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.
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.
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.
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
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.