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Press: Coles chronicles the ‘hard clarity’ of grief

07 February 2020

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THERE isn’t much to say about the indignities of the last week for the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.

Headlines included: “Church says sorry for saying sex was only for straight married couples” from Metro; “Church of England ‘sorry’ for saying sex is only for married couples”, Sky News. Best of all: “Arch­bishops ‘very sorry’ for sex advice”, from The Times (a line which surely deserved a better story under­­­­­­neath it — there are so many more interesting pieces of sex advice they might have given and been forced to retract).

The whole mess could have been avoided if only the people involved had given more thought to the position of the institution in the wider world, and less to their own positions within the institution — but to do so would be to break what has been called the iron law of institutions, and that does not often happen.

 

THE fiasco does, though, make a backdrop to the Revd Richard Coles’s moving piece in The Sunday Times about his bereavement. The ob­vi­­­­ous link is the passage about some of the reactions that he got: “A couple of people con­tacted me, via email and on paper, to inform me that David was now in hell, and I would be following him if I did not repent of my sinful­ness in taking unto myself a helpmeet with the wrong sort of genitals.

”Another ordained person wrote to tell me that while David’s death was unfortunate, it did nothing to diminish the scandal of us hold­­­­­­ing representative roles in the Church while unfit to do so.”

The follow-up was interesting. After he had posted some of the choicer morsels on social media, the police came round to take the de­­­tails of his correspondents. “The inspector ar­­­gued that this kind of behaviour should at least be discouraged, and a visit from police officers might stop someone from indulging such a peculiar habit again. I now think he was right.”

The re-emergence of a morality police is interesting. I can imagine the outrage and the complaints of persecution that would greet such a police visit. Under some circumstances, the outrage would be justified. It is clearly very wrong to sack people from their jobs for hav­ing the wrong views about such matters. Only acts that result in harm should be punished, not opinions which are offensive to some people.

But there is a difference, I think, between saying something in public and going to the trouble of saying it personally, even though social media — and, indeed, the outrage in­­dustry — are constantly trying to collapse the opinion. Had Mr Coles’s unnamed clerical colleague posted his opinion on Facebook or on Twitter — or even preached a sermon about it — that would have been fine. It’s an opinion well within the accepted Anglican spec­­­­trum (see above). But to inflict it directly on a grieving man was cruel, and could accom­plish nothing at all.

The other parts of the piece had a precise and worthwhile attention to detail. “The most useful thing to know, based on my experience so far, is that grief makes you half-mad. You will go to the Co-op for bread and milk and come out with kippers and parmesan. You will go to the barber for a trim to be gently told that you did that yesterday. You will buy a narwhal tusk on eBay. And you will weep un­­con­­­­trollably at the theme tune for Countryfile.

”There is a hard clarity to grief. It is hard because it is unsparing, and you will never feel more real than when you wake up in the morn­­­­­­­­­­­­ing and after a second remember that the person you love has died. It is clear because you see the elements of your life and how you fit into the world in sharper focus than usual.

”Please, be gentle on yourself. Please, be gentle on others. Don’t forget that the dither­ing person in front of you in the queue for the hospital car-park machine may be having the worst day of his life.”

It may be galling for those who believe that gay sex is always and everywhere wrong to con­template the fact that the writer is one of the most prominent public faces of the Church of England. The piece contains nothing about hope, nor the words “Jesus” or “God”. But it does tell us something about love, which many sermons that tick other boxes fail to do.

 

AND Christian fame comes in much worse. A piece in Slate on the Instagram influencers for Jesus made that clear. A representative entry for one woman, Sarah Jake Roberts, who has 1.4 million followers reads: “Instagram bio: I love Jesus. My husband is my best friend. My chil­dren are my greatest teachers. I drink my water & mind my busi­ness.

”Actual bio: The daughter of prominent pastor T. D. Jakes (3.9 million followers), Roberts now co-pastors a church in Los Angeles and heads a lifestyle brand called Woman Evolve, which includes conferences, a podcast, and a fashion line.

”Representative post: ‘You can’t tell me I’m not Olivia Pope in this @shopwomanevolve cape coat.’”

The conferences are interesting: Pentecostal networking for black women is probably economically important and completely below the media radar.

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