Author Archives: Andrew Brown
Bishops’ proposals, backed by archbishops, offer a nearly complete victory for female clergy and their supporters
The bishops of the Church of England have published a plan to consecrate female bishops by 2015, after the defeat of legislation last autumn. It would end 20 years of bitter struggle with a clear decision in favour of progress.
The proposals, published on Friday and backed by both archbishops, offer a nearly complete victory for the female clergy and their supporters outraged by the failure of the earlier legislation.
The “flying bishops” appointed specially to serve opponents of female bishops are to be abolished, although there is a vague guarantee that in future there will be appointments of some bishops who are both male and opposed to the existence of female priests and bishops.
The Rev Miranda Threlfall Holmes, a noted campaigner for female bishops, said: “We’re not trying to squeeze them out.”
But these opponents will have to accept that women can become, the bishops say, “the true and lawful holders of their office” and that “the Church of England has reached a clear decision on the matter”.
Parishes where a majority are opposed to the ordination of women would still be able to reject both female priests and bishops, but their rights would no longer be protected in law and, since they are a tiny and dwindling minority in most of the country, are unlikely often to be exercised.
Reflecting the frustration felt throughout the church with the 20 years of niggling bureaucratic struggle since female priests were created in 1993, the report says: “There is a determination among the majority to prevent any reappearance of the tendency shown in the past by some traditionalists to use the provisions of the 1993 Measure and the Act of Synod to create as much distance as possible from the rest of the Church of England.”
It brings its own problems but Swedish media’s refusal to obsess over violent incidents may reduce the chance they will spread
When I saw that riots around Stockholm had made the front page of the Financial Times, I scurried over to the sites of Swedish papers to see in some detail what was happening. It turned out that the dismembered parts of a Thai woman had been found in Lapland, various television stars had been variously unhappy in their love lives, a farmer had caused the evacuation of a police station in the south of the country by handing in 12 sticks of dynamite he’d had lying around the place – oh, and there had been a hundred or so cars burnt out in the satellite towns around Stockholm.
Only the conservative Svenska Dagbladet had led with the news a couple of days ago, when I started watching the coverage. Do these things become less newsworthy after three or four nights, or is it deliberate policy not to encourage copycat rioting?
I can only assume that it’s the latter, coupled with a certain prudishness about violence. Even the most sensationalist of the papers did not reproduce anywhere prominent on their websites the pictures of the English atrocity. For once, I think the Swedish press is showing the English one a good example.
This is not because the problem will cease to exist if we ignore it. In some ways it will actually get worse. We should admit, though, that this kind of nannying provokes a backlash. A lot of the appeal of the nationalist and reactionary Sweden Democrats comes from the sense that the ordinary people of Sweden have been consistently lied to about immigration and its consequences. You need only dip into the Twitter streams hashtagged with the rioting suburbs to see this in action.
So a conspiracy of silence around the problems of areas with high levels of recent immigration will do nothing to solve their long-term problems and may make them much worse. One of the reasons for the particular character of Swedish race relations is that there is a huge amount of housing segregation between suburban settlements which are miles apart and hidden from each other by intervening forest or farmland. Only in Malmö is there anything corresponding geographically to the English “inner cities”. Everywhere else is almost as remote from the main cities as Luton is from London. Research has shown that this kind of isolation is one of the three main predictors of car-burning in any particular areas (the others being youth unemployment and welfare dependence in the parents’ generation).
But that does not mean that a certain dampening of excitement about particular riots is not an excellent idea. For one thing they are hardly unprecedented. There have been sporadic riots by disaffected young men in Sweden ever since the mid-90s. By no means all were ethnic minorities – half of those so far arrested in Stockholm were white. No one has ever been killed in these excitements, although people from minority groups have been killed by racist Swedish gunmen deliberately targeting them in other incidents.
It’s also quite clear that boredom and a wish to be noticed are among the drivers of the disturbances. Dialling down the excitement reduces the chance that they will spread.
Beyond that kind of instrumental approach, I think there is another, moral point, which may be deeply unfashionable. Instead of asking whether these pictures are likely to be bad for potential rioters, we might also ask whether they are going to be bad for the rest of us. What purpose, exactly, does it serve to know what a bloodstained murderer looks like, or even a hooded youth throwing a molotov cocktail?
It will be objected that this kind of decision is paternalistic, and that the pictures of riots will get out anyway. So perhaps the problem is not so much whether these things should be shown at all as whether they should be shown over and over again. It seems an inevitable part of the workings of television news that they should be so. I believe that the apparently endless repetition of the twin towers footage in 2001 (I was travelling in the states at the time, so I saw a lot of television) did a great deal to madden the American people and to promote their disastrous invasion of Iraq.
I have watched the attacker’s statement once. I will not watch it again. The Swedish newspapers, in their conspiracy of ignorance, are acting with a moral purpose. They want to make their country a slightly better place. Our own papers clearly can’t behave that way. But as readers and viewers we can exercise our own self-discipline and refuse to wallow in the gore. When the thing comes up on screen again, just switch it off. There’s nothing new there. Spend the time which you night have spent in pleasurable outrage in hard thought instead about what we, today, can do to make things a little better here.
The state department report on religious freedom highlights much that is bad, but to dream of tolerant rationality is unrealistic
The US state department has just released its annual review of religious freedom around the world. Eight countries are marked out for particularly egregious violations: three are officially atheist, two are Sunni Muslim, one is Shia, one Buddhist, and one, Eritrea, is intolerantly multi-faith in that it recognises three streams of Christianity and one of Islam while persecuting all others.
I’ll list them all at the end of the article. For the moment it’s quite a good exercise to try and work out which they can be. It sets in proportion the idea that there is one religion that is uniquely wicked and intolerant.
There is always something a little arbitrary about such lists. There are countries that are more religiously intolerant than any of those on it. To be a member of a religious minority in the wrong part of Afghanistan, Nigeria, Iraq, or Syria right now is more dangerous than any of the countries the state department fingered.
On the other hand you can hardly expect the American government to admit the frightfulness of either Iraq or Afghanistan while it is still pretending to have delivered both countries from tyranny. And in all those cases the problem arises because the government has collapsed at least in the afflicted areas. What the state department is concentrating on is persecution orchestrated by an efficient government.
Antisemitism was noted in Hungary, Greece, Argentina and France, as well as the more obvious Middle Eastern suspects:
“In Egypt, anti-Semitic sentiment in the media was widespread and sometimes included Holocaust denial or glorification. On October 19, President Morsy said ‘Amen’ during televised prayers in Mansour after an imam stated, ‘Oh Allah … grant us victory over the infidels. Oh Allah, destroy the Jews and their supporters.’ This is a common prayer in Egyptian mosques and came in a litany of other prayers.”
“In Iran, the government regularly vilified Judaism. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continued to question the existence and the scope of the Holocaust, and stated that ‘a horrendous Zionist clan’ had been ‘ruling the major world affairs’ for some 400 years.”
This is all loathsome but can we hope for this kind of scapegoating to be replaced by a tolerant rationality?
One of the things the report makes clear is just how much the secular discourse of human rights – from which religious freedom is supposed to derive – rests on large, unsupported, almost theological claims: “Foremost among the rights Americans hold sacred is the freedom to worship as we choose … The right to religious freedom is inherent in every human being.”
Either or both of these statements may be true. But it’s clear that if they are there are kinds of truth wholly inaccessible to science and also incapable of logical proof. The reason that human rights arguments and religious ones can come into conflict is not that one is about fact and the other about values. They are both statements about the same kind of thing.
They are, fundamentally, arguments about what it is to be human. And the answers to that kind of question are not fixed. In good times they are more generous; in bad times very much less forgiving. In some ways what is most surprising about this year’s report is not that there is so little religious toleration round the world but that so much survives.
Oh, and the eight countries picked out? China, Eritrea, Iran, Burma, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.
The church has failed to capitalise on its tally of advantages, and people are now cynical about the organisation
“I can show you why the Church of England is completely fucked,” said the vicar. He showed me an email he had just received from the diocesan authorities about his “continuing ministerial development” – in effect his annual performance review. It came with 20 attachments, from A to T, 19 of which he was supposed to read before filling out the form on how well he was doing.
Two things might be added to this story. The first is that his performance as measured by this form would have no impact on his salary and not much on his career prospects. The second is that it came from Southwark.
Southwark, which means London south of the Thames, has everything that makes the Church of England newsworthy. It has 326 paid clergy: some are liberal and some so reactionary that they think everything has gone downhill since the liberal reforms of the 1662 prayer book. The former cathedral dean, Jeffrey John, is the most famous gay clergyman in Britain, while the evangelical church of St Mark’s, Battersea Rise, is one of the English embassies of the homophobic African grouping Gafcon. There are lots of less famous gay clergy (and some overlap, here, with the homophobic lot). A former bishop had to be poured out of a stranger’s car after an Irish embassy party – oh, yes, Southwark has everything, except congregations.
Out of a population of about 2.6 million, roughly 45,000 attend Anglican churches most weeks. And whereas the Diocese of London, north of the river, has managed to show some increase in attendance, in Southwark it continues to slide. Even the kind of belonging measured by baptism has diminished, so that there are now about half as many every year as there were in 1980.
This in turn points to the most worrying figures for the Church of England in the reworking of the census statistic published last week by the Office of National Statistics. That shows that the median age of Christians in this country is 45; the median age of Muslims is 25.
The ONS does not distinguish among different Christian denominations any more than the census did. But its finding that the number of British-born Christians fell by 15% in the 10 years between 2001 and 2011 while the number of foreign-born ones increased by 1.2 million is also really bad for the Church of England. Hardly any of the immigrants were Anglicans, or became Anglican. In south London this is obvious from the profusion of pentecostal churches, mostly nowadays west African.
Catholic immigrants have tended to remain Catholics, of course, which has disguised the fall in native-born numbers much better than happened in the Church of England.
Yet this may not have been inevitable. What is extraordinary is the tally of advantages the Church of England has failed to capitalise upon. Its considerable social reach, its schools, and its place in civic and political life, none of them have seemed to make it convincing. It is not even convincing from the inside: a friend of mine in his early 40s, who has worked at Lambeth Palace and now has a good chaplaincy, says people of his generation are all as cynical about the organisation as the party members were in the last days of the USSR. They know that all the official stories are lies, and are waiting and hoping for some Gorbachev-like figure who will admit this.
Considering what happened to Gorbachev, there may not be many volunteers for the position.
Yet the decline of the Church of England, and of Christianity generally, does not mean that people are rushing towards atheism. “There absolutely isn’t a national decline of religion,” says Linda Woodhead, professor of the sociology of religion at Lancaster University and one of the organisers of the Westminster faith debates. Those have been based on surveys of public opinion that have shown with great clarity that the congregations in all the mainstream churches are much more socially liberal than the clergy.
“What has happened is a complete disjunction between the values of the church and the values of the population,” says Woodhead. “The church has clericalised until it’s just clergy and lay ministers talking to each other. The public are not an audience for this debate. And you can’t have a minority gospel for a majority religion.”
Nowhere is this clearer than in the absurd and humiliating tangle that the Church of England has got itself into about women priests. On Monday the church’s bishops begin a two-day meeting that is meant to result in legislation that will lead to the appointment of women bishops in three years’ time – assuming agreement is reached. And that really is the quickest that anything can happen.
Even if Justin Welby does turn out to be the church’s Gorbachev, it looks as if it really needs someone who can work miracles instead.
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