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Press: Faith in the life of the nation

13 October 2023


ALMOST all the religious stories worth noting this week come from magazines, and all the stories about the business of journalism from websites.

The only exception, and it is a fine one, is a piece by Neil MacGregor in the Telegraph, pegged to the opening of the Faith Museum in Bishop Auckland (News, 28 July). “Our secularisation has been so rapid and far-reaching that religion plays no part in the lives of most citizens. We seem to have forgotten that faith is not just about private abstract belief, but about how you live with other people. It is widely assumed that people whose view of society is shaped by religious convictions are at best irrational, and in some cases unhinged.

“It is a way of thinking that cuts us off from our national history, making our own country unintelligible. The politics of each state in Europe are still shaped to a striking degree by their response to the Reformation. It is what makes England, Scotland and Ireland such different societies — and the relations between them so complex.

“Which is why the opening of the Faith Museum, at Auckland Castle, long the palatial residence of the bishops of Durham, is such a welcome event. For the first time, England will have a museum devoted solely to exploring the role played by faith in shaping our national life.

“There could hardly be a better place for such a venture. The very existence of the castle raises every uncomfortable question about the enduring role of the Church as an arm of state power, and its flickering record as servant of the weak. From the Norman Conquest to the 18th century, the Bishop of Durham played a key part in ruling England, as much territorial magnate as spiritual leader.”

Two things are worth noticing about this. The first, of course, is that he sees a museum as the proper place from which to consider the importance of faith. I suppose that’s understandable in a former director of the National Gallery. But it still rather underlines the pessimism of the premise, to suppose that faith can be approached only in that way.

The second is the deep underlying Christianity of his view. By this I mean that he finds it remarkable, and by extension wrong, that the Church should have been used to maintain the civil power. He finds it tragic and awful that the Reformers should have burned books, and that Henry VIII should have burned heretics.

The two arguments to some extent collide: you can’t easily claim that faith is important because it inspires fanatics, and that we should study it to learn why fanaticism is wrong. But the mere fact that he was able to get such a difficult and important argument into the papers is cheering.

THERE was a long profile of the Archbishop of Canterbury in The New Statesman by Kate Mossman, where I thought that the novelty came from the other people she talked to. The most interesting was Charles Moore, who said of the DNA test that he got Archbishop Welby to take (and which gave Moore a wonderful story): “I thought it was highly admirable, but it also illustrates a problem.

“Church leadership has to be consensual and cautious; there is a danger in agreeing to something without thinking about it. Justin didn’t take extreme care. What he did was the human reaction of somebody who likes to get things sorted out. I know it’s very attractive, but sometimes he is quite unwise as a church leader — his impatience gets the better of him.”

Could any account of the exploitation of a weakness be more Etonian?

Mossman writes: “Moore concedes that there is a positive aspect to Welby’s impatience. ‘Jesus gets angry. Jesus doesn’t always try to see both sides of the argument. He kicks over the tables. But would Jesus have made a good Archbishop? Justin is certainly expressing a real aspect of Christianity and trying to embody it. He’s not bland. He is always thinking, what does Jesus want me to do? Some of them rather lose the fire of faith, and I don’t think he’s like that at all.’”

OFFSTAGE, so to say, the big business development of the year has been the collapse of Facebook as a source of news. Ryan Broderick’s “Garbage Day” newsletter (really) had a piece about what has happened since Facebook/Meta tweaked its algorithm to discourage people from seeing newspaper stories in their feed.

The Sun and The Guardian have both seen their traffic from the site drop by 80 per cent over the past year. Even the Mail Online has now been overtaken by a Nigerian clickbait site owned by a Ukrainian company. The site is called (what else?) “Legit”.

And now there is a report that seven of the top ten most interacted-with news stories on Facebook in September come from the site catholicfundamentalism.com. What this means, as Broderick observes, is that Facebook/Meta “has finally given up pretending it cares whether its users are informed about the world around them or not”.

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