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Press: Gateway to transcendence remains closed      

27 May 2022


IT IS difficult to imagine a worse set of stories for the Church than those that we were treated to over the weekend.

There was no obvious scandal, unless you think that conventionally liberal bishops are a scandal. But there was an immense detachment from the moral language of the nation, and from any possibility of transcendence.

The celebrity journalist Caitlin Moran went to the Revd Richard Coles’s farewell service in Finedon, besides interviewing him for The Times Magazine: “In one of those mildly diverting coincidences, my very first day in church is the Rev Richard Coles’s very last.”

Fr Coles is, or was, the holder of the traditional office of Vicar of Dibley. As Ms Moran put it, “anyone who follows, reads or listens to him [can] live in a virtual, parallel, almost lost England that somehow merges with James Herriot’s Darrowby or Miss Read’s Thrush Green. His very presence flatters our notion of Englishness.”

The basic thrust of her piece is how grotesque it is that the Vicar of Dibley should be driven from the Church for being gay. But it is also fascinating to see how strange that vision of cosy rural decency appears in reality to a metropolitan journalist today.

“Everyone stands to sing a hymn, and as a church newbie, I note that this hymn — like the ones before — seems to have been written in a key that means you either sing it at a very low pitch, like Lee Hazlewood, or go at it in a very high pitch, like that of Kate Bush attacking ‘Wuthering Heights’.

“The difficulty of this song, key-wise, perhaps explains why its volume is matched by a hearing aid at the back of the church that’s feeding back, and the crows cawing in the bell tower outside.”

This style of churchgoing is absurd and, for that matter, financially unsustainable; but it can also be a gateway to transcendence, and one that, in Ms Moran’s telling, is blocked by the official teaching on sexuality, on which both sides have wasted so much rage and self-righteousness.

In other moods, I’d be the first to argue that Christianity has to mean something more, and is sometimes radically opposed to the generally accepted nicenesses of society. But Ms Moran’s piece is centred on those deep things: love and grief. (Fr Coles has written about the loss of his partner, David (Features, 9 April 2021, Books, 23 April 2021).)

“I know how much terrible, terrible sadness this beautiful house and garden have seen,” Ms Moran writes. “Wholly inappropriately — this is not my sorrow — I find myself stroking David and Richard’s dachshunds, Daisy and Pongo, and crying. I can see why Coles is leaving this place. David is everywhere. And yet . . . gone.”

HAVING read this, I reflected that the only news story likely to emerge from the forthcoming Lambeth Conference will be further wranglings about sexuality — which brings us to GAFCON, and the well-planted story of Calvin Robinson. He managed to get into three right-wing papers the story of how he, a black man, was punished by the white, woke, woman Bishop of London for denying that the Church was institutionally racist.

“It was confirmation to me that the Church, like our Civil Service and universities, is under the control of people with the same Left-leaning, woke mindset,” he wrote in the The Mail on Sunday, a piece that was followed up by the Telegraph and The Times.

Nobody likes being reproved by Nanny, and this is a story that so many people want to be true that any imperfections will be ignored. In any case, the diocese of London’s reliance on a PR firm, Luther Pendragon, means that it is almost impossible for a journalist to get through to someone who could actually talk with authority about the story.

None the less, it’s worth asking why, if Mr Robinson does not believe in the ordination of women, he was disappointed not to serve in the diocese of a woman bishop. It seems to me that what he wants from the Church is a pulpit: “If you defend family values, the sanctity of marriage, all human life being sacred, or the fact that God made us male and female, you’ll face opprobrium,” he writes.

But not even the readers of The Mail on Sunday nowadays are anti-abortion, opposed to gay rights, or to the remarriage of divorcees. A substantial number of people are, especially in London, but they tend to go to mosques or black-led churches, which suggests that the Church of England might actually be in some sense institutionally biased towards the values of the white middle classes. Oh dear, it’s all very confusing.

MEANWHILE, no commenter but Melanie McDonagh seemed to take any notice of the news that marriage rates have fallen to their lowest ever recorded level, and religious weddings to one fifth of that (News Online, 20 May). These statistics, taken together, display the real exclusion of religion from the life of the country. Religious marriage unites the transcendent with the grind of everyday life. It adds to the sum of trust in society. And, when you replace the transcendent with the transactional, you increase the general sum of misery.

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