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Press: Beware of vaccine-averse false followers

07 May 2021


AN INTERESTING example of the contortions that one must make to get a religious story into the national press these days was provided by Gabriella Swerling in The Daily Telegraph. She had a perfectly good story about a furious row between the three bishops of a groupuscule, the Free Church of England (FCE), which descends from a rogue Dean of Victoria in British Columbia who, in 1879, managed to consecrate two schismatic bishops for two separate Churches. Ah, that Victorian energy!

The present leader, Bishop John Fenwick, “is accused of trying to blackmail a minister into retracting allegations of racism in order to keep his licence. . . [he] is already facing questions, as the charity watchdog examines allegations that proceeds from the sale of a £300,000 church ‘disappeared’.

“West Midlands Police has also said it was reviewing an allegation of fraud to establish if any offences have been committed by the FCE.”

None of this would have made the news had it not been that, 30 years ago, Bishop Fenwick, then an Anglican priest, worked under Robert Runcie and later George Carey in Lambeth Palace. Runcie had hired him to watch over ecumenical relations with the Orthodox and Lutheran Churches. Lord Carey gave such relations less attention; so Fenwick left, and ended up with the FCE, which he now runs.

It would appear from its website that a bishop there can expect to have charge of 13 churches, of which three don’t actually have any priests; so the exchange rate is roughly one FCE bishop to one C of E country vicar, although the bishop’s churches will be even further apart.

What was the lead and the headline in the Telegraph? “Aide to former Archbishop of Canterbury accused of trying to blackmail minister after racism claims”.


ALL the rest of the newsworthy articles were American, and none the worse for that: The New York Times had an exemplary piece of religious journalism. In what is normally a citadel of condescension to the hicks, a reporter went to Tennessee and listened to people sympathetically.

Jan Hoffman’s piece used the studied neutrality of American reporting convention to really good effect: “As the beautiful Appalachian spring unfurls across northeastern Tennessee, the Covid-19 vaccine is tearing apart friends, families, congregations, colleagues.

“Greene County is carpeted with hundreds of evangelical churches that range from steepled 19th-century edifices to backroads barns. People scrape by on subsistence farming, jobs in small factories, welfare checks and cash flow from retirees who are moving onto the cheap, vista-blissful land. Drug busts for heroin and methamphetamine sustain a humming cottage industry of lawyers and bail bonds services.

“Covid smacked the region hard this winter. Eleven people in Jim and Rita Fletcher’s extended circle died from it. But no, the Fletchers, lifelong Greenevillians, will not get the vaccine.

“What’s the point, they ask? The government still wants you to wear a mask indoors. ‘I just don’t see any benefits,’ said Mrs. Fletcher, as the couple waited to see their family doctor.”

The deep suspicion of the authorities, and the reliance on family and on prayer, makes sense in the context of the American health-care system. But the effect is chilling. “The topic of the vaccine has even muted the most influential leaders in Greene County: evangelical pastors. There are many who have been vaccinated, like Mr. Smith at Tusculum Baptist, but won’t use the pulpit to support it. He doesn’t want to risk alienating anyone, he explained, at a time when he hopes people will return to the church itself to worship. After a year of Zoom services, which people call ‘pajama church,’ he fears in-person attendance will drop.”

Here is an example, then, of a religious leader doing what his congregation tells him, and not the other way round. We’re so used to this phenomenon in our churches, where in sexual matters the pressure is towards laxity and the values of the surrounding society, that it is a shock to find it operating among extreme conservatives. We like to believe that people are led astray by false teachers. How much commoner, though, is the teacher led astray by false followers.


AND so to Jesus, whose words — or at least those of the Gospels — have been translated by Sarah Ruden, a Quaker philologist. Her efforts got a very sympathetic reading in The New Yorker. They are a long way from orthodox. Her work is described as “clever and wry, serious and sincere”. It may be all these things, but her scepticism is radical. She is not at all certain that Jesus even spoke Greek.

If the Gospels themselves are translation, that seems to me to take the wind from the sails of any attempt to get at what Jesus “really” said. Much better, surely, to put as clearly as possible what you think he meant. Ms Ruden resists this temptation with impressive determination, so that her opening to St John’s Gospel becomes: “At the inauguration was the true account.”

Well, the kindly editor will say, there are some very good articles in there. The definite ones.

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