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Press: New Yorker honours Rachel Held Evans’s rare integrity

05 November 2021


I HAD never really got the point of Rachel Held Evans until I read Eliza Griswold’s long and loving profile of her in The New Yorker, and found a note that she had written to keep herself focused while writing: “Sentence is NOT in the refrigerator.” She also had another card that read “Tell the Truth”, and this combination of high aspiration and low practicality was exactly what made her credible.

Perhaps the young men who are told by Jordan Peterson to clean their rooms feel the same shock of authority as Held Evans’s readers did. I don’t know. But Held Evans, who died in 2019, aged 37 (News, 10 May 2019), was obviously an immensely important figure within American Christianity, and almost certainly the most influential Episcopalian there.

The Presiding Bishop, the Most Revd Michael Curry, is quoted also: “She helped mainline Christians stop being afraid of Jesus, and she helped evangelicals know the love of God.” I like the suggestion of what each was missing before.

She was clearly a woman of rare integrity, with the courage to sustain it. After the invasion of Afghanistan, at a time when most American Evangelicals were embracing the use of torture on captured prisoners, she was troubled by footage of the Taliban executing a woman for adultery. How could it be, she wondered, that this woman was going to hell? Answering that question and its implications took the rest of her life.

Slowly, the certainties in which she had been raised fell away from her, but she did not topple over into Spongery.

Hell has a reality for those brought up in American Evangelical churches which is difficult to credit here. But it has a quite specific meaning, which is that it’s the destination of all outsiders — not just foreigners, but the wrong sort of American as well. Griswold tells the story of Held Evans’s college roommate, Kathleen Gleason, who stayed in a fundamentalist church until the pastor supported the Trump policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the borders.

“Appalled, Gleason decided to leave the church, and went to Held Evans’s house. Held Evans sat Gleason’s toddler in front of a ‘Paw Patrol’ cartoon with a bowl of Goldfish crackers, and held Gleason, who had started to cry. “Am I going to Hell?” Gleason asked. Held Evans replied, ‘Of course not.’ At the dinner, Gleason turned to her friend’s parents. ‘If it weren’t for Rachel, I’d have lost my faith,’ she told them.”


THE silliest story of the week was undoubtedly the complaint about drink taxes in the Telegraph, where it was claimed that raising the duty on fortified wines by 35p a litre would bring ruin on churches. The Revd Marcus Walker, who should know better, was quoted as saying: “This could seriously increase the cost of communion for parishes that are barely keeping their heads above water after the pandemic.”

No one, of course, dared suggest raising fuel duty, instead — which brings us neatly to the unfortunately unavoidable subject of COP26.

One of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s most attractive characteristics is his drive to say the wrong thing just because it’s true. At COP26, the thing that he said about climate change and genocide was undoubtedly true and very important, but the way he put it was disastrous. I did admire his apology, though. “It’s never right to make comparisons with the atrocities brought by the Nazis” is something that public figures should say much more often, and live by always.

But it is unfortunate that the impression given to the careless reader is that he was apologising for saying that human reactions to climate change are going to kill millions and millions of people.


THERE was someone missing from my discussion of assisted dying last week (Press, 29 October), and that was the former Law Lord Stephen Sedley, who dissected the present legal mess in the London Review of Books.

His last paragraph looks like the best case that could possibly be made for a change in the law: “If MPs do nothing and the present porous and unpredictable regime is left in place, the passage of time may bring about something far worse: attenuated health and care services which slip imperceptibly into a practice of abandoning or neglecting lives deemed not worth prolonging, or — at the opposite extreme — a rigid regime of enforced survival for those in unbearable distress, with voluntary termination outsourced for the few who can afford it.

“Those who doctrinally oppose assisted dying in all circumstances might do well to remember something of which they are always ready to remind others: the proverbial fate of those who sow the wind.”

Reading this, though, I thought: we are here already. Last spring, the Government arranged that thousands of old people would die in care homes to “protect the NHS” — in other words, to arrange the statistics so that it looked as if hospitals were properly funded and equipped. No one has been, or will be, held responsible. The then Health Secretary was sacked later only for being caught by CCTV snogging his mistress. This reflection makes a powerful argument for changing the law, but also for being pessimistic about the outcome of any change.

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