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Press: Right-wing papers come to Bishops’ defence

24 June 2022


THE Bishops’ stand against the attempted deportation of refugees to Rwanda (News, 17 June) excited some more thoughtful comment last week, after the initial nonsense about “keeping out of politics”.

Fergus Butler-Gallie had a vigorous, conservative defence on The Spectator website, which managed to kick both bishops — “politically, intellectually and culturally monochrome . . . keen on steamrollering dissent in the dioceses” — and the Conservative MPs, “who sound worryingly like the adolescent debating society-types who run the National Secular Society (presumably from the library computers during school break time)”.

More prominent was the Roman Catholic Tim Stanley in The Daily Telegraph. He was subtle and historically informed. By the same token, it was lacking in the kind of ferocious denunciation that the headline — “How the Church of England became the Labour Party at prayer” — promised.

Those few readers who struggled past the headline would have discovered that “of course clerics who defend asylum seekers are only responding to the gospel’s call to treat every human being as if they were Jesus himself. Archbishops of Canterbury are part of a global communion: they have visited warzones and dictatorships and seen the horrors that compel people to flee, and when these unfortunates turn up in Britain, it is often the parish clergy who encounter them first. A vicar friend walked into his church one day to discover a Nigerian exile had broken into the children’s creche and was sound asleep in the Wendy house.”

Stanley’s historical view is interesting: he sees Fisher as the last Archbishop who really understood the Church as a bulwark — no, a manned fortification — of the Establishment: “Under Fisher, the mission was to confirm an ancient Christian identity, but by 1960, it was obvious that England was changing fast. Rather than resist, Ramsey&Co sought to negotiate a new role as the nation’s conscience. . . But they were running on the fumes of the Fifties. It was Fisher-style conservatism that gave them the air of authority that they lent to causes that, in turn, made them sound not like they were trying to transform the world but allowing the world to transform them.”

This is, I think, largely true, but the illusions of Fisher-type establishment persisted in some quarters long into the ’90s. The place where his piece goes off the rails is where he picks up on Linda Woodhead’s “values gap” and points out that two-thirds of English Anglicans voted for Brexit. Well, this is the Telegraph; so he must still pretend that this was a sensible or even sane thing to do. There will be less of that next summer.

What matters for the analysis, though, is that the two-thirds who voted for Brexit — or the 40 per cent of Anglicans in the original survey who did not believe that immigration had benefited this country in any way at all — are not those who go to church with any regularity. There is clearly an ecclesiologically conservative party in the actually existing pews — hence the Save the Parish movement. The difficulty, and the reason the parishes need saving, is that there aren’t enough of them to make a real difference.

IN THIS context, The Economist carried an interesting little chart showing the rise of Pentecostalism, and the fall of both the Roman Catholics and the Anglicans. “As other Christian denominations in Britain wither — the number of Anglicans fell by 9% between 2013 and 2020, and of Catholics by 19% — Pentecostal Christians are thriving. In the same period their numbers rose by 25%, to over half a million,” the paper claims. This is in the context of a story about a Gypsy denomination, the Light and Life church, with 30 congregations.

The story displays the familiar Economist tone of Oxonian superiority and glib ignorance: “In the past Christianity tended to ward off competition by allying with powerful states or burning customers who chose another service provider at the stake. This somewhat dampened consumer choice”.

But it is reported, which very few stories now are. The writer has actually been to some of the services they write about. Their astonishment at the dress of the congregation shows that — also how completely the phrase “Sunday Best” has fallen out of the language. “When hands here are clasped to pray, they are manicured; the toes that tap in time to hymns are perfectly pedicured. When arms are raised unto the Lord, expensive watches glint on their wrists. Overall, the general aesthetic is less faded florals than tans and teeth. This is a deity with a liking for dentistry.”

Besides, this is a story which is both particular (the Gypsies), and general: the rise of Pentecostalism isn’t news, and it ought to be. It still isn’t part of the framework within which the papers think about religion. This is very largely the result of class-based blindness. The religiosity of Christian immigrants is entirely invisible to the London papers.

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