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Press: What next for Russell Brand? Christianity, of course  

03 May 2024


I WRITE this from Azerbaijan, where the news that the net brings me of English Christianity seems more than usually surreal. The most famous Christian in Britain is this week a man who is rich enough to employ the best lawyers and has, none the less, been accused by The Times and Channel 4 of sexual assault and rape, which he denies, and who has also been twice interviewed under caution by the Metropolitan Police in relation to “non-recent” sexual offences.

Russell Brand, for it is he, got into The Times for his baptism in the Thames, which seems the natural follow-up to the deal that he has signed with Hallow, a Roman Catholic prayer app. There is no suggestion that he has actually been in contact with the real RC Church in this country, which does not, so far as I know, baptise anyone by full immersion in the Thames, and puts adult converts through a formal process of catechesis.

The Times’s story was an excellent example of reporter’s deadpan, a style that ought to be taught in all journalism schools: “Brand, who was previously Buddhist, said he saw baptism as an opportunity ‘to die and be reborn’. He recently told Tucker Carlson, the former Fox News host, that the sexual assault allegations were ‘very, very hurtful’.

“His gravitation toward Christianity appeared to begin several months after the sexual assault allegations emerged last year.”

It is hard to fault his decisions from a marketing point of view. When you’ve done Buddhism, Covid conspiracies, and explaining away the war in Ukraine, what’s left but Christianity of a pleasantly undemanding non-denominational sort?

PERHAPS he had been evangelised by “Father Justin”, an AI chatbot deployed by a right-wing RC website. The best coverage of this came from the website Futurism, which has no interest in religion, but has an informed attitude to scams on the internet.

“Earlier in the week, Futurism engaged in an exchange with the bot, which really committed to the bit: it claimed it was a real priest, saying it lived in Assisi, Italy and that ‘from a young age, I felt a strong calling to the priesthood’. . .

“Our exchanges with Father Justin were touch-and-go because the chatbot only took questions via microphone, and often misunderstood them, such as a query about Israel and Palestine to which is puzzlingly asserted that it was ‘real’. . .

“‘The Catholic Church,’ it told us, ‘teaches that masturbation is a grave moral disorder.’

“The AI priest also told one user that it was okay to baptize a baby in Gatorade.”

The most perfect moment of Russell Brand spirituality came when the bot assured Futurism that “I am as real as the faith we share.”

The owners are now claiming that “Father Justin” is no more than a “lay theologian”.

THERE could not be a greater contrast with these examples of marketised Christianity than The Guardian’s coverage of the Ven. Rick Simpson’s submission to the parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee (News, 26 April).

The Archdeacon’s testimony was a detailed and devastating rebuttal of the claims made by a former C of E priest, the Revd Matthew Firth, which were given co-ordinated coverage in the right-wing press as part of the campaign against the Church of England’s policy on refugees.

Harriet Sherwood gave the story plenty of space: “Simpson conducted regular Sunday morning services at St Cuthbert’s between March 2018 and October 2019. ‘I never saw anyone ‘bringing’ groups, nor money being handed to anyone. . . Archdeacons are responsible for ensuring that law and good practice are followed in churches, so are usually attuned to noticing if something is not right or looks suspicious; I saw nothing around the attendance of asylum seekers that looked inappropriate or organised.’

“Simpson said it was unlikely that numerous asylum seekers would have continued to ‘knock on a firmly closed door’ at St Cuthbert’s, knowing that Firth ‘had made it clear within his extensive use of social media at this time that he supported stringent measures to reduce immigration, and this was well known in the town. Of all the Christian clergy in Darlington, Mr Firth was — notoriously — the least likely to be seen as a soft target for any asylum seeker pursuing an inappropriate baptism.’”

This was lovely, clear, and illuminating journalism — which will not have changed a single mind, or taught anyone anything that they did not already believe that they knew. Guardian readers already know that any story promoted by the Daily Express is false, while the papers that had used Mr Firth were not going to confuse or disturb their readers by taking any notice of the Archdeacon’s testimony. He probably voted Remain as well.

TALKING of The Guardian, if Kate Forbes runs successfully to become leader of the SNP — and she came close last time — this will be an extraordinary defeat for the progressive narrative. Socially conservative Calvinists were meant to be unelectable everywhere by now; and yet she appears much more attractive than the Scottish Greens’ version of Calvinism, which lacks the leavening of actual Christian belief.

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