JUSTIN WELBY had a rather mysterious piece in the Telegraph just after last week’s column went to press. I write “Justin Welby” because everyone else did, but it was co-signed by Sarah Mullally, the Bishop of London, whose medical expertise, as a former Chief Nursing Officer, might be of more immediate relevance to the Covid-19 pandemic.
It was spun as a piece in praise of family Christmases: “He is concerned about families being kept apart and the knock-on effect that has, particularly on people who are on their own,” a “source” told the Telegraph: a message that was apparently impossible to spell out in the piece. But the original headline was about localism, which was rather weaker ground for the Archbishop to stand on.
I know that the idea of the Church’s having a presence in every community is a hugely important marketing line. But it’s important not to believe your own propaganda. The effect of the virus has been to centralise decision-making in the Church to an almost unprecedented degree. Some of that was deliberate — as in the command, later re-spun as a suggestion, that clergy should stay out of their locked-down churches.
Much was inadvertent. Financial pressures mean that decisions will have to be taken about which parishes — and perhaps which dioceses — are going to survive, and those decisions will obviously be taken at a more central level. Ultimately, it is the Church Commissioners who decide what they will invest in, and no one has been a more enthusiastic proponent of that kind of centralisation than the Archbishop of Canterbury.
But “Archbishop favours a family Christmas” would not be enough for the Telegraph. Hence, perhaps, the attack on centralisation. The paper has been running a furious campaign against the idea of government virus-related restrictions. Its tone is exemplified by the columnist Allison Pearson, whose tweets and columns on the subject all hammer home one simple message: “Why can’t those scientists admit what is blindingly obvious to me, and I don’t even know any science?”
AMAZON lists 176 different “skills” that enable its Alexa program to read out prayers for every faith and taste, including one that is “Authored uniquely for you, featuring Bishop Eric J. Freeman of the Meeting Place Church of Greater Columbia, SC.” Surely, your personal prayers are one thing that should not be outsourced, even to a bishop. “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, I’d rather you looked at someone else’s heart this morning. . .”
There is also the danger that you are outsourcing the job to someone with a sense of humour: Westminster Abbey had the Prime Minister read from Philippians 2 at its Battle of Britain commemoration service: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
The Alexa skill that got the stories last week, however, was the one that reads out services from the Prayer Book — or, as it’s known to Amazon, the Cambridge Prayer Book (News, 18 September). “Cambridge” is a better branding than “Cranmer”, since the services are read by an actor who seems to have trained on All Gas and Gaiters. Cranmer still matters because he has truthful things to say, and the sillier the voice that they’re read in, the less they can be heard.
The most joyful read of the week comes in the London Review of Books, which has a long account of the extraordinary fraud that was the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”. This was a papyrus fragment, endorsed by two heavyweight American scholars, Karen King and Roger Bagnall, which appeared to contain the words “Jesus said to them: ‘My wife’” and “she is able to be my disciple”. These were taken to refer to Mary Magdalene.
The fragment had actually been written — or cribbed from fragments of a different, genuine, Coptic text — by a German immigrant who owned a supplier of BMW parts in California. He was a skilled and patient con man, who picked his mark well; for Professor King was, at the time, defending Harvard Divinity School against an academic intrigue. And she was entirely committed to the project of restoring women to the gospel story.
James Lasdun writes: “In several articles King lamented the sexual neutering of women in the Gnostic texts, even those as hospitable to her vision of restored female authority as the Gospel of Mary: ‘It seems to me that even when the feminine is highly valued, it is often done so at the expense of real sexuality.’
“A gospel revealing Mary Magdalene as not just Jesus’s disciple but also his wife would restore that forfeited sexuality. If it turned out to be genuine, so much the better. But even if it didn’t, might it not do some good all the same, if it stirred up enough debate? By that calculus, of course, its champion would have to be resigned in advance to every kind of public scolding and shaming. But what could be a more radically Christian gesture?”