Turkish Christians than the museum ever was.”

This seems to me an extreme example of secularist blindness: a Christian walking into a church that is now a mosque or even a museum will not experience it in the same way as they would if it were still a church. But perhaps the dislocation is worse when it has become a museum.


THE Financial Times’s Chicago correspondent, Claire Bushey, had a nice story about returning to mass: “Covid-19 has done what no pope or parish priest could ever accomplish: it has forced US Catholics to fill the church pews from the front. . . Life is hard. There needs to be some balm in Gilead. The church gives me a sense of belonging, a rare opportunity to use the pronoun ‘we’. It soothes an ache that I did not feel until I could not relieve it. It was easy to take for granted, until it was gone. To think it was ordinary, when it never was.”

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