THE issue of The Spectator which contained the Archbishops’ response to the earlier attacks (Press, 19 February, 12 February) also had the readers’ responses, which were instructive. They proposed four remedies for the Church’s problems, all of them variations on the theme of getting someone else to pay for it. First, there was sacking half the bishops: “Money saved should go to front line parish ministry, particularly in those towns and villages where the presence of the church is threatened,” Neil McKittrick suggested, from a village in Cambridgeshire.
Then, Deiniol Williams, of Chester, suggested that people leave for other denominations, while Martin Down, of Witney, had an even more simple solution to all the financial problems: “Stop paying the parish share; ignore everything that comes from the diocesan office; employ local tradesmen to do the repairs on the church and the parsonage house . . . then see what happens! God is faithful and will provide for all your needs.” This is a faith in the benevolence of tradesmen, and the malevolence of bishops, which could be revealed only to a man who has spent 55 years being supported by the Church Commissioners — and Mr Down tells us he has been ordained for that long.
Rather more realistic was the letter proposing “a simple solution”, from Michael Bond, of Corfe Castle: in rural parishes, he says, “We spend a disproportionate amount of our time and effort raising money to maintain expensive church buildings which are ancient, beautiful, and of historic interest . . . [but also] cold, draughty, uncomfortable and lacking in toilets or cooking facilities. . . Let English Heritage be responsible for these ancient church buildings on behalf of the nation.”
For what it’s worth, I think that something like this is the obvious, and possibly even inevitable, solution to the problem of rural churches. It does nothing, however, to solve the overhang of Victorian urban and suburban churches, and the price of getting it through Parliament might well be the expulsion of the bishops from the House of Lords.
THERE has been a small-scale row about the treatment of the new head of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), Zara Mohammed, who went on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and rather floundered at the standard feminist critique of her religion. So, 200 fairly prominent women wrote to the BBC to complain.
This gesture can be understood only in the light of the longstanding government boycott of the MCB, which is, so far as one can tell, a fairly useless and unrepresentative talking-shop, but also the nearest thing there is to an organised Muslim voice. It seems to me that constructive engagement would be very much wiser, and would avoid seeing all issues to do with Islam through the lens of security policy, something that is damaging both to security and to community relations.
National media treatment of Muslim stories is still largely driven either by guilt on the Left or rage on the Right; in both cases, it’s often the case that what really winds editors and columnists up is not so much what Muslims themselves have done as what their opponents in the media have written or said. In any case, Janice Turner, in The Times, complained about the complaint against the BBC.
“A female head of a Roman Catholic umbrella group would brace herself for a grilling on papal edicts about abortion, contraception or a ban on women priests. And doubtless 200 prominent women would not write an open letter attacking the BBC,” she wrote.
“Yet according to Labour MPs Diane Abbott and Naz Shah, and the Tory peer Baroness Warsi among others, the presenter Emma Barnett was ‘strikingly hostile’ in asking Mohammed about the number of female imams in Britain. It was, to be fair, a snippy exchange: Barnett refused to accept the MCB leader didn’t ‘have a clue’ or ‘feel that’s within the parameters of my roles and responsibilities’ as, given she represents 500 mosques and many Muslim women’s groups, she must surely know the answer is zero.”
The premise of her piece is that organised religion is always and everywhere a foe to feminism: “Liberating women from religious diktats was feminism’s original feat, one that continues, as Polish Catholicism fuses with a right-wing state to deny women hard-won reproductive rights.” She also believes that the BBC must stand for feminist demands. Fair enough, at least as far as Woman’s Hour goes; but if that’s the only lens through which religion is viewed, a great deal is going to be missed and misunderstood.
Such a blanket condemnation would, for example, miss entirely the significance of Pope Francis’s sacking Cardinal Robert Sarah, the news story that was, apparently, the most viewed item in The Wall Street Journal the last time I checked in there. Cardinal Sarah stands for the conservative hope that Vatican II can be forgotten, and that black African conservatism can rescue white American conservatism. We have seen how well that plan played out in the Anglican Communion; let us hope that the next conclave has learned something from that experience.