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Press: Away from the news, religion gets good press

30 September 2022


A WONDERFUL week for self-sabotage. In an ecumenical spirit, we should start with Britain’s premier Roman Catholic layman, as he used to be described, the Duke of Norfolk, who proposed to his girlfriend after obtaining a divorce from his wife, according to the Mail. He had five children with the ex; I am not sure if this is the same duke as the one who told an event organised by The Tablet that the trouble with the rhythm method was that it didn’t bloody work. Nor does he believe that it is only in ecclesiastical matters that there should be one law for the dukes and another for the rest of us. He was in numerous papers for appealing against a driving ban on the grounds that his work organising the next coronation required him to drive himself everywhere.

At this point, I like to imagine the Bishop of Hereford saying “Hold my beer, Your Grace” — because, if there is one really world-famous Anglican prelate in the world, it is Desmond Tutu — so, of course, the diocese banned his daughter from taking a funeral service requested by her godfather because she is married to another woman. Of course it did. Why pass up a chance for wonderfully unfavourable coverage just when the nation is feeling quite well-disposed towards the Church after the late Queen’s funeral? The story was guaranteed and got national unfavourable coverage — and the funeral, of course, went ahead anyway, albeit in a marquee in the garden of the old vicarage next to the church.

THEN there was Madeline Grant in The Daily Telegraph with a detachment from economic reality which would almost qualify her for a place in the Cabinet: “Breathtaking buildings, the language of the King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer, the psalms and choral anthems, the ageless beauty of Byrd, Tallis, Parry — all can be found across Britain for free.”

This is both true and wonderfully detached from reality. How many churches can afford proper choirs? Even among that rather select grouping, how many want to use the BCP? The skills needed to make an unfamiliar language come alive when read out loud are also very rare. Far more common among the clergy is the gift of reading out modern-language passages as if they were customs-declaration forms written in Romanian.

AND yet, in all this routine silliness, there was something novel and astonishing. The Guardian published the most penetrating, illuminating, and sympathetic piece about Christianity which I can remember (and I include my own stuff in this judgement).

Lamorna Ash followed the fortunes of Josh and Jack, two of her Oxford friends, who had started out as stand-up comedians in the early years of the decade, and gradually moved into Christianity and then training for ordination. One reason for its excellence was that it was written as a long read, with nearly 6000 words. This gave room for the observation of faith as something lived and felt, not just a set of beliefs. It is the change in tone from a police report to a novel, and it had obviously taken months to prepare.

Ms Ash writes: “We spoke every few months between 2021 and 2022. The deepening of Jack’s commitment to Christianity during this period meant that on each occasion we talked, the version of himself from our last meeting had already become an object of some disdain.

“Recently Jack has started picturing his life as a great house comprised of many rooms. There are rooms for your friendships, your love life, your career, rooms that you put signs outside declaring: I do not want this changed by my religion. Gradually, though, God starts knocking on the doors of more rooms, asking to join you in there, too. ‘And it’s difficult and painful and annoying,’ he told me. But God’s presence also changes your experience of the rooms. You realise this was how they were supposed to look all along. You realise they have become brighter.”

Ms Ash sees that conversion “was like acquiring a new language. Jack started with apologetics — the problem of evil, the reliability of the Gospel, seeking out arguments to defend aspects of his new religion as he discovered them. Josh found it easier than Jack to throw himself into the embodied aspects of faith, attending as many services as possible, memorising prayers and when to bow his head, kneel, cross himself. At first, setting out on a religious life is about establishing new habits, repeating these until they become automatic.”

But this wasn’t a cheery piece of evangelism. At almost every step, the difficulties of their positions increased, as did their distance from the outside world. Just as their inner lives seemed to be coming into some kind of order, the outer world receded.

“Joining a religion is a disruptive act. The more Josh and Jack remodelled their lives towards Christ, the more out of place with their peers they found themselves.”

But read the whole thing. It really is worth taking the trouble to see how well it is possible to write about religion in the secular press — and how little it has to do with the news.

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