Losing its religion

The Church of England has become Britain’s most openly divided public institution.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics

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  • Anglicans: the new Tories?

Is the Church of England turning into the Conservative Party? The CofE has long been referred to as ‘the Tory Party at prayer’ – now it seems to be aping the Tories’ very public brawls between traditionalists and modernizers, between those who want to adopt a more ‘progressive’ approach in the hope of gaining popularity and reactionaries who believe fidelity to dogma is more important than ‘reaching out’. The CofE’s spat over homosexuality has ensured it now has assumed the role of the most openly divided public institution in Britain.

The analogy, however, does not go much further. For instance, while the statements of the homophobes in the CofE jar with the British public’s now fairly tolerant view of gays, it is the evangelical wing that is actually proving more appealing to the public, gaining new converts every year, while the Liberal wing has been withering for decades now. And whereas the Tories are basically split between traditionalists and modernisers, the Church of England is thrice split between Evangelicals, Liberals and Anglo-Catholics.

The Church’s present predicament is sad, but the split has been coming for a while. The Communion is too broad and tolerant. In Canada, women priests bless gay couples, while in parts of deeply conservative Africa religious services appropriate much non-Christian ritual. In England you could attend a thoroughly minimalist service and think you’ve walked into a Methodist hall, while some forms of worship resemble Tridentine masses that most Roman Catholics would think a bit too ‘bells and smells’. Is it a universal Church, or does it cater for different nations? And how can you call yourself a proper Protestant and have bishops in the first place?

All this talk of closet homosexuals in the clergy is irrelevant anyhow. The CofE’s real problem has been its lack of faith in itself. So keen are they to be seen as non-judgemental and eschew dogma that many of its clergy today appear to profess a kind of agnosticism. Most people don’t care how many of the Church of England’s priests are gay, they want to know how many of them actually believe in God.

  • Racism: the new communism?

According to Martin Jacques, the former editor of Marxism Today, tennis is a racist sport. This is self-evident, he claims, from the fact that tennis is an overwhelmingly white middle-class sport, and that the Williams sisters aren’t very popular with fellow players and the crowds. ‘Race courses through the veins of tennis’, he wrote in Wednesday’s UK Guardian, because Western societies are themselves ‘deeply racist’. ‘The ubiquity of racism in football is just beginning to get the attention it deserves.… And the same goes for other sports.’ Phew!

Never mind that he clearly hasn’t been to a domestic football match in the past 15 years – ironically, it is precisely this kind of scaremongering from ‘anti-racists’ that prevents a great number of blacks and Asians from going to games in the first place – more unnerving is the conspiratorial tone of the article. It offers little hard evidence of racist action. Instead the author appears to have divine insight into the minds of tennis fans. ‘Most racism – especially middle-class racism – is neither crude nor explicit but subtle and nuanced, masquerading as fair comment about personal qualities rather than the prejudice it is.’ In other words, they are racist because they don’t say racist things. Absence of proof signifies its presence. Stalin would be proud.

It’s a funny old paper, the Guardian. It rightly grins condescendingly at the Daily Mail, accusing it of making bogeymen out of asylum seekers. It correctly snorts at the News of The World for its attempts to make us believe all of our ‘kids’ are potential prey of paedophiles. Yet, get the Guardian on to the subject of race and it descends into what it would call a ‘moral panic’: the police are racist; so are teachers, political parties, football, tennis, and even last week, Harry Potter books. Just as reading the Mail will make you think there’s an AIDS-ridden refugee in your street, regular ingestion of the Guardian will have you convinced that racist ghouls are stalking the land.

Sections of the liberal-left ascribe to this invisible force demonic powers, which no man or woman is impervious to. The attitude is reminiscent of the way the Catholic Church used to thunder from the pulpit about the dangers of Bolshevism. So, is racism the new communism?

  • A tatty trend

Selfridges, London’s premier department store, has established a permanent tattoo parlor, after its temporary salon proved a roaringly popular attraction.

The tattoo has gradually attained the status of respectability among the bourgeoisie and upper classes in the past 10 years – yet such news confirming its acceptability should be lamented. It embodies much that is undesirable about contemporary British culture.

Our tattoo fetish betrays a misguided form of proletariat chic. Tattoos used to be regarded as the preserve of the criminals and rougher elements of the working class, two groups many people are given to romanticise today – and, crucially – confuse with the respectable working class. Whereas in past years it was the working class who sought respectability, today the middle class seeks ‘unrespectability’.

This fashion also reflects our obsession with the body. From the growth of gyms, plastic surgery and piercing, to our horror of corpses as manifest in various hospital scandals, the body – not the soul, or the mind – has become the ultimate focus of the self.

Thirdly, their popularity mirrors a society paralysed with fear. Tattoos are a defensive tool designed to intimidate. They tell strangers to keep clear – look at me, I used to be in the Navy/did five years at Pentonville. Ironically, those taking recourse to tattoos merely accentuate this fear.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics


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