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Press: Shrieks from Synod heard only by The Guardian  

24 November 2023

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IT IS difficult to take seriously the General Synod’s convulsions over services of blessing for same-sex couples (News, 17 November). So far as I can see, the only result of years and years of excitable wrangling has been that the Church now acknowledges officially the situation as it was before all this started, which is that those churches that wish to will conduct services of blessing of same-sex couples. The mountain laboured and brought forth a mouse. The usual suspects jumped on to their chairs, drew up their skirts, and shrieked “A mouse! A mouse! Somebody rescue me!”

But only The Guardian took the shrieking seriously, whichever side it came from. The sanest comment came from the Revd Richard Coles, in his Sunday Times column.

The vote was, he writes, “an exercise in miniaturism, proposing a tiny move, a tiptoe, towards offering blessings and prayers in church for same-sex couples.

“Those who wish to see pastoral provision for such couples were disappointed by the modesty of what was proposed. Those who don’t saw it as a repudiation of the doctrine of marriage, ‘a union permanent and lifelong, for better, for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others’.

“We have already repudiated this doctrine. Since 2002 clergy have been permitted, if they wish, to remarry divorcees when the divorced party is still living. That is a clear breach of the doctrine and inconsistent with Jesus’s uncompromising teaching. . .

“Divorcees are remarried in church and take their places in conservative congregations without anyone batting an eyelid. What is it about same-sex couples that makes the thinkable suddenly unthinkable again?”


YET more outrage was sparked by Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s announcement of her conversion to Christianity (Press, 17 November). The transcript of her interview with Freddie Sayers of UnHerd is worth looking at, partly because her conversion narrative is emotional, not intellectual: “On a very personal level, I went through a period of crisis — very personal crisis: of fear, anxiety, depression. . . I tried to self-medicate. I tried to sedate myself. I drank enough alcohol to sterilise a hospital. Nothing helped. . . I went to the best therapists money can buy.

“One therapist said to me, early this year: ‘I think, Ayaan, you’re spiritually bankrupt’. And at that point, I was in a place where I had sort of given up hope. I was in a place of darkness, and I thought, ‘Well, what the hell, I’m going to open myself to that and see what you are talking about.’ And we started talking about faith, and belief in God, and I explained to her that the God I grew up with was a horror show. He created you to punish you and frighten you; and as a girl, and as a woman, you’re just a piece of trash. And so I explained to her why I didn’t believe in God — and, more than that, why I actually hated God.

“And then she asked me to design my own God, and she said, ‘If you had the power to make your own God, what would you do?’ And as I was going on I thought: that is actually a description of Jesus Christ and Christianity at its best. And so instead of inventing yet another new God, I started diving into that story.”

The saint on whom she models herself now is one who, she says, exemplified “ideas of service and duty and selflessness, checking your urges and your impulses, your anger and your resentment and your pride”. That heroine, if not yet officially beatified, is Queen Elizabeth II.


ON QUITE another matter, the political scientist Henry Farrell had a lovely little essay on Substack about the theological roots of our present discussions of artificial intelligence (AI). He starts with a joke from the 1950s, in which the ultimate computer is asked whether there is a God and replies — of course — “Yes, now there is.”

In the 2000s, though, some influential Silicon Valley thinkers started treating this joke “as the most urgent dilemma facing human beings today. We are about to create God. What comes next?”

“The consequences are what you might expect when a crowd of bright but rather naive (and occasionally creepy) computer science and adjacent people try to re-invent theology from first principles, to model what human-created gods might do, and how they ought be constrained.

“All this would be sociologically fascinating, but of little real world consequence, if it hadn’t profoundly influenced the founders of the organizations pushing AI forward. . . The risks and rewards of AI are seen as largely commensurate with the risks and rewards of creating superhuman intelligences, modelling how they might behave, and ensuring that we end up in a Good Singularity, where AIs do not destroy or enslave humanity as a species, rather than a bad one.”

I find this quite fascinating. It’s also a really powerful example of the ill-effects in real life that bad theology can have. It might even be more important than the misconceptions held by certain members of the General Synod.

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