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Press: News desks struggle with true doctrine

08 September 2023


THERE are so many things wrong with the Times leader on its big Church of England survey (News, 1 September) that even the website UnHerd gets it right. Take out the boilerplate, and what you’re left with is the argument that “The Church would solve all its problems if only it agreed with us.” This is more usually heard from Evangelicals, but The Times shows how wonderfully flexible — almost Anglican — it can be made: “Administrative failings could be remedied by a more sympathetic, responsive and streamlined leadership, and a reallocation to parishes of resources generated by the Church’s still vast portfolio of investments. But the discontent goes deeper, focusing on the Anglican leadership’s failure to embrace social change and accept that its doctrines lag behind the liberal instincts of most of the British people.

“The world has moved on and left the General Synod behind. If it is to avoid irrelevance the church would be wise to embrace the liberal instincts of its clergy and the country. The rearguard action being fought by traditionalists has gone on too long and will end only one way. For better or worse Anglicanism has sold itself as a modernising force. It should get on and modernise.”

But, as Canon Giles Fraser pointed out in UnHerd, “Nor will the Church be rescued by more liberal values. The Times states that the majority of us want same-sex blessings and would be happy with a female Archbishop of Canterbury. I, too, am enthusiastic about both of these things, as it happens. But such changes won’t reverse our decline. We are living through a period of unprecedented scepticism and indifference about the core message of the Church: that God exists, that God is love, and that he came among us to save a broken humanity from its self-destructive sinfulness.”

I am not knocking the survey itself. It seems to have revealed nothing very surprising, which makes it all the more credible. Though the respondents can be criticised for self-selection — they are by definition people who think that their views are interesting and who have the time to fill in the questionnaire — this criticism has largely come from people who don’t like the relative tolerance towards gay relationships which it reveals.

Nothing in my experience of conservative Evangelicals suggests that they think their own views uninteresting, or lack the time to expound them. If their view had been more widely shared, it would have shown up in the survey. So, I would guess, as a snapshot of opinion this is accurate. The question is whether it matters. It is possible to think that the Church has got itself into a tangle about sex, but also that this is about the least urgent or important item on the agenda.

Obviously, a newspaper cannot think like that. Sex is always the most important item on the agenda of any religious story. And the great flaw of the Times coverage is that it approaches the Church as if it were another newspaper, one whose teachings should fill the reader with a warm glow of satisfaction at being so right about the world.

This isn’t true, and neither is its opposite; even when the doctrine is rebarbative and the teaching is hard, that isn’t what matters and compels assent. Churches are not vehicles for doctrines, and to suppose that they are is nearly as silly as believing with Richard Dawkins in the activity of memes. The meaning of a doctrine is not expressed in argument, but comprehended in life.

Try telling that to the news desk.


AND so to a story that may not fall into the pattern of endless argument without outcome. The schism beneath the surface of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has global dimensions. All the Murdoch press, from The Wall Street Journal to The Sunday Times — and, I’m told, including his Australian papers, too — has taken against the Pope. One way of understanding this is that the Pope is the most influential green leader in the world today, something that the upcoming sequel to Laudato Si’ will make clear. Another is that he is, as an Argentinian, profoundly hostile to American nationalism as well as American capitalism.

Although the papers here largely ignored it, he recently praised 18th-century Russia under Peter and Catherine, two tsars both known as “Great”, who did much to conquer their neighbours. This really shocked Ukrainian opinion. It is clear that he doesn’t view the Ukraine war as a crusade, and would be happy with a compromise peace.

So, what was he doing in Mongolia, a country of three million people whose entire Roman Catholic population numbers 1450, according to Reuters? They could all fit under one roof with him, and they did. There were even a couple of dozen Chinese Catholics who had come over the border to see him and be close to him. Those people were the point of the whole exercise. By appearing completely unthreatening, and using various code phrases favoured by the Chinese government, Pope Francis hopes to improve relationships with the tyranny there. This can only increase the hatred of those Americans who hate him already.

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