After seven years on the faith front lines, Guardian religious affairs correspondent Stephen Bates is glad to be back on civvy street
I never wanted to be a religious affairs correspondent. I had always regarded it as a slippers and pipe sort of a job, to be given to ageing hacks in beige cardigans working their way towards retirement. So when the editor of the Guardian asked me to do the job in 2000, on my return from five years as the paper’s European Affairs Editor in Brussels, I thought he was trying to tell me something about the inexorable downward trajectory of a once moderate career.
It was a long time since I’d thought much about religion, though I still regarded myself as a Catholic (I still do). I was not one of those who’d been put off in adolescence, as so many are, especially those who have attended faith schools and drop religion like a hot brick as soon as they leave. As an altar boy, I’d never been molested or abused. In so far as I considered the subject, I felt benignly towards priests and vicars, churches and faiths. But that didn’t mean I wanted to write about them particularly: it’s very difficult to report about nice people trying to do good and make the world a better place – such sincere folk play havoc with one’s worldview.
Anyway, weren’t we all pretty ecumenical these days? Didn’t religious chaps and chapesses think the best of everyone, even those not of a like mind? How wrong I was. This was in the days before 9/11, George Bush’s election and the dawning realisation of the murderous impulses of religiously inspired Islamic terrorism, but I soon discovered there were quite enough feuds to be going on with even in the good old Church of England. The first inkling was when I opened what was to become my favourite religious periodical, the English Churchman, a deeply conservative publication which still calls the Pope the Anti-Christ, publishes the odd article suggesting slavery was not really such a bad institution and argues that Margaret Thatcher’s worst mistake was allowing shops to open on Sundays.
Well, in case you get the wrong idea, the Churchman’s readership is pretty minuscule, but the vehemence even in the mainstream denominations could be quite startling and bizarrely tunnel-visioned. Graham Dow, the Bishop of Carlisle, has come to public notice for suggesting that the recent floods were God’s judgement on a sinful nation, but not only is he not alone – perhaps just naive to speak so openly about it to a friendly journalist from the Sunday Telegraph – but they are not his weirdest views. An earlier book he wrote on demonic possession shows he believes devils enter up the anus (something Freudian here perhaps) and the signs of possession include wearing black, inappropriate laughter, inexplicable knowledge, Scottish ancestry or relatives who have been miners. You may laugh – inappropriately – but Dow used to be an Oxford college chaplain, indeed once prepared Tony Blair for confirmation, and has risen to be a diocesan bishop.
When Rowan Williams was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002, he was sent excrement in the post by someone who believed he was dangerously unsound on doctrine, and hectored by conservative evangelicals who described him as heretical. He was eventually invited to lead prayers at a meeting of Anglican evangelicals, though only on condition that he did not preach. Even then they set aside a separate prayer area for those who could not bear to be in the same room as their own archbishop.
The presenting issue, of course, for what has become a struggle for power and control not only of the Church of England but throughout the worldwide Anglican communion, is homosexuality and the church’s attitude towards gays. Outsiders may have accepted civil partnerships, but the established church is tearing itself apart on the issue with quite extraordinary bitterness and rancour. Only a week or so ago, a US blogger was remarking charitably that it wasn’t worth expending a bullet on the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, who is the first woman to lead a major Christian denomination. The blogger, incidentally, was herself a woman.
The fact that the outside world regards the division with bemusement and indifference, insofar as it takes any notice, and that the conservatives have received no secular support for their stand whatsoever, not even in the British tabloids, baffles them but only serves to confirm their belief that if the world is against them they must be right.
As you can imagine, this gets wearing after a while. What really surprised me was the mendacity and sheer nastiness with which the feuds were conducted and, of course, the certainty with which such people knew that God was speaking directly to them and – funnily enough – endorsing whatever action they had decided to take. It is a hermetically sealed, deeply insecure view of the outside world and it does not just infect Anglicans, but many denominations. The Roman Catholic Church, to which one sixth of the world’s population belongs, still believes that all other Christians, let alone other religions, belong to false churches. It has only just decided to abolish the concept of limbo, that half-state to which those who cannot be admitted to Heaven but do not deserve to go to Hell are consigned. Originally developed in the Middle Ages as a pragmatic way of alleviating the anguish of bereaved parents and explaining what had happened to the good people who died before Christ, it has only now outlived its philosophical usefulness.
Some religious doctrines are much more bizarre and malign than this. They occasionally come blinking into the light. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, believe that those outside their inner circle will be ground to dust on the last day (remember this the next time you open your front door to them) and will only cooperate with the police in child abuse cases if the molestation has been independently and simultaneously witnessed by two elders, which may be setting the bar a little high.
Faltering in the face of so much theology, I decided to cover church issues politically. As a former lobby correspondent, I felt that the disputes were more explicable in such terms. When Pope John Paul II started appointing cardinals wholesale towards the end of his reign, in an attempt to fix the choice of his successor – the cardinals being the men who choose the pope – I reported it as a political move (“That’s fine,” said one of the more obtuse members of the Guardian’s newsdesk team, “but what’s a cardinal?” – you can’t assume even basic knowledge these days). The manoeuvring became easier to understand that way – and indeed some conservative evangelicals are using tactics remarkably similar to the old Militant Tendency to infiltrate the Church of England these days.
I don’t want to give the impression that all religionists are mad or bad. Besides some pretty unpleasant people, I also met some inspirational ones, working selflessly and often obscurely in the world, motivated not by ambition or for reward but by their faith. This is not to be sneered at.
The religious correspondent is the one specialist on the Guardian who has to justify his specialism to the sceptics, on the paper and outside (“Why do we have to read this rubbish?”), and to our many religiously inclined readers (“Why are you always so hostile to religion?”). The Guardian actually gives more space to a wider range of religious (and non-religious) opinions than any other paper. That is precisely because religion is important as a philosophical, political, cultural, social and historical motivating force across the world and, despite the best efforts of atheists and secularists – some as fundamentalist in their beliefs as the most dogmatic religionist – will remain so.
Now I am moving on. It was time to go. What faith I had, I’ve lost, I am afraid – I’ve seen too much, too close. A young Methodist press officer once asked me earnestly whether I saw it as my job to spread the Good News of Jesus. No, I said, that’s the last thing I am here to do. ■