What did you give up for Lent? I gave up chives again. Forty-five days of deprivation. According to the ecclesiastical calendar I am allowed my first chive on Saturday — but do you know what? I’m going to say no. My willpower has become a marvel to myself; I’m saying no to chives all the way through to May. I might have one then, and then again, I might not. The power of my faith enables me to crush utterly any bodily craving for chives. I am on a spiritual plane beyond such temptations, although this does not stretch to other members of the alliaceae family, i.e. onions. I have had onions.
Lent is another of those things which is not what it used to be. It lacks the rigour of, say, Ramadan. By and large the Church of England does not demand that we be self-denying because it knows that we do not want to be self-denying. Perhaps it does not see the point in self-denial or deferred gratification anymore. But it’s more likely that it is too closely attuned to a society which is not terribly keen on even the briefest expression of asceticism.
The Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, gave up something rather more substantive for Lent — and he won’t be succumbing on Saturday either. He’s given up being a bishop for good, unless we can persuade him otherwise. In future he intends to work for the benefit of Christian people who suffer religious persecution in foreign lands — in other, less elegant words, he is going to be socking it to the mozzies. It is remarkable that he should be forced to leave his current position in order to fight for the human rights of persecuted Christians; you might have assumed that being a Church of England bishop was a pretty good platform from which to undertake such work. As it is, he will not have the full force of the Church of England behind him; he will be, so far as Lambeth Palace is concerned, an ex-parrot.
We do not hear very much from the Church of England about the plight of Christians, and particularly Anglicans, in hostile foreign environments. Under the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the church does not like to make too much of a fuss about murdered priests in the Sudan, the constant fears of samizdat believers in Riyadh, the continued state persecution in Turkey, the perpetual discrimination in Indonesia and Malaysia and Bangladesh. Or about the Punjabi Christian dragged before a court in Pakistan accused of having sent a blasphemous message on his mobile phone, the Muslim hordes screaming for the death sentence outside the court. The thousands of Christians in Bauchi, Nigeria, watching their homes burned to the ground and their leaders attacked by, again, Muslim mobs. The beatings and murders in liberated — yea, praise the lord! — Afghanistan. We don’t hear much about that stuff from anyone, be it the BBC, our politicians or most notably the Church of England.
You might expect the C of E to feel at least a little bit uncomfortable that Anglicans were being strung up or burned alive in the middle east and elsewhere. But it does not seem to be an enormous issue for the prelates. The problem being that it would bring Rowan, and the church, into conflict with the very Islamists with whom they are thoroughly enjoying their important ‘inter-faith dialogues’, by which they seem to set so much store. These inter-faith dialogues have never, ever, to my knowledge, touched upon Islamic persecution of Christians: all the traffic is in the other direction, and the Church of England thinks it is all going swimmingly.
The C of E is very pleased and proud of its inter-faith dialogues — largely, I suppose, because when conducting them it always adopts a strategy of total capitulation, much as it does before any and every assault upon its ideology, be it from Islam or from the decadent depredations of modern Britain.
There may be another reason for Nazir-Ali’s Lenten undertaking, then. It may be that he is sick to the back teeth of the leadership of the Church of England. He has not said that he is, but he is a polite and affable chap apparently. But he has had this to say recently; he has lamented a ‘gradual loss of identity and cohesiveness in (British) society’ which he feels is down to the abandonment of biblical values. He thinks that we reside in a ‘values vacuum’. He has also complained that British people suffer from a ‘historical amnesia’ — by which he means that we prostrate ourselves to apologise for slavery while forgetting that we also ended slavery, while the Africans cheerfully continued with it.
We forget to celebrate our tolerance and diversity, our willingness to allow the freedom of speech and the freedom of worship. Nazir-Ali concluded by saying: ‘The church is seen simply as the religious aspect of society, there to endorse any change which politicians deem fit to impose upon the public.’ You could not get a better description of the Church of England today, I would argue. It is a church which has manipulated itself into a position whereby it can accommodate any adjustment to its own faith and ideology in order to make sure that it is in step with what it believes to be popular thinking.
I should come clean, here: the Church of England’s historic commitment to tradition mediated by a rational appraisal of modernity is what attracts me to its rapidly evolving catechism. But in the last few years it seems to have chucked out the tradition bit — the rock upon which it is based — entirely. Under Rowan Williams particularly, it seems to have swallowed whole every convenient shibboleth of modern liberalism, every transient political fashion — just as have, by the way, our judiciary, our social services, our education departments. It has become an institution which is more politically correct even than our government; you look to it for moral leadership and it offers none whatsoever.
It has swallowed whole, for example, modern environmentalism, as you will see if you log on to its benighted website and sign up to its ‘shrinking the (carbon) footprint’ campaign. It will attach itself to any and every expression of metropolitan anguish, regardless or not of whether it has any ecclesiastical root.
Bishop Nazir-Ali was in the news a little while ago for having expressed — with delicacy and tact — a faint misgiving about Rowan Williams’s suggestion that Muslim sharia law courts should be accepted within our society, or within certain sectors of our society. Nazir-Ali said that this might cause a few problems vis à vis the law of the land — he worried particularly about what this would mean for religious freedom and the position of apostates. Islam is not terribly keen on apostates, unless they are Christian apostates converting to Islam. As ever, the British public was entirely on the side of Nazir-Ali and even some Muslim leaders found Williams’s statements either patronising or simply unnecessary. But within the church, by and large, Rowan Williams was commended.
Williams was, one supposes, attempting to align himself with the now discredited creed of multiculturalism; that each belief system is equivalent, regardless of the misery or injustice it might impose upon those who fall within its ambit. Such as, for example, women, homosexuals, people who do not wish to accede to arranged marriages, female victims of domestic abuse, people who no longer wish to be regarded as Muslim, and so on. It was a fantastically stupid thing to have suggested, even if you were not the leader of the Christian Church in Great Britain. As the leader, you might think it antithetical.
It was the Bishop of Manchester,
Stephen Lowe, who supported Williams’s attempt to have sharia law enshrined in Great Britain, in an angry denunciation of provincial opinion (rather than metropolitan liberal opinion). This is the idiot who has also called for the first verse of ‘I Vow To Thee My Country’ to be struck from the hymnals, to be wiped out with no trace left of its repulsive existence, because he believes it is ‘heretical’. Heretical only to his political point of view; it is nothing to do with theology. Most British people, I suspect, would prefer to wipe out all trace of Stephen Lowe from their lives. But he is not alone in his attempts to rewrite or expunge politically incorrect stuff from the hymnals. At Christmas last year a Church of England vicar in Dorset explained that he would not be allowing the popular carol ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ to be sung in his church that season because he had just returned from some fatuous ecumenical trip to meet the Arabs of Bethlehem and decided that the town was not lying still but was, instead, struggling under the jackboot of fascist Israeli oppression. So he banned everybody from singing the carol.
We also need to take in the magnificently half-witted Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, who was pre-eminent in the campaign to allow the muezzin wail — the Muslim call to prayer — to batter the eardrums of all people in his diocese. Again, the Bishop of Rochester, Nazir-Ali, suggested that this wasn’t a great idea, as did (of course) the people of Oxford. But Pritchard was unrepentant. He told the press that he considered himself not merely the spiritual leader of Oxford’s Anglicans, but the ‘community leader’ for all faiths. What a silly and presumptuous little man: as if the Muslims would concur with that particular description of him.
But that is the view the Church of England, or much of it, has of itself these days. As a sort of superannuated ad-hoc branch of social services: non-judgmental, non-partisan, wholly secular, not Christian at all really, when it comes down to it.
It is a little like the BBC, in a way, the Church of England. We all knew why it was brought into being and we all signed up to the necessity for its existence, back then. And we might still have an affection for both institutions, based upon nostalgia and wishful thinking. And yet now, with every year that passes, one wonders why they both still exist, what the purpose is, exactly, for having them.
Nazir-Ali at least suggests that there could be a purpose; so too does the excellent Bishop of London, Richard Chartres. But they are both on the losing side. One wonders how many other people will have given up the Church of England this Lent, perhaps without ever realising that they have done so.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 11, 2009