Gareth Roberts

Who is Sandi Toksvig to lecture Justin Welby about sin?

Who is Sandi Toksvig to lecture Justin Welby about sin?
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Has Justin Welby met his match in Sandi Toksvig? The entertainer has sent an open letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, complaining about his attempts to compromise with African bishops and avoid a showdown at the Lambeth Conference on the issue of same-sex marriage. The gist of it is: ‘Even though I don’t believe in God, I’m rarely going to attend my local church again’.

This letter, and the swift reply to it from Justin Welby, tell us quite a lot about the relative standing of the CofE and what we are now supposed to call, as Sandi does, ‘LGBTQ+ people’.

St Sandi’s letter to the Cantabrians is a masterpiece of faux-chummy passive-aggression, gratingly twee and self-satisfied. She addresses Welby as ‘Justin’ throughout (I am grateful that we were at least spared her saying ‘Archbish’), and it’s written in an unbearable jolly, golly-gosh, niminy-piminy, ‘cave girls, it’s Matron!’ vernacular. Just nice old Sandi asking the old A of C for a chin-wobble over a mug of froth. I am both an atheist and a homosexual of long standing, and I found it insufferable.

This matey timbre conceals, not very well, some unpleasant stuff. Mentioning suicide statistics here and appearing to lay the blame at Welby's door, as Toksvig does, is a bit much.

Toksvig also dives into what the Old Testament says or doesn’t say about homosexuality. It's an astonishingly confident display of rabbinical scholarship from the woman who played Ethel in the eighties children's TV show No.73. She informs Welby that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah ‘is not about condemning loving same sex couples but about sexual violence and the importance of kindness to strangers’. Really? 

Toksvig's suggestion that God is probably fine with homosexuality also glosses over an important fact: the Judaeo-Christian faith explicitly proscribed it as part of the basic deal of heterosexual monogamy that marked the religion out from much of the rest of the ancient world. We may well not like this, we may consider it ridiculous, from a vanished iron age of strange cult edicts, but to deny its very existence is simply daft.

Jesus ‘doesn’t mention sexuality at all’ apparently, according to Toksvig, which will come as a surprise to Bible readers who remember him reinforcing the commandment that thou shalt not commit adultery, and his advice to pluck out your eye if you lust after someone who isn’t your (heterosexual) spouse.

Toksvig describes herself as a humanist who believes in ‘the fundamental goodness of people’. Well that’s all right then. All settled. How lovely. It takes a special kind of presumption to lecture the Archbishop of Canterbury on sin. Who knew that the riddles of the darkness of the human heart would be answered obiter dictum by a former host of Radio 4’s The News Quiz?

She ends by mentioning that she’s doing a church fundraiser for Ukraine, which reminds me of the admirable Christian rule (though hardly ever adhered to) that good works advertised in public don’t count. Still, for Toksvig, the reward for her moral stance is not treasure in heaven but some approving quote tweets calling her a national blooming treasure.

And how quick Welby was to reply, bowing and scraping and insisting he is happy to meet Toksvig for a coffee. This tells you where the power and status really lies in this conversation. What a soft target the C of E has become. It makes you wonder if Toksvig has directed her anger elsewhere, perhaps by penning an open letter on gender ideology, or taking on other religious leaders when it comes to their attitudes towards homosexuality? It seems unlikely.

Toksvig's open letter is a safe and silly rebellion against a creed on the back foot, with no chance of being snapped back at, even. For the Toksvigs of this world, people who are strangely fond of accusing others of living in the past, the old establishment still rules: it is forever October 1978. Dear God, hearken to the prayer of this old sinner, and deliver us from them.

Written byGareth Roberts

Gareth Roberts is a TV scriptwriter and novelist who has worked on Doctor Who and Coronation Street

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