by Cole Moreton (Little, Brown, £20)
Journalist Cole Moreton can smile now at the young man he once was, mystically certain about his God and messianic about persuading everyone else. When he was 15 he and his friend Stu bunked off school and heard a siren which they mistook for the end of the world. He looked around in vain for the woman of his dreams who would want to spend her last four minutes on earth making frantic love to a teenage boy, “which would, obviously, leave an awkward post-coital silence lasting three minutes and fifty seconds.”
He looks back now and sees that the established church – the Church of England – is an ass. He sees that it is damaged below the waterline, destroyed, ironically, by Thatcherism. The Thatcherites fell on it and tore it to pieces when it briefly remembered the poor and timidly criticised the greed-is-good philosophy. Then the church commissioners got carried away with Thatcherism, and gambled greedily with their church’s money until they lost a very large chunk of it, and an even larger chunk of their church’s credibility.
He sees that the idea of a state-supported church survives only because we are too lazy to provide the coup de grace. He sees that an organisation which still thinks its top positions may be reserved for men does not deserve to survive. He watches a prince of the church, a bishop, meeting a gay priest and bellowing in his face: “Father, I pray that you deliver him out of homosexuality.”
He tells the recent history of the Church of England with fluent and well-informed humour, and skilfully binds it in with his own youthful foolishness. If telling these stories was the extent of the task he set himself, I would count the book a success. But it is not. Cole Moreton either has something profound to say, or he thinks he has; or he has, but he has not quite worked out what it is.
Towards the end of the book, as he wanders away from the Church of England, his touch becomes unsure, and he moves into areas he knows a lot less about. There is an oddly awe-struck interview with Britain’s Catholic primate, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, and if you did not know that Archbishop Nichols’s church is deeply mired in a child abuse scandal, you would not learn it from this book. And he produces an oddly splenetic couple of pages about a lecture given in Lynchburg, Virginia, by Richard Dawkins, whom he describes as “the Ayatollah of Atheists”.
Dawkins’s offence, it seems, was his reply to a young woman student who asked him: what if he was wrong? He told her that if she had been brought up in India she might have been a Hindu instead of a Christian. What if she were wrong, and the Hindus were right? “There’s no particular reason to pick on the Judaeo-Christian God, in which by the sheerest accident you happen to have been brought up, and ask me the question: what if I’m wrong? What if you’re wrong about the great Juju at the bottom of the sea?” It’s a straight answer to a straight question, and I could not make out why Moreton described it as “the intellectual equivalent of a seal cull”. It seemed so out of place in this coolly humorous book that I sought out the lecture on YouTube, to see if Dawkins sounded like a bully. He didn’t, in the slightest. He was answering politely a series of sometimes quite hostile questions. I know of no religious leader who would treat atheists with half as much respect.
Moreton sees all that is absurd and plain destructive about the Church of England, but that teenage evangelical is, I suspect, only just below the surface, and to hear atheism advocated without apology makes him intensely uncomfortable. Which is why the book keeps struggling towards some sort of conclusion, but is never able to reach one. Still, it provides a good deal of amusement and erudition along the way.