I do like the essays of Andrew Rilstone, so it’s good to see a new one. The Ballad of Reading Diocsese is about the last but one gay bishop controversy. You have to like a piece in which the phrase “Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and Chief Druid” has a footnote saying “Contravening, it seems to me, the rules about multi-classed characters in the player’s handbook.”
Ivan Gelical: Men can’t touch each other’s willies!
Archdruid: Don’t be silly. Grown men can do whatever they like.
Ivan: Men who touch each other’s willies can’t be bishops!
Archdruid: Really, I think you ought to bring your views up to date.
Ivan: God says so! Jesus says so! The Bible says so!
Archdruid: (annoyed) I don’t care what the Bible says! I don’t care what Jesus says! I don’t care what God says!
Ivan: Ha-ha! So then, you are not a Christian at all!
Archdruid: Drat and double drat, you have caught me out. Truly, you are too clever for us syncretic people. I suppose I will have to let you run the Church from now on.
Ivan: Don’t mind if I do. (Aside) My plan worked. Heretics always make at least one foolish mistake. Would you be interested in coming to my Alpha course? We serve rice salad.
In a good bit of exegesis, Rilstone shows that the fuss made about all this is unwarranted, even if you do follow a fairly evangelical line on the Bible (as well as pointing out that evangelicals aren’t really the literalists or bigots the media make them out to be). He says that, while disapproval of homosexuality has always prevailed among evangelicals (as I recall, Mark Ashton tended to drop references to homosexuality into unrelated sermons as one of the canonical examples of sinful behaviour), similar issues, such as divorce or women priests, have not threatened to divide the church. (Although my cynical side would say that the evangelicals have chosen their ground carefully in picking a sin to which most people are not tempted).
But, he says, the issue has become a sign of a deeper conflict in the Church of England (note for Americans and other aliens: the C of E has an official status in the UK as the established church, involvement in state occasions and so on). On the one side are those who want the church to be a sort of National God Service, providing social programmes and appropriate words and ceremonies in times of national and personal need, using the idea of God to help them in this mission. On the other are those (including the evangelicals) who want it to be a supernatural religion: “Christians say ‘Religion is about contact between Man and the Divine – and by the way, this has lots of implications about how we should behave towards each other’. The National Church says ‘Religion is about how we behave towards each other (justice, tolerance, love) – and, by the way, God can be enormously helpful in getting this right.'”
Rilstone thinks, as do I, that the National Church has watered down Christianity to leave something like Deism. The difference between us is that I can’t believe in what he calls capital-C Christianity. A preacher at StAG once compared the watered down religion of school assemblies (and presumably your standard of C of E church) to an innoculation in childhood which prevents you from getting full blown Christianity as an adult. I imagine the parallel to the ideas of Richard Dawkins was unintentional (“Evangelicalism is a plague, Mister Andurrson. And I am the cure”). I have the opposite experience: I’ve had the full blown version and my immune system rejected it, so nothing else now seems likely to stick.
Rilstone seems a little despondent at the end of the article, facing a choice between the Deism of the National Church and the prejudice of the evangelicals. I hope he works it out somehow.