The priest character is full of doubt, constantly questioning his vocation, reluctant to preach about sin and contemptuous of those who do (evangelicals are portrayed, inevitably, as gurning bigots). It’s never entirely clear why he wants to be a priest at all. Except, perhaps, to be nice to those who undoubtedly need it.
Interestingly, Stanley quotes the well-known left-wing Anglican priest Canon Giles Fraser’s criticism of nicey-nice, socially acceptable Christianity; Fraser’s words reminded me of something the Pastrix might say. Here’s Fraser:
These gentle people with wet handshakes are approachable community figures, helping knit together the fabric of society with bingo and Sunday school. And we also want them to be figures of fun because that is how we keep religion safe.
It wasn’t always this way. Thousands were butchered during the Civil War in the name of their different understandings of God – probably the last flowering of popular religious fundamentalism in England. I suspect it was in reaction against the deep political traumas of the 17th Century that the English re-invented Christianity as something to do with kindness and good deeds.
When religious ideology got as toxic as it did, it was an act of genius to redefine religion as being primarily about pastoral care. From the 18th Century onwards, Christianity ceased to be about pike-toting revolutionaries hoping to rebuild Jerusalem in here in England.
Instead, through the Church of England, it increasingly became a David Cameron-type faith: the religion of good deeds.
“Gentle people with wet handshakes” — a devastating description. Five little words conjure an entire personality. Nobody writes like the English. Anyway, Stanley continues, riffing off Fraser’s essay:
For Christians, love is a multifaceted thing. It’s about giving, it’s about sacrificing. And it’s an act of love to tell people when they’re going wrong. Nice atheists don’t have to do that because there’s no commandment to rescue others from themselves. But we have to – and we need to do more of it. Christians should speak out against the greed of payday loan companies that manipulate people’s desperation. Against theft from the taxpayer or the political decisions that leave the disabled or children without adequate support. Against regimes that torture and against mobs that pick on minorities. Against the tide of pornography that degrades the personhood of women. Against abortion-on-demand and against an unfair society that compels so many women to seek it. Against the decline of religious tolerance as so many countries seem determined to squeeze all faith out of the public sphere. We think we are so civilised here in the West, but by Christ’s standards we are savages. Christians who fail to point out these sins are surely as culpable as the people who commit them. It is not enough to be “nice”. Sometimes nice tips over into blind tolerance; a virtue becomes a vice.
Challenging thoughts, maybe, but this is a challenging time of year. This Holy Week, we have to contemplate directly a moment when a religious leader challenged the ethics of his society and was nailed to a cross for his courage.
Read the whole thing. It’s great.
By the way, I’ve been perusing YouTube clips from Rev, and while I completely get what Tim Stanley says, the show seems like a pretty interesting take on modern parish life, even if the soppy title character is a gentle person with a wet handshake. Check out this clip showing the bishop as risk-management CEO. There’s this one about the cynical headmistress of the parish school who understands, and accepts, that the school is not a Christian institution, but rather a place for the upwardly mobile to stash their kids. And there’s the clip I’ve embedded above, in which one actually feels sorry for the Rev, who has to put up with showbiz evangelism in his church.
UPDATE: Bill Holston, who does the Lord’s work in Texas, writes to say:
I can tell you that as an agency working with torture survivors and children escaping gang violence, the only churches that are interesting in helping us do our work are more liberal congregations, and Methodists are the head of the line.
Come on, Dallas conservative Christians, y’all are my people; where are you on this? Please give Bill, your fellow Christian, a call, and find out how you can help. I’ve known Bill for years, and he’s the real deal. The stories he tells about the suffering people who wash ashore in this country having suffered gruesome tortures at the hands of their governments beggar belief. But they happened, and happen every day.