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Press: Author shares Smyth insights with Guardian

03 September 2021

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THE GUARDIAN does take the Church of England seriously over bank-holiday weekends, and Harriet Sherwood got two detailed pieces in: one on the Iwerne scandal, and one on the Save the Parish campaign (News, 6 August).

The one examining the Save the Parish revolt was unique, I think, in that it contained a sympathetic look at an HTB initiative as well. The Iwerne piece was, of course, based on Andrew Graystone’s new book, Bleeding for Jesus (News, 20 August): she quoted him as saying that “the Iwerne project, in line with most cults, relied on three pillars: conversion, conditioning and coercion. Recruits had to ‘declare total allegiance to Jesus’, follow certain codes and practices, and observe ‘sexual purity’. He said it was ‘highly exclusive — this was not a movement for the poor. It accrued huge amounts of power, influence and wealth.’”

She topped and tailed the story with one of Smyth’s victims, Andy Morse, starting with his suicide attempt in 1982, which led to Smyth’s limited and partial exposure, and ending with Mr Morse’s rather gracious response to the Titus Trust’s denial that it had ever covered anything up: “Although some of the content is difficult to consider, I’d like to thank Titus today. It is both human and humane of them to share their story rather than remain silent and fake perfection. I’m happy to continue the conversation.”

I can’t believe that the happiness is shared.

One of the insights of Graystone’s book is that the people who orchestrated the original cover-up thought of Smyth primarily as a homosexual (one hesitates to say “gay”), and treated him as they would any other. Some must have believed that if he really had to engage with naked young men, the cane was the morally safest implement for the purpose. Perhaps they thought that all gay men were like that. This lack of curiosity about what a healthy gay relationship might be like led to a policy that was not just “Don’t ask; don’t tell,” but “Don’t ask, but imagine what depravities you want.” Something like that seems to have lain behind the other scandal of the week: the Church’s apology for the really disgraceful hounding of Fr Alan Griffin (News, leader comment, 23 July). Sherwood got that into the paper, too. It makes grim reading.

 

I HAVE mentioned the American writer Antonio García Martínez before (Press, 6 August), but he had an extremely interesting essay last week riffing off an interview that he had done with the historian Tom Holland on the central part that Christianity plays in modern, post-Christian societies. García Martínez is not himself Christian — his full list of identities is “Jewish American Cuban” — but he is fascinated by the invisible importance of Christianity in Western progressive thought. “The physical cross might be less common now than it once was, but the Christ symbol has never been more ubiquitous in our public discourse,” he writes. “We’re inventing new versions of Christ all the time.”

Contemplating the Black Lives Matter protests after the death of George Floyd, he writes: “Elites of a crumbling empire falling for an ecstatic cult fixated on a criminal publicly brutalized to death by the authorities, preaching a gospel obsessed with the salvation of the oppressed, whose fervent adepts desecrate the symbols of civic authority.

“Are we in fourth-century Rome or the United States in 2020 AD? Would be hard to tell based on that description, wouldn’t it?

“The Western mind is like a tuning fork calibrated to one frequency: the Christ story. Hit it with the right Christ figure, and it’ll just hum deafeningly in resonance.”

It is not just the secular progressives who revolt at the idea that they are really just Christian heretics. Plenty of conservative Christians do so, too. García Martínez once asked Rod Dreher whether the duality between wokeness and Christianity was not in fact two interpretations of the same gospel. Dreher utterly denied it.

He was wrong to do so. The rituals of wokeness are clearly shaped by puritan practices: the constant consciousness of sin, and the need for public shaming and repentance. The belief that the last will be first — and that we should hasten the process — is also unique to Christianity and its descendants.

None the less, there is a really significant difference in the meaning attributed to these common rituals and practices. In real Calvinism, depravity is absolute, and original sin is individual and inescapable. In contemporary bourgeois wokery, neither of these things is true. Its attitude to sin is Pelagian: even the most privileged are not absolutely depraved, provided that they make the right sacrifices and lament their sins loudly enough. Equally, sinfulness and, especially, impurity are functions of social identity.

This is a chastening discovery for me. I think of theology as the stories that we tell to make sense of our actions, and especially of our rituals. It’s not the origin of religion, but its end product. I’ve never found anything in it that can’t be better explained as either philosophy, history, or waffle. But the distinction between wokery and orthodox Christianity is theological, not one of practice or ritual. The stories that we tell ourselves do change our imagination and our world.

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