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Press: Election brings out Tories’ hostility to C of E

14 June 2024

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THE Conservative Party has at last unmasked the Archbishop of Canterbury: the Church of England is “under the leadership of the woke Justin Welby, who not only wants to flood our streets with illegal migrants but also with dangerous criminals endangering the lives of the church’s parishioners”.

This comes from the deputy leader of the party, Jonathan Gullis, quoted in a Telegraph piece harrumphing about the Suffragan Bishop of Sherborne, the Rt Revd Karen Gorham, who wants her flock to ask candidates about the treatment of prisoners and asylum-seekers. Partly, it is interesting as an example of the degradation of language and exhaustion of thought inseparable from an election campaign; but it is also an illustration of just how institutionally hostile the Conservative Party has become to the Church of England. If either of these organisations has a future, it won’t be together.

A rather more serious attack came from Catherine Bennett, in The Observer, punching again at the Revd Paula Vennells (31 May), in the light of Archbishop’s long-term support for her. Bennett could hardly miss, and mostly didn’t: “In 2019, she was invited on its [the C of E’s] Ethical Investment Advisory Group, in 2020, she joined the archbishops’ pandemic coordinating group, leading on governance; the Church Commissioners benefited too, from her ‘Lessons Learnt’ commentary on a previous church buildings report [News, 19 January]. . .

“Imperial College NHS trust and Dunelm were also, inexcusably, recruiting her in 2019, the same year the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy successfully put her forward for a CBE. Grim. But Dunelm isn’t telling political leaders to volunteer. Imperial College NHS trust isn’t inviting the public, like the Church of England, to say daily pre-election prayers based on its edifying ‘thematic reflections’. Day two, Integrity: ‘it is right that citizens should expect integrity, honesty and humility of those who wield power over the lives of others’.”

 

THE TIMES ran two long favourable pieces about the Church, or at least about Christians. Lucy Denyer’s feature on Elizabeth Oldfield (Books, 17 May, Feature, 24 May), and the intentional community of two families which she lives in, had one perfect line: “The woman in front of me may be highly intellectual, deep-thinking and spiritual, but in many ways she is very normal.” Will Times readers mind being told that they are normal by virtue of being shallow, materialistic, and unintellectual? Will they even notice?

Compared with those unnerving qualities, the Christian basis of the household is treated as perfectly, well, normal. We even learn that their little commune, no matter how otherwise unconventional and spiritually enlightened, follows the Iron Law of all modern relationships — that there is always one partner who stacks the dishwasher all wrong, and it is never you.

Richard Morrison wrote a fierce piece in defence of cathedrals’ raising money by hosting secular events: “Across Britain more and more churches are doubling up as other sorts of community assets. They house children’s play groups, Post Offices, digital hubs, cafés, farmers’ markets, dance classes and amateur theatre. I see no huge ethical or theological distinction between using sacred buildings for those activities and generating income through silent discos and other entertainment bookings. It’s all about survival in tough times. Indeed, it’s ironic that one of the fiercest critics of Canterbury’s silent discos is the rector of an ancient church in central London that’s frequently hired out for filming.”

Oh, hi, Fr Marcus. Fancy meeting you here!

The last paragraph was rather tempting fate, though: “I would rather the UK’s 40,000 churches and cathedrals be used for something than not be used for anything, which is the direction of travel. Besides, if God doesn’t like raves in the nave I’m sure she’ll find a way of letting us know.”

All this will take is one careless electrician for those words to be quoted back at him for ever.

 

FINALLY, The New York Review of Books had a lovely interview with the historian and biographer of St Augustine Peter Brown: “Historians are there to discover and to uphold the truth. From ancient Greece onward historians have stood out against public opinion by offering more truthful versions of what really happened than what was passed on by rumour, prejudice, and popular excitement. This was never popular. Herodotus, known as ‘the Father of History,’ was also called ‘the Father of Lies’ by his opponents, because he went out of his way to study and understand non-Greek societies such as Egypt and Persia.

“Perhaps the most urgent need we have today is to develop a sense of the strangeness of the past and a sense of urgent searching for the truth to ensure that the past is not forgotten, or flattened by being presented as so ‘like us’ — no more than a mirror of ourselves — that it can be manipulated without challenge.”

I find this quietly reassuring to read in the middle of an election campaign, when the present quite as much as the past is flattened out and presented as something that can be manipulated without challenge.

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