The curious case of Cornelia Connelly

Visiting Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1980s, I found myself warmly welcomed (I cannot remember why) by a lively group of Catholic feminists. Their heroine was Mother Cornelia Connelly. I was embarrassed not to have heard of her since she did her greatest work near us in Sussex. Hers is quite a story.  In 1831, aged 22, she married Pierce Connelly, an Episcopalian minister, in her native Philadelphia. Both later converted to Catholicism. Pierce wanted to become a priest, which was difficult, what with a wife and five children. The couple eventually signed a perpetual deed of separation so he could be ordained. While still looking after her younger children, Cornelia became

A defence of the Church of England

If you’ve been following the media coverage of the Church of England over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, one question you might have seen is: ‘Where is the C of E?’ Let us offer an answer. We have been burying the dead, comforting the bereaved, feeding the hungry and praying for our nation. We have been doing this not as superheroes, but as human beings living through the same crisis as everyone else: grieving, home-schooling, worrying, getting sick, shielding, isolating, weeping. With that said, we fully understand — and indeed share — the anger and frustration felt by some that the government ordered public worship to be suspended during the first

Is America now a Catholic country?

‘It’s like being in church’, said my teenage son. It was a bit — two bursts of prayer, a religious song, a long sermon, and a general air of community-reverence, inclusive piety. We were watching Biden’s inauguration last week, grateful for a mid-afternoon break from other screens. These are quasi-religious events — I knew that. But this time it seemed more pointedly religious than ever. Let’s get back to the true faith, after a spell of gold-plated idolatry. And, if you knew how to spy the signs, this ceremony reflected the new man’s Roman Catholicism — a Jesuit leading the prayers, a quote from Saint Augustine, songs from an Italian-American

Why I’m keeping my church open in lockdown

On a beautifully sunny Maundy Thursday last year, during the first lockdown, I removed my cassock, slung my satchel over my shoulder and rode my bicycle to Lambeth Palace and back. At the halfway point I paused briefly to slip a letter under the Archbishop of Canterbury’s front door, before heading for home and the sad prospect of a solitary evening mass. In my letter I asked the Archbishop to reconsider his request that we not pray in our churches. Communal worship was still forbidden, but the government clearly considered it lawful for the clergy to continue to go into their churches to pray on behalf of their absent congregations.

Liberals should stop patronising believers

An editorial in the Guardian on Friday suggests that this year may be a good one for liberal Christians, and gives them a little pat on the back.  Liberalism thinks itself the wiser, cooler sibling of religion The suggestion is based on four things: the churches have shown their social relevance during the pandemic; the incoming American president is a liberal Catholic; in his latest book Pope Francis has called for a ‘new humanism’; the leader of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomew I, has spoken in favour of social justice. It also notes that illiberal Christianity is going strong, citing Poland’s illiberalism on abortion, and Trump’s recent support from evangelicals, but it opts

How to find hope in a year filled with despair

This year we might sing the words ‘Tidings of comfort and joy’ to one another with poignancy. ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’ differs from many other well-loved Christmas carols in one respect: despite being a hopeful song, it’s written in a minor key. There is a sense of melancholy, perhaps a touch of darkness; a feeling that not all is sweetness and light. It holds together the tension of joy and sorrow. How do we explain the comfort and joy of Jesus Christ in a year when things aren’t comfortable and they definitely haven’t been joyful? We have an image of Christmas — idyllic, pretty, like the front of a

The anxieties that long ago shadowed Christmas are back

Christmas has been given the green light by the government this year less because it marks the birth of Christ than because retailers and the hospitality industry desperately need it to go ahead. Other feast days in the Christian calendar still belong to the church. Christmas is the feast day that a fundamentally secular nation has made its own. It’s become part of the festive tradition for Christians to mourn this as the ultimate triumph of commercialisation and self-indulgence. But it might comfort them this year to know that their anxiety has deep roots. Folk memories of Oliver Cromwell banning Christmas — however distorted they may be — remain sufficiently

A romcom with very little com: BBC1’s Black Narcissus reviewed

In Black Narcissus, based on the novel by Rumer Godden, five nuns set off for a remote Himalayan palace in 1934 to set up a convent school. The palace, donated by an Anglophile general, used to be a harem and was still adorned with erotic paintings. It was also where the general’s sister, Srimati, had committed suicide and where, just a few months previously, a male religious order had tried to establish a school too, before retiring defeated for mysteriously undisclosed reasons. The nuns’ main helper in practical matters, a British expat called Mr Dean (Alessandro Nivola), possessed an overwhelming maleness that expressed itself through such attributes as a chiselled

The importance of giving offence

As dons at Cambridge vote on a new protocol on constraints to free speech, we mark this month the 500th anniversary of the public burning of Martin Luther’s books outside the west door of Great St Mary’s, the university church at Cambridge. After the 1517 publication of his famous 95 Theses, raging against the Church’s sale of ‘indulgences’ that purported to pardon sin in exchange for money, Luther had been denounced by Pope Leo X in a papal Bull. This accused him of (among other things) saying things that were ‘offensive to pious ears’. Luther then burned the papal Bull on 10 December 1520, giving further offence. He was excommunicated

The infantilism of Advent calendars for grown-ups

Long ago and far away, small children used to arm-wrestle their siblings for the privilege of opening a door in a cardboard Advent calendar. It was reward enough to find a picture of an angel or an awestruck donkey. How quaint that now seems. Because then Cadbury saw an opportunity and launched an alternative calendar, with little chocolate inducements. I mean, which would you choose, the donkey or a chocolate button? It was a no-brainer. Childhood, which used to end around the time you were tall enough to reach a clocking-in machine, now drifts on and on. Grown men forget to leave home, women in their fifties buy colouring books,

Why has England banned worship?

Over the weekend, more than a hundred religious figures from across the different faiths launched a legal challenge against the ban on communal worship in England. They claim the Covid restrictions are a violation of their basic human right to freedom of religious expression. Leaders from the Anglican and Catholic churches, as well as the Muslim Council of Britain, are in agreement on how unfair they view the ban. It’s difficult to think of a cogent argument against their position.  For background, I am an atheist. Raised in a Catholic family, I never truly believed, even as a small child. Atheism has been something that has been with me throughout my whole

Spectacular and mind-expanding: Tantra at the British Museum reviewed

A great temple of the goddess Tara can be found at Tarapith in West Bengal. But her true abode, in the view of many devotees, is not this sacred structure itself but the adjacent, eerily smoking cremation ground. There she can be glimpsed in the shadows at midnight, it is believed, drinking the blood of the goats sacrificed to her during the day. Many holy men and women live in that grisly spot too, adorned with dreadlocks, smeared with ash, and dwelling in huts decorated with lines of skulls painted crimson. As a domestic setting this wouldn’t suit everybody. But the varieties of religious experience (to borrow the title of

How the Catholic church betrayed the dying

Of all the sad and surreal things to happen in the past few months, the Catholic church’s decision to abandon the dying was, for me, the worst. The Church of England abandoned its churches, forbidding first congregants then priests from setting foot in them, making it clear that in fact it actively dislikes church buildings. But the Catholic church in England betrayed the people who needed it most: the men and women who found themselves in the awful eye of the storm, dying of Covid-19 without family and, as it turned out, without even the possibility of a priest. As our infection rate begins to rise again, and with talk

Is Evensong too problematic to survive?

If only God had clearly decreed exactly what sort of music he wanted us to make in church. For uncertainty on this matter is highly problematic. If only he had said, for example, unaccompanied female voices on weekdays and an all-male choir on Sundays, with nothing composed before 1800 and no stringed instruments, except at Christmas. Or something else, similarly specific. The Calvinists of the sixteenth century decided that he had said something of this sort: no music at all, except for chanted Psalms. You can imagine the Dean of Sheffield Cathedral feeling a flicker of sympathy for this position. For Sheffield Cathedral has announced that its choir is not

My fears for the future of my church have been realised

The only memorable argument I have ever heard in that tedious debate about whether Shakespeare was a Catholic came from the poet Tom Paulin. I remember him claiming in a lecture that the ‘bare ruin’d choirs’ sonnet must have been written by someone who had seen the despoiled monasteries, desecrated churches and ravaged holy places of a faith of which they were a part. Famously, such an argument only gets you so far, for by this logic Shakespeare was also a king, empress, ex-king, sailor, magician and fool, among many hundreds of others. But part of the rationale stayed with me. Which is that the bitterest truth of all is

There is no justification for turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque

It is official: Hagia Sophia, for a thousand years the world’s largest cathedral, and since 1934 a museum, is to be turned back into a mosque. Ever since I heard of the possibility, I have been praying it would not be so because of the impact it will have on Muslim-Christian relations in Turkey, the Middle East and beyond. A suitably purged and compliant judiciary, however, has bowed to the wishes of the authoritarian President Erdogan that Turkey should become more Islamic and less secular. There has been a church on the site since 360 ad and the present building dates from the reign of Justinian in the mid-sixth century.

Why can’t Britain’s foreign aid be used to help Christians too?

For years now, the British government has prided itself on how much money it gives away in foreign aid. But of course it’s not just the amount that matters — it’s how effective it is. Now that the Prime Minister is to wrap the Department for International Development back into the Foreign Office, it’s a chance for us to ask again: who are we as a country? What are our values? And how can we ensure that taxpayers’ money is well spent? It can be difficult to ensure that a recipient of aid is legitimate and worthy. That’s why there’s been a tendency for the UK and aid agencies to

This could have been a great opportunity for the Church

During these months of inertia, I confess to having on occasion made illicit trips to churches in the English countryside. Enjoying the frisson that surely accompanies all law-breaking, I have often gone so far as the church door, there to examine not only the locks and bolts but also the laminated notices which adorn so many buildings of the Church of England. The other week I visited a 12th-century church whose laminated instructions were an especially fine example of their kind. These signs informed the visitor that the church was closed due to the Covid crisis and that God can of course be worshipped anywhere, but (and this part was

Superbly convincing: Unorthodox reviewed

When I lived briefly in Stamford Hill I was mesmerised by the huge fur hats (shtreimel) worn by the local Hasidic Jews, and the wigs worn by their wives, and the almost tubercular pallor of their children. I often wondered how such a remote, aloof and archaic sect could possibly relate to 21st-century London. The answer, of course, was that they didn’t: they were like ghosts from another age, walking the same streets but not of this world. I wished I could get a glimpse of their private lives — and now, thanks to Unorthodox (Netflix), we all can. Loosely based on a memoir by Deborah Feldman, it tells the

Melanie McDonagh

Scotland’s new ‘hate speech’ rules are a modern blasphemy law

It is 178 years since the last recorded charge of blasphemy in Scotland, against the Edinburgh bookseller Thomas Paterson for ‘exhibiting placards of a profane nature’ in his shop window in 1842. One of those placards announced that ‘Paterson & Co (of the Blasphemy Depot, London)… Beg to acquaint infidels in general and Christians in particular that… [we] will sell all kinds of printed works which are calculated to enlighten, without corrupting — to bring into contempt the demoralising trash our priests palm upon the credulous as divine revelation — and to expose the absurdity of, as well as the horrible effects springing from, the debasing god-idea.’ For good measure