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Press: After the Capitol rioters, downhill all the way

31 December 2021


The QAnon shaman, Jake Angeli, inside the US Capitol, on 6 January

The QAnon shaman, Jake Angeli, inside the US Capitol, on 6 January

LAST year started so strongly for religious news that everything after 6 January was bound to be an anticlimax. The image of the year was a photo of the QAnon shaman, Jake Angeli, standing in his fox-skin cape with horns and clutching a spear, inside the US Capitol with a crowd of rioters, some of whom were trying to find and murder the Vice-President on behalf of the defeated presidential candidate (Comment, 15 January).

It dramatised as nothing else could the rise of QAnon, a religious movement dedicated to overthrowing the institutions of American democracy.

QAnon wasn’t the only one of those movements, nor even the most organised. Compared to the right wing of the Roman Catholic Church in the US, it had far less money and far fewer leaders, even if their aims and myths overlapped considerably. But this incoherence was what made QAnon such a novel threat. It is the most inclusive Church that anyone could imagine: you can believe any number of impossible things before breakfast, or none at all if you’d prefer.

The only requirement is to agree on the enemy, which is authority, whether scientific or political, and to expect a great redemptive change. It is a genuinely apocalyptic movement, and it will persist for as long as large numbers of Americans find their lives almost unendurable.

IN DOMESTIC terms, the story of the year was undoubtedly the great revolt symbolised by the “Save the Parish” movement. This was the year in which very large numbers of ordinary churchgoers began to take seriously the idea that the whole show might run out of road.

Professionals have been worrying about it for decades now: the first time I noticed the present Archbishop of Canterbury was when, as Bishop of Durham, he sent round a remarkably lucid and convincing picture of impending doom, along with some clear, if less convincing, proposals for what should be done about it.

Looking back through the headlines that I clipped on this, I find “Church’s bill for bishops is £120,000 each (before pay)” (The Times, 9 July); “Churches ‘will need £1bn for repairs in next five years’” (Daily Mail, 25 September); and then of course “Church to be renamed ‘St Mike’s’ in ‘trendy’ rebrand to entice young people” (The Sun, 7 October).

Any of these could have come from any time in the past 20 years, but this was the year when they all came together. Under the impetus of Covid, and the consequent disruption of churchgoing patterns, the people no longer in the pews took stock of the Church’s situation, and were shocked at what they saw.

The story really belongs to Gabriella Swerling, in The Daily Telegraph, who had started it running in October 2020 with a collection of disgruntled parishioners and clergy from financially unsustainable parishes: “They claimed that a ‘reign of terror and bullying’ from church authorities and a pressure to ‘toe the party line’ has left them scared to speak out and criticise current policies. They fear losing their jobs in a time of economic turmoil” (Press, 5 March).

The shortage of money struck clergy and laity differently. But their reaction coalesced around a rejection of the managerial model of the Church. In April, Ms Swerling reanimated the story, with, as a peg, the advertisement for the Archbishop of York’s chief of staff at a salary of £90k.

There was a subtler and more comprehensive deflation of the scheme in this paper by David Wilbourne (Comment, 23 April), who had once held a very similar post for John Habgood. But it’s sadly still true that the Telegraph has a larger circulation.

IT IS too soon to know what the outcome of the revolt will be in terms of policy or, indeed, of the composition of the General Synod. It’s much easier to see that the present system is unsustainable than it is to rescue the least economically sustainable parts of the Church. Besides, the crucial decisions are being made at the diocesan level, while the Synod can only discuss ridiculous PowerPoint presentations, in which the Jesus-shaped Church is used to plug the God-shaped hole in the mission — or have I got that the wrong way round?

IN THE trade news, the assault on the BBC continued and intensified. Martin Bashir was the most notable casualty: the underhand tactics that he used to secure his interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, were condemned by every tabloid in the country in a really impressive display of barefaced hypocrisy.

Online, this was the year of subscription newsletters, many of them excellent, some extremely profitable, but all, together, far more expensive than traditional magazines. This suggests that that bubble will soon deflate.

The MIT Technology Review, meanwhile, warns that 40 per cent of American households now have voice-operated assistants such as the Amazon Echo or the Google Assistant, which (who?) will read out the news on demand. And so the retreat from a literate culture continues.

For the industry, the immediate consequence, and difficulty, becomes that another group of casual readers stop visiting their websites or phone apps. What, then, are we supposed to sell advertising against?

On that gloomy note, I wish you all a happy new year, or happy new lockdown, as appropriate.

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