Monday, 2 June 2008

Another barking bishop

Where would we be without absurd bishops? The latest outbreak of episcopal madness comes from the suffragan bishop of Stafford, the Rt Rev Gordon Mursell (no, I hadn't heard of him either) who, as you may have heard elsewhere, has claimed that our environmental sins render us all collectively "as guilty as" Josef Fritzl. Cue splenetic outbursts from the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, Ruth Gledhill, Frank Furedi, and various others. And me too, I suppose. But give the man a break. Let's have a look at the source of all the trouble, an article he wrote for distribution in various parish magazines. What did he actually say?

Longer and more wide-ranging than most reports suggest, the bishop's article is full of the trite moralising and drawing together of unrelated news stories one hears constantly on Thought for the Day. He would clearly be an ideal contributor, guaranteed to annoy the hell out of reactionary types like me. He begins the letter - bathetically - by stating that the news has recently dominated by two stories: the Fritzl crime, and Labour's poor showing in the local elections. He adds, "These two events have more in common than we might think."

"It's easy to demonise Josef Fritzl," he opines, the sort of sentence that typically would lead to a defence of its unfairly-maligned object. And indeed it isn't difficult: the man is after all a perverted, deranged monster, the perpetrator of an almost unthinkable crime. 'Nuff said. One would have thought that appreciating the unusual vileness of the man is some sort of touchstone of normality. And what possible connection might there be between his crimes and the collapse in support for Gordon Brown's government? It is in trying to establish this rather hard-to-see link that the bishop brings up the culpability we all have for global warming:

And yet Josef Fritzl represents merely the most extreme form of a very common philosophy of life: I will do what makes me happy, and if that causes others to suffer, hard luck. In fact you could argue that, by our refusal to face the truth about climate change, we are as guilty as he is – we are in effect locking our children and grandchildren into a world with no future and throwing away the key. We are right to be disgusted at these crimes. But mere disgust is too convenient. There are lessons for all of us to learn.

And what about the local elections? The decline of one large political party need not in itself be bad news, whatever your personal preference: bad results can often galvanize politicians into doing better. More worrying is a widespread sense of drift: pollsters report increasing numbers of people who feel disaffected with all the mainstream parties, and either don’t vote or vote for the BNP instead. Again, it’s easy to disapprove. A wiser course would be to consider how to promote a better alternative.

Bishop Mursell has been described as "an inspiring poet, preacher and envisioner". Logical thinker, though, would not seem to be among his most distinctive attributes. There may, indeed, be lessons to be drawn from the horrific crimes of Josef Fritzl: especially by the Austrian police and social services, who might have missed vital clues. But that isn't what Mursell is saying. Rather, he seems to be using Fritzl as a source of analogies, as though he were a mythological, fictional or symbolic character rather than a real human being who caused real and unimaginable suffering to his daughter Elisabeth and the children he fathered on her. This, I think, rather than the inappropriateness of the comparison itself (although it is highly inappropriate) is where the offensiveness of his remarks resides. And they were, even in context, truly shocking in their stupidity.

The fancied analogy between Fritzel's crimes and the fortunes of the Labour party is, if anything, even harder to fathom than his comparison between the Austrian criminal and those who "refuse to accept" the most doom-laden predictions of the climate change alarmists, a group he seems to believe comprises the whole of society. There, his target is the apathetic, "increasing numbers of people who feel disaffected with all the mainstream parties," who "either don’t vote or vote for the BNP". As though those two decisions were equivalent. "Again, it’s easy to disapprove," he thinks. Of what? Of people who decide not to vote Labour (for remember, it was Labour's poor showing in the polls that set the bishop off on this peculiar train of thought)? The BNP aren't to everyone's taste, and certainly not to mine, but comparing anyone voting for them to Fritzl is, once again, somewhat wide of the mark.

"There is a danger always when church leaders pick up on issues like this that they are misunderstood, misquoted or even pilloried," a spokesman for Lichfield diocese told the Birmingham Post. Perhaps he had in mind the hysterical reaction to Rowan Williams's Sharia speech, which, wrong-headed as it undoubtedly was, did not actually call for public floggings in Luton town centre. But in this case there's no need for exaggeration. Mursell is condemned out of his own keyboard. Still, it's worth asking how anyone, even a bishop of the Church of England, comes to think such ludicrous thoughts, or indeed to express them in print.

Trying to be generous, I can, I think, detect in the bishop's ruminations a characteristic product of which might be termed (were it not an oxymoron) "the Anglican mind". There's the internalised, unexamined relativism, which says, "we are all equally guilty" and takes to its (il)logical conclusion the Christian belief that all are sinners in the eyes of God. There's the desperate desire to be topical and "with-it", the unthinking embrace of fashionable orthodoxies, the drawing of trite parallels. Behind it, too, one can see the hard-pressed vicar trying to discover neat moral lessons in the week's news in an effort to make his sermon sound more "relevant".

The final paragraphs of the bishop's article are almost equally bizarre. We left him wondering how to "promote a better alternative" to not voting, neglecting the environment, or locking your daughter in a dungeon for 24 years and repeatedly raping her. The Bible has the answers, he thinks:

The Bible is full of stirring visions of a new cosmos - not just a new church, but a new world. ...[such as] Isaiah 65:17-25, in which God promises to build a new Jerusalem in which ill-health will be unheard-of, everyone will be properly housed and employed, and even animals will live together in peace.

This is paradise as re-imagined by Gordon Brown. And there's more:

As I write, one other event has hit the headlines. Stoke City have been promoted to the Premiership; and the whole of North Staffordshire is celebrating - as I’m sure they are down the M6 in West Bromwich too!

But if football can draw people together, so can faith; for God has entrusted to us a tremendous vision of how the world can be remade in obedience to Jesus Christ. The best response to the moral decay and political apathy we see around us is to offer, and live, Christ’s vision for a new and better world.

So there you have it: Josef Fitzl is like climate change denial is like not voting in the local elections. Whereas Christianity is like a successful urban planning scheme is like Stoke City being promoted.

No wonder the churches are empty.


valdemar said...

Am I the only one to notice that, put delicately, the Anglican church doesn't attract the brightest people? It must be so hard to fill all those managerial jobs.
I suppose science has scooped the real brains, followed by the law, media, business - not much left for God to call upon.
Every time I read this sort of thing I recall Alan Bennett's sermon about life being like a tin of sardines. Some people really have found the key - to vacuous homilies. It's only when they go too far with their cod-humanist twaddle that people notice, if only for a moment, how silly our national church is.

WeepingCross said...

I find myself unable to dissent from anything you've said. The man's a fool.

It's enough to make you wonder about the doctrine of the Apostolic Succession. Or at least yearn for the clarity of a decent Pope.

Edwin said...

Hmm doesn't the bish sound really 1920s? His vision of paradise seems like something Belloc would make up. But then it would, would it not.

WeepingCross said...

I'm not sure about Belloc, but I think the Heresiarch is right (and he should be adept at spotting heresies). It sounds like a curiously secular paradise; not something that really needs God to be around. When a bishop (whose job is supposed to be the protection of apostolic truth) goes floppy on that, it's no surprise he says silly things in other respects.

Edwin said...

oh I agree no disagreement WC, with you or indeed our Great Heresiarch. What i meant to say - sloppy as usual - was that the bish's heaven is just like one that the ChesterBelloc would make up in a spirit of satire.

Just back from visiting Cif - lummee. Now off to make tea.

Edwin said...

Forgot to add this industrious 'full employment' paradise is also early 20yj (even late 19th) century. Coem sform earbnets vicars reading too many HG Wells novels one supposes.

At the end of Blish's The Day After Judgement, the magicians who have brought about the end of the world are taken through Dis to meet Satan, while around them demons copulate mechanically in the streets and work in infernal factories. One of the magicians observes that he knew this was what hell would be like.

The bishop, like Satan, wants the idle hands kept busy...

Edwin said...

shite - 'Coem sform earbnets' shodul be Comes from earnest...

The new Cif is Hell

The Heresiarch said...

Very early 20th century, yes. Very mid 20th century, too. WC's "curiously secular paradise" was already the desideratum of Anglicans like William Temple, and even before that. Bishops have been going "floppy" for a long time.

The new Cif is purgatory rather than hell, I think. Some tortures along the way, but the odd glimpse of the promised land to keep people going.