Let him who is without faith cast the first stone
Religion is a difficult subject for me. I hate it - but I'm fascinated by the details of religions - liturgical, scriptural, ceremonial, even ecclesiastical - the whole lot. I feel that all religious belief is childish and weak, and I've never understood why believing you have an Imaginary Friend, and that you can pray or talk to him should make you a happier or better person. But it's the belief part I don't get: I'm riveted by the detail of the rituals you practice to get in touch with him, and, of course, recognize the genius of the artists, musicians and architects who claim they have been inspired by him and his sacraments, rules and the disputes these have caused. For all my militancy, I'm a sort of pious atheist, as my friend Dr. Jonathan Miller says we should all be.
On the other hand, there are a few things to do with religion that I can't get worked up about; and many of these have to do with the contemporary Church of England. The history of the CofE is, of course, one of the most interesting chapters in the history of church or state; but its current predicament, as it tears itself to pieces over whether it should have women and male homosexual priests or bishops, is hard for me to care about. It seems to me obvious that the answer is yes to women, because they are more than half the population; and yes to gays, because without them there would be very few Anglican clerics.
Another friend, Jane Kramer, whom I suspect of having views a bit like my own, has written a completely brilliant, compelling piece in the 26 April New Yorker, "A Canterbury Tale: The battle within the Church of England to allow women to be bishops." It's a great read for a Trollope-sympathiser such as me, who loves the messy, concrete detail of the organization of the CofE, the great sweep of history that has to be rehearsed in order to grasp these details, and the wonderfully weird turn of mind of the man who runs the show, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. I met him at dinner at an Oxford college once, a few weeks after his elevation. I then thought that the strangest things about him were that he wanted the job, and that he was wearing a sort of frock. On the other hand, the be-gowned dons didn't look all that dissimilar.
So I was genuinely surprised when, the week I read Jane's piece, I also was at the press night of a very good new play, "Love the Sinner" by Drew Pautz, at the National Theatre. I was surprised by the Antony Powellian coincidence that both the New Yorker piece and the play were about the CofE's troubles, but even that Mr. Pautz, a Canadian associated with the great Robert LePage, should think these a suitable subject for a drama.
Nonetheless, he's made a very good fist of it indeed. It opens with a locked-in meeting of Anglican clergymen (and woman) somewhere in Africa, grappling with the problem of homosexual priests. As in real life, the attitudes of the Africans are sickeningly unchristian, bigoted and in every possible way disgusting. As the rules say they must meet no person from outside their ranks, they have a very funny scene of keeping their eyes shut as an attractive African waiter, Joseph, (the marvelous Fiston Barek) brings their coffee. In the next scene we see the group's lay volunteer note-taker, Michael (Jonathan Cullen), in his hotel room with Joseph, in (temporary) post-coital bliss. Michael's married, gay and a religious nut who is destroying his business by imposing his religion on his colleagues. The play works so well because the Church's tensions are embodied in and exemplified by the individual dramas; but designer Anne Fleischle ultra-flexible set helps, too. Matthew Dunster directs a superb cast, with Scott Handy especially good as the Bishop's gofer; and Charlotte Randle as the broody, wronged wife in a doomed marriage.
The NT is holding some discussions in late June and early July about "the church's complicated position regarding sexuality" and "the cultural responsibility of the church in a post-colonial world." Both topics interest me a little. But I'd be more interested in a debate as to whether all the bishops should lose their sets in the House of Lords. (Yes, they sit there by right, and were not kicked out with the Hereditary Peers.) And for what it's worth, I think the so-called "Chief Rabbi" (he is actually head honcho only of the small minority of United Orthodox Jewish Congregations) should go first.
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