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Press: Bishops’ cull story not true — but should it be?  

29 May 2020


“We must learn the lessons of the badgers”

“We must learn the lessons of the badgers”

THE Sunday Times took a flier that was met with unusually concentrated scorn and denial. “Church of England weighs up cull of bishops”, the headline ran, and then: “The Church of England is to begin a rethink of its role which is expected to lead to a ‘massive shrinkage’ in the number of dioceses and parish churches that it runs — and could even mean that it had dozens fewer bishops.

“Stephen Cottrell, the incoming Archbishop of York, has been appointed to chair a review of the future of its 42 dioceses, which comes two months after every church closed its doors and services went online.”

No one followed it up, and not just because there were other things going on. Several bishops denounced it on Twitter as “a tissue of speculation and exaggeration”. So far as I can discover, this seems right. The Cottrell committee has nothing whatever to do with the immediate, and undeniable, financial crisis.

Of course, the next question is “Why doesn’t it?” Is there really no one asking how the Church should respond to the loss of between ten and 15 per cent of its income and a huge proportion of its volunteer labour? If not, why not? The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie wrote on Twitter that “it must be done humanely. We must learn the lessons of the badgers — no bashing [bishops] on the head with shovels in General Synod or chucking gas canisters through the doors of the Athenaeum”; in fact, I’d guess that dioceses will disappear and churches close, and yet the number of bishops will remain miraculously unaffected.

None the less, the Sunday Times story was unlikely to be true even if any of the details had been right. If the Church of England has the choice between either responding promptly to an obvious crisis, or setting up a committee to consider its strategy, vision, and discipleship, the safest bet is always on procrastination.

THE most unusual story of the week came from The Conversation, a very worthwhile website devoted to making readable stories out of rigorous scholarship. Marc-André Argentino, a doctoral student in the sociology of religion, has been attending some unusual virtual services for the past three months.

“I have been studying the growth of the QAnon movement as part of my research into how extremist religious and political organizations create propaganda and recruit new members to ideological causes.

“What I’ve witnessed is an existing model of neo-charismatic home churches — the neo-charismatic movement is an offshoot of evangelical Protestant Christianity and is made up of thousands of independent organizations — where QAnon conspiracy theories are reinterpreted through the Bible. In turn, QAnon conspiracy theories serve as a lens to interpret the Bible itself.”

The services start with an opening prayer to keep Satan out of the Zoom room. A retired colonel “then does 45 minutes of decoding items that have appeared recently on the app called QMap that is used to share conspiracy theories. The last 15 minutes are dedicated to communion and prayer.”

The most recent revelation was that the United States military has developed, in secret, a form of time-travel technology — which can, of course, be explained by certain passages in the Bible.

There are only 300 members of that congregation on YouTube at the moment, although the adherents of the Q mythos number in tens of thousands; so it has plenty of room to grow.

The Financial Times had an investigation of rather larger religions. The lead was wonderful: “In normal times, Matt Williams would await repentant sinners inside his churches in Quincy, Massachusetts. These days he has devised a virus-proof alternative: drive-through confession.

“He and his fellow Roman Catholic priests sit in separate cars in church parking lots, their vehicles marked with balloons. ‘We open the car window six to eight inches. Then we seal the window with a plastic bag,’ he says. The penitents draw up alongside in their own cars.”

The novelty in this piece was the evidence that in the US, as opposed to here, the virus really has brought about an increase in religious feeling. A chart from the Pew Research Centre suggested that about 25 per cent of adults in the US had had their faith strengthened by the pandemic. Oddly, the effect was five times as high among Christians as among Jews.

FINALLY, a wonderful item from the magazine MIT Technology Review, which has been looking at the impact of the virus on Artificial Intelligence. It turns out that a firm in London is already using “natural language processing and machine learning to generate email marketing copy or Facebook ads on behalf of its clients”.

This is worrying news for journalists everywhere. So many have fled the collapsing news business in the past decades that there were, at the last count, five times as many PR people as journalists in the US. Now, even that work is to be done by computers. It’s not much of a consolation to think that most of it will only ever be read by the spam filters on other computers.

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