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Press: Cultural sensibilities shocked, from Uganda to Scotland

25 August 2023


JOHN WESLEY worried that the disciplines that Methodism inculcated would make his followers rich, and that, once rich, or at least no longer poor, they would forget the gospel. It is possible that he had the matter back to front: it might have been the attraction of riches which led poor people to the gospel.

The first example comes from Uganda, where the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kampala, the Most Revd Paul Ssemogerere, told his congregation that Jesus had been widely misinterpreted: it is the poor who are going to hell for their condition. According to the website Nile Post, Archbishop Ssemogerere said: “God will not entertain the poor in heaven. You will not go there. I will also stand at the entrance to stop you from going there. We have misunderstood the gospel. Being poor should not be misinterpreted to be without money. . . God will say I created you with eyes, the brain, and gave you life, and you die poor?! You will perish in hell. We should work hard. Let’s not sleep and be idle.”

This is, of course, deliciously horrifying; but I think that the comparison should not be with the Gospels themselves, but with the prosperity gospel, which also associates riches with salvation, but places much less emphasis on the efforts needed to attain them: all you need to do is tithe and believe. From a purely economic standpoint, the RC version is less unrealistic. Still, I wonder what the Pope would make of it.

THE next shock to our cultured sensibilities comes from an elegiac longread about the Church of Scotland in the FT. The author, John Lloyd, had grown up there, before leaving for a distinguished career in journalism. He sees the emptying monuments to past spirituality: “In Pittenweem, where the kirk dominates the high street, I talked to some of those who were protesting against the decreed closure but had all but given up: none wished to be quoted. They had fallen back on the argument that many older folk had been baptised and married in the church, had their children baptised there, and wished to be buried by the minister: their loss is the most acute.

“Yet as the group was constrained to recognise — had they been successful, the town would have been left with the same tiny, financially unsustainable congregation. One said: ‘I don’t know if people want religion — except for funerals.’ An elderly man, erect in his chair, put the dilemma simply: ‘No congregation, no church.’”

But he goes beyond that to find the disorganised Evangelical churches further north: “In St Andrews, I went, on a Sunday morning, to the Cornerstone service. The hall it uses, in St Andrews Bowling Club, was standing room only, upwards of 100 people: the club’s well-stocked (shuttered) bar is on one side. I was told this was half the usual attendance, since the university students were on holiday: in term time, the church has two morning services. Children were directed to a room marked ‘Breakfast with Jesus.’

“There were prayers and songs, many specially written. One had a chorus:
God’s love is big / God’s love is great / God’s love is fab /And he’s my mate.”

Lloyd’s concern is not mostly with religion. But he understands it as a necessary part of the community that he really cares about: “The loss of a moral centre of faith to which most became seemingly indifferent, is a local iteration of a western transformation. . . A religious revival can’t be discounted — especially in a world of increasing threats. But the largest matter remains faith. [The chaplain at St Andrews]’s bleak observation, that ‘belief in God is shrinking’, hangs over all — except, for the present, those who celebrate most uninhibitedly. ‘God’s love is fab.’”

Lloyd’s piece suggests something of the sheer embarrassment that a post-Christian culture feels when it is confronted with Christians who appear to hold the same values, but see that they derive from something other than common sense and common decency.

THE crassest approach to this problem came, according to The Times, from the Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Libby Lane, “the church’s spokeswoman on sport”, who said of the women’s World Cup final, “lots of people will want to watch the match live. That is fine from the Church of England’s point of view” — as if the Church of England had a view, or anyone cared about it. This got a deserved kicking in the Times lead: “Worshippers have been given the Church of England’s blessing to skip their usual Sunday-morning service to watch the Lionesses in the Women’s World Cup final this weekend.”

Considering that the England team lost, the obvious moral is that the television audience should have been praying for them instead of cheering them, glumly, on.

IMAGINE the horror if a British Prime Minister had announced to The Daily Telegraph that his Christian faith guided him in every aspect of his life, and gave him the courage, strength, and resilience to do the best that he could for this country, and topped it by saying that he kept a crucifix on his desk and was proud to do so.

Ah, but this was Rishi Sunak, and he was talking about Hinduism. It is not a crucifix, but a statue of Ganesh which sits on his desk.

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