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Press: C of E, and a saint of the dark side: compare

17 March 2023


I WAS walking through Osaka last week, and passed a hotel, The Chapel of Love. My guide, a former missionary, explained that this was one of the “love hotels” where rooms can be rented by the hour. Then we came across a more conventional hotel, which advertised wedding chapels, one of which was dedicated to St Acqua, a figure who baffled even the missionary. So she Googled the saint in Japanese, and learned that he is an entirely made-up figure from a Manga series.

There is a spacious alternative history connected with this figure: pages and pages of gibberish spread across Reddit and Wikipedia; St Acqua is a figure in “British Puritanism” — of which we are told that it is the state religion, “modelled after the Church of England in the real world . . . although there are many differences”.

Among these differences is the fact that St Acqua seems to be an operative (perhaps an archdeacon) of “The Church of Necessary Evil”, which appears to be a kind of inquisition, aimed at “hostile magicians and hostile magic associations that have a negative impact on society or have dangerous ideas. . . Its scope of action is not limited to the United Kingdom, but extends to all over the world, and it also has the aspect of an international organization for magic society.” This is clearly a reference to the Anglican Communion.

Despite being an operative of British Puritanism, St Acqua has distinctly Anglo-Catholic tendencies: he tells one enemy that he “can’t use spells that ordinary humans use, but I do have the Virgin Mary Worship, which releases me from these limitations, bonds, and constraints”.

No wonder there are now 72 wedding chapels with his dedication in Japan today.

How much less accurate is St Acqua than the picture of the Church of England which is implied in much reporting? “British Puritanism” is assembled from the common kit of ideas about “religion”, including the necessity of an Inquisition, and the supernatural powers of the priesthood. Beyond the idea that these are strange and sinister organisations, all else is mystery. The Times last week assured its readers that “The King is known to have an interest in many different religions, particularly Islam and Greek Orthodoxy. The latter was his father Prince Philip’s first religion, which he renounced for the Church of England in order to marry the then Princess Elizabeth.”

FORTUNATELY, there were two deep dives into the nature of religious beliefs in the British press last week. Neither was exactly friendly, but both were written with insight and understanding. In The London Review of Books, Fraser MacDonald considered the kerfuffle over Kate Forbes, the Free Presbyterian running for leadership of the SNP: “I grew up in the Free Church of Scotland. . . I am the first in five patrilineal generations not to have become a Free Church elder. I’ve never been a member of the church, only an adherent, and although my theology and politics have changed, I consider it a cultural home — but one to which I cannot return. That is both a sadness and a relief.

“In the 1970s, for instance, when I was a child, most Free Church ministers would have considered it immodest for a woman to attend worship without wearing a hat. Not now. They used to be strict about singing only Scottish Metrical Psalms. Instrumental accompaniment by an organ was once taboo, but choruses and praise bands are now widespread. Dancing is no longer a sin, or going to concerts, pubs or the cinema. No one drowns their bagpipes or burns their fiddle as a hallmark of grace, as once happened in the Highlands. . . I can’t even remember the last time I heard someone arguing that the pope is the Antichrist.”

That list of prohibitions was produced as part of an argument that always strikes outsiders about conservative Evangelicals: that the immutable and eternal prohibitions of God’s word can vanish in a generation. Where now the unspeakable sin of marrying a dead wife’s sister? Or indeed of marrying after divorce? Of course, this kind of nitpicking misses the point. The line is drawn in the sand to make a point about power and to bind insiders together. That this is a collective, political choice need not detract from the sincerity of individual believers. Individual Christians may be called to be perfect, and not to fear death, but organisations, by their nature, can do neither.

The point was neatly made in the Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie’s forthcoming memoir, Touching Cloth, excerpts of which appeared in the Telegraph: “I vowed very early on that I would, instead, be part of the world of chaos rather than a futile force of order, so I joined the Church of England.

“When I told my father that I wanted to be ordained, I expected him to be sceptical, but he gazed at me with a well-worn hangdog look and remarked: ‘In many ways it’s not so different from the Army. The outfit’s stupid and the pay’s crap. Carry on.’”

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