Of course, we can’t lose sight of how deeply serious the situation is

Hullo Brian, hullo Sue. You know, in a very real sense, it’s quite a turn-up for the books to see our local politics, usually so dully parochial, make headlines as far away as Italy, Spain and Australialand. Not altogether surprising, though, since the Robinson affair has all the elements of great literature or drama – sex, power, money and religion – all tied together in a story that a fiction editor would dismiss as hopelessly far-fetched. It’s all too easy to picture Iris as a modern-day analogue of Blanche DuBois or Emma Bovary. I just hope Larry Flynt isn’t planning an adaptation…

I know I’ve been saying we need to follow the money – and the unveiling of Ken Campbell as a DUP donor points to further investigation of the party’s cosy relationship with developers – but I want to take a little time here to muse on the moral aspect. Because that’s what’s propelled the story into the headlines, and what’s continuing to stoke public interest, and there are a few interesting questions worth teasing out on those lines.

There are a number of reactions I’ve been getting from my unscientific soundings of opinion. There’s quite a bit of sympathy for Peter as the wronged party, which is worth mentioning in itself as he isn’t the easiest person to warm to by any means. Did he not have his own ethical questions to answer, it would be extremely easy to cast Iris as the Scarlet Woman, the Eve who gave him the dodgy apple. Meanwhile, opinion amongst older women seems to be evenly divided between those who find Iris’ dalliance with a teenager to be a bit icky, and those who are busy planning their outing to the Lock Keeper’s Inn to catch a glimpse of Kirk.

One of the more intriguing views I’ve heard is that Iris is a misunderstood woman. She is obviously, the argument goes, a strong-willed and spirited woman, and a woman of that temperament who found herself married to somebody like Peter or Gregory or Willie was always going to chafe against what was expected of her. Iris, who is nobody’s idea of a meek hausfrau, had grown up in a fundamentalist culture that very much values the idea of the meek hausfrau. Even Eileen Paisley, who is nobody’s idea of meek either, has never had the brashness that typified Iris – Eileen, while a substantial and much-loved DUP figure in her own right, has always been content to let Ian have the spotlight and reputedly felt Iris’ style to be a bit vulgar and pushy.

Now, let’s turn to the issue of morality, because this is interesting from a leftist point of view. Most people in Britain, if they’ve heard of Iris Robinson before now, would have done so in connection with her views on homosexuality, which is perhaps why the lefty and feminist blogs I’ve read have usually taken the nasty bigoted woman comes a cropper lmao approach. Well, schadenfreude is fair enough, but let’s tease this out a little.

Marxism has never really developed much of a theory of ethics – there is a bit of one centred around labour relations, but it doesn’t work very well for matters that aren’t related to the workplace. Marxists don’t believe in the concept of natural law, nor do they believe in utilitarianism, so that leaves a bit of a gaping hole on moral, ethical or cultural issues. So what you actually get with a lot of Anglophone Marxism is an exploitation theory of labour, which doesn’t explain much outside of a very narrow field, a concept of oppression largely taken from the anti-colonial movement, plus a sort of sixties-style Roy Jenkins permissive liberalism. This is where Peter Hitchens gets things wrong, by treating sixties liberalism as an offshoot of Frankfurt School Marxism and therefore part of the great communist conspiracy; it would be more accurate to say that, to a large extent, Marxism has adopted the ideas of radical liberalism. I don’t say this in a condemnatory way, just as a point worth discussing.

So, what would a leftist say about Iris Robinson, leaving the money out of it and concentrating on the sex? There is a sort of default position, the kind of thing Tony Benn always says in these situations, that people’s sexual behaviour isn’t political, and it’s a distraction from the real issues. Therefore, we shouldn’t really be interested, even though we are. And, from a permissive liberal standpoint, it’s hard to argue that she’s done anything wrong.

A thoroughgoing sexual liberationist, or a particularly bold contrarian, might fancy the idea of Iris as a transgressive, potentially emancipatory figure who has challenged fundamentalist sexual mores. There are two problems with this. The one is that, since Iris is a moral conservative, even reactionary, it’s hard to link her to any sort of sexual liberationist discourse. It’s doubly hard given that she is not boldly staking out her position, but is deeply penitent.

Finally, the most consistently used charge is that of hypocrisy – how dare she castigate gays while at the same time being guilty of the sin of adultery? Up to a point, I take it. But there’s a problem here, in that she may indeed be hypocritical, but many of those charging her with hypocrisy are doing so in bad faith. Ian Paisley or Pastor McConnell may fairly charge her with hypocrisy, but if you yourself don’t believe in the sanctity of marriage or the family unit, aren’t you holding her to a standard you don’t believe in?

What I think is worth doing is looking at Iris’ transgression in terms that she, and those around her, would understand. You see, you may not believe in sin, but Iris certainly does – indeed, Pentecostalists are not just about banging tambourines, but have an extremely vivid and dramatic concept of the physical reality of Sin. And if you don’t grasp how these people think, you can’t grasp why they do and say what they do and say. In any case, I take the phenomenalist approach that just because something doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of study.

But, sticking to the sin question, there’s an interesting divergence, theological in origin but filtering through into the culture, between Catholic and Calvinist approaches to sin.[1] Catholic thinking of course holds that there is such a thing as original sin, but one is not permanently in a state of sin. When you’re baptised you become innocent. However, sin being a chronic aspect of the human condition, you’re bound to fall into sin again at regular intervals. The Catholic Church having had nearly two thousand years to turn its hand to socially useful answers to these problems, it’s got the trifecta of confession, penance and absolution.

It’s important to note that this is a social, indeed a public, affair. Theologically speaking, the priest is the intercessor on behalf of God – the honest broker, if you will – but in ecclesiological terms also represents the community of Christ. The process involves confessing your sins to somebody, somebody who can make an assessment of them and respond to you, and it’s theoretically possible – though in practice it’s almost unheard of – for the priest to say no, your sins are so serious that they aren’t forgiven. And penance is important as an outward token of your repentance of your sins.

Calvinism – which is the theoretical framework of Norn Iron fundamentalism – operates a system that is not unlike the Catholic one in its basic concepts though it works out very differently in practice, and again I’d recommend Turgon’s piece for more detail. The departure point is that once you’re saved all your sins are forgiven, but again, you keep falling back into sin and are constantly in need of repenting your sins. But there is no intercessor – the middleman is taken out of the picture in favour of the believer’s personal relationship with God. The Calvinist universe scorns things like the ritual of confession with the same lofty disregard as it scorns incense or icons. If you fall into sin – which can be anything from losing your temper to having an impure thought to committing murder – you have to ask forgiveness directly of God, via the medium of prayer. And, if you sincerely repent, you will be forgiven.

This is the conceptual universe inhabited by Iris Robinson. Having committed the sin of adultery, she has to seek forgiveness of both God and Peter. Since God can see directly into her heart, it’s arguable that Peter would be the tougher proposition. Getting yourself right with the Lord and regaining the trust of those around you are quite different tasks. The fundamentalist’s relationship with God may be a personal one, but that’s not to say there is no social aspect – peer pressure in the fundie community can be both intense and severe, drawing on Calvinism’s steely attitude to sin, and that peer pressure is ultimately the only safeguard against some Jimmy Swaggart type who falls from grace, repents and then falls again six months later.

And this, you see, is where important cultural differences come in. We know of the much-discussed phenomenon of Catholic guilt, and its attendant vices of glibness and hypocrisy. Less discussed is Calvinist guilt, the result of setting yourself an impossibly high moral standard and being directly accountable to the Almighty when you inevitably fail to live up to it, thus leading to an existential crisis. This may explain, and of course I’m generalising wildly here, why the stereotypical Catholic lie is all about evasion and fudging, with at least an attempt at verisimilitude, while the Calvinist lie can be shocking in its blatancy – lying your head off, not least lying to yourself, being a reflex reaction to the existential crisis. That’s why I find it striking that Calvinist ideas, while not irrational in their own terms, and originating in a rationalism critique of baroque Catholicism, can so easily open the door to quite wild irrationalism.

And so (putting on the cod-psychological hat) if you have highly emotional people, brought up in a culture that views sin in such vivid colours, finding themselves having committed quite serious sins and then compounding those sins by covering them up over an extended period – that’s the sort of background that could almost be designed to provoke psychotic episodes.

[1] Here I have to enter the usual caveat about Irish Catholicism, which consists in large part of sub-Calvinist Jansenism with a strong admixture of folk religion, and often has quite a loose connection to orthodox Catholic theology.

St Alfonzo’s pancake breakfast


If there’s one thing I find fascinating about Pope Benny, it’s not his theology – although his writings are impressively crunchy, and his book on Jesus in particular is well worth your time – but how he’s developed his own political style since taking over as Pontifex Maximus. JP2’s rock ‘n’ roll papacy was always going to be a hard act to follow, and not a great deal was expected of Benedict, partly because of his natural reserve and partly because he’d spent so long holed up at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith acting as JP2’s theological enforcer. Those of us who take an interest in these things may have noticed that, while Wojtyła was rooted in a very Polish mystical tradition – which reminds us that Catholic Poles are not as far removed from Orthodox Russians as they might like to think – Ratzinger’s background was firmly in the German rationalist school. But like I say, that’s a matter for theology aficionados.

Over the last few years, though, we’ve got a better idea of Benny as a political operator. This doesn’t always come through in media coverage – especially in Britain, where Catholicism usually only features in the news in relation to abortion, an issue that’s infested by Catholics pretending not to be Catholics (the ProLife Alliance) and non-Catholics pretending to be Catholics (‘Catholics for Choice’). Church politics as such doesn’t get much intelligent coverage, which is perhaps why Benny’s establishing himself as a reformer has gone largely unremarked.

More important, though, is a conceptual fallacy whereby most commentators equate reformism with liberal reformism. It seems impossible to grasp that one can be theologically orthodox – and if you aren’t theologically orthodox, you won’t get to be Pope in the first place – and still be a reformist. In fact, Benedict has racked up quite an impressive track record of cracking down on malfeasances in the Church although, in his characteristic style, he isn’t very ostentatious about it.

Take a look for a moment at this atrocity:


Now, you will probably be saying to yourself, “What are those guys doing waving around a naan bread on a giant pair of BBQ tongs?” This is a Corpus Christi procession in the Austrian city of Linz, and is supposed to be the bit where the Host is paraded on a monstrance. In fact, it isn’t a naan but a focaccia, although I’m willing to bet focaccia is still an illicit substance. What were they thinking? “Hmm, we’ll just get some bread-type stuff and stick it on the end of these tongs – it’ll do just as well…” That’s the sort of muddled thinking one would expect from the C of E, but more of them later.

Benedict, of course, is a great enthusiast for raising the overall liturgical standard – although in the German-speaking lands he may have his work cut out – and apparently the Austrian bishops’ ears were burning after the Focaccia Incident became known. But the disciplinarian aspect goes well beyond slapping down instances of liturgical silliness. Luke Coppen lists quite a number of significant moves, in an article worth quoting at length:

Consider the following incidents, most of which have been widely reported but are rarely linked together:

The Maciel affair: In May 2006 Pope Benedict took the highly unusual step of ordering one of the world’s best-known priests to retire to a life of prayer and penance. His decision followed a Vatican investigation into allegations that Fr Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi movement, was a sexual abuser who had fathered at least one child.

Investigating America’s seminaries: Not long after his election Benedict XVI oversaw an apostolic visitation of seminaries in the United States. The investigation was inspired by the clerical sexual abuse crisis of 2002 and covered all schools of theology as well as college-level seminaries, houses of formation, and academic institutions that form future priests.

Scrutinising American female religious orders: The Pope has also ordered a wide-ranging investigation of American women religious. The apostolic visitation of institutes of women religious in the United States, which is currently underway, covers approximately 400 apostolic religious institutes of women and approximately 59,000 women religious. It is likely to lead to a shake-up of American female religious life.

Deposing the leader of an African Church: Earlier this month Pope Benedict accepted the resignation of Archbishop Paulin Pomodimo of Bangui, the most senior Catholic cleric in the Central African Republic (CAR). The resignation followed a visit to the CAR by a papal emissary, Archbishop Robert Sarah, secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, in March. It is widely thought that the Pope requested the archbishop’s resignation because he tolerated priests keeping mistresses.

Calling for a thorough accounting of abuse in Ireland: Also this month Pope Benedict called for a profound examination of the state of the Irish Church following a damning report into “endemic” abuse in schools run by religious orders.

Crisis talks with the Austrian bishops: And this week Pope Benedict held an emergency meeting with the leaders of the Austrian Church. The gathering followed the appointment and subsequent resignation of Gerhard Wagner as auxiliary Bishop of Linz and reports that priests in senior positions in the diocese live with mistresses. The Pope reminded the bishops of “the urgency of going deeper in the faith and the integral fidelity to the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar magisterium of the Church” – a coded message that the Austrian Church is in serious need of reform.

These events together show the determination with which Pope Benedict is confronting the gravest scandals in the Church today. They have all had considerable publicity, but nevertheless have not created the perception that Benedict XVI is a bold reformist pope.

So why, despite the accumulating evidence, is Pope Benedict not regarded as a reformer intent on ridding the Church of wrong-doing?

Some suggest it’s because in mass media terms a “reformist pope” can only mean a pontiff who takes a progressive stance on hot-button issues such as priestly celibacy, contraception and women priests. They argue that the kind of reforms Pope Benedict is pursuing – enforcing celibacy, cracking down on liturgical abuses and investigating radically progressive American nuns – simply don’t fit the existing media stereotype.

There is some truth in that. But there are other factors at work:

1) The geographically disparate nature of the reforms makes it difficult for observers to connect them together;

2) Many of the investigations are carried out in strict secrecy with severe ecclesial penalties for anyone who breaches confidentiality. This means that neither media nor the wider Catholic public ever know precisely what is going on.

3) Pope Benedict rarely mentions the investigations in public and, if he does, speaks in coded language that only those already in the know will understand (see, for example, his ad limina address to the bishops of the CAR where he discusses the need for reform of the priesthood).

I think Luke makes a persuasive case there. To reiterate, anyone expecting a liberal Pope endorsing the nostrums of the Guardian or Channel 4 News is likely to be waiting a very long time, but it’s well within the abilities of a traditionalist Pope to shake things up, root out abuses and tighten standards all round.

But the big news of the moment is, of course, this new Apostolic Constitution that’s aimed at disaffected Anglicans. I’m still not sure what to make of this, whether it’s an utterly brilliant manoeuvre or it will turn out to be completely pointless. But the thrust of the matter is the establishment of a Personal Ordinariate under which umbrella Anglicans will be able to accept the authority of Rome whilst maintaining their established practices. This has already been given a trial run on a smallish scale in the United States, where there are quite a few traditional Anglicans who are deeply pissed off at the heretical modernist leadership of the Episcopal Church USA and have despaired of trying to coexist within the same organisation. What the Personal Ordinariate amounts to is something that was considered by the late Cardinal Newman, the establishment of an English Uniate Church, equivalent to the various Byzantine-rite formations within the RCC, or indeed the Lebanese Maronites. (Although previous pontiffs may well have thought the Maronites more trouble than they were worth, the same way English Tories came to look on the Ulster Unionists.)

It’s at times like this that I turn to Damian Thompson for some pithy observations. I have my worries about young Damo, not least his recent foray into Mussolini territory, but he knows his religious onions and is particularly good on the C of E. Quoth Damo:

The truth is that Rome has given up on the Anglican Communion. With one announcement, the Pope has given conservative Anglicans a protected route to union with Rome – and promised that, even once they are members of the Catholic Church, they will be offered a permanent structure that allows them to retain an Anglican ethos…

The Vatican would not use the phrase, but this is very close to the setting up of a “Church within a Church”. Yet that is not as unusual as it might seem: Eastern-rite Catholics have their own liturgy and church structures, and in America a small number of ex-Anglicans use service books that borrow from the Book of Common Prayer.

In point of fact, Benedict is offering traditionalist Anglicans more than the Canterbury communion has felt able to do. Within the C of E, the usual procedure has been to spend years debating these issues in General Synod and then to come out at the last moment with some convoluted proposal for a “third province” or “flying bishops” or suchlike. Now, there’s a firm offer from Rome about a long-term haven. What’s also interesting is the diplomacy surrounding this. There have been noises from the C of E about how poor old Rowan wasn’t told until the last moment, and this is a terrible snub. There have also, not coincidentally been critical noises from what one might term the Cormac camp within the English Catholic hierarchy. Actually, reports from Rome stress the high regard Benedict has for Rowan – I suspect the secrecy had at least as much to do with keeping the Bishops’ Conference out of the loop. Benedict will be aware that possibilities for a move of this type in the early 1990s failed thanks to the ecumenists in the BC; he will also be aware that for this gambit to work, the defectors would have to be offered something outwith the authority of the BC. Hats off to our modern Machiavelli.

And yet, and yet. These Anglo-Catholics can be awkward customers. Of those who’ve converted in dribs and drabs over the last wheen of years, many have got a hell of a culture shock – expecting some romantic world of incense, Latin and purple robes, they quickly discovered the actually existing Catholic Church in England was full of guitar-strumming, jumper-wearing priests in concrete churches. Besides, if you’re all that attached to Anglican liturgical forms, there is an outlet that can do them for you wholesale, and it’s called the “Church of England”. I can well imagine some of these High Church AngCats reacting with horror on being told they would have to ditch the Roman Missal and use the Book of Common Prayer instead.

It’s also objected, and there’s some truth in this, that those who were most likely to convert have already done so. It is also the case that quite a few of the AngCats have come to enjoy toddling along to General Synod and getting angry at the modernists, and would miss all the rows. On the other hand, there was quite a warm (if guarded) reception from Forward In Faith, and perhaps some less likely suspects might be attracted.

The departure of a lot of traditionalists would at least ease the factional situation for Rowan, although the conservative evangelicals in the C of E aren’t going anywhere, and nor are the extreme modernist trendies. But, in the end, what other options are there for the Anglican traditionalist? The Canterbury communion looks less welcoming by the year; the small Continuity Anglican formations in various countries have failed to take off; and the Eastern Churches, who could have done long ago what Benedict has just done, have been sleeping on the job as per usual. Benny has, in effect, told the Anglican traditionalists that they have to piss or get off the pot. Now they have to make their choice.

By the way, this affair has piqued the interest of our old bugbear, Titus Oates of the National Secular Society. Titus writes:

Of course, in a strictly secularist sense, the NSS should not concern itself with the internal machinations of religious organisations. If the Pope wishes to stab the Archbishop of Canterbury in the back (in a wholly ecumenical sense, of course) then that’s nothing to do with us.

Titus then, of course, goes on to fulminate at length about something he’s just said he’s not concerned about.

But wait a minute. The state is involved in this. We have an Established Church, the head of which is also the head of the State. So when the Roman Rat plays such a comprehensively dirty trick on Rowan Williams, we all have to consider whether there are constitutional implications.

Well, there aren’t. The Established Church remains the Established Church, regardless of the comings or goings of its personnel. But that doesn’t deter our friend:

Since the Holy See is at once both the government of the Catholic Church and also of the State of the Vatican City, any bishops who sit in the House of Lords who decided to opt for Rome would owe allegiance to the Holy See, which, when wearing one of its hats, is a foreign government.

Ah, it’s the old dual loyalty canard. Titus, as we know, is deeply concerned about Catholics getting into Westminster, lest they start wearing cloaks and funny hats and plotting to blow up King James. He seems less keen to level the dual loyalty charge against Jewish parliamentarians, which is probably sensible.

In other words, because there’s an established church at this end and a church-state at the other, the constitutional implications could be enormous. If half of the Church of England is going to end up under the Vatican umbrella, then can it really remain “by law established”?

Look, this is really quite simple. Those Anglicans who opt for the Personal Ordinariate leave the communion of Canterbury and enter that of Rome. It doesn’t effect the Established Church at all on the constitutional level. If Titus is attempting to argue that Anglo-Catholics defecting to Rome will, by some mysterious osmosis, turn England into a Papist theocracy, I must confess that his logic is too subtle for me.

In his anxiety to keep the “Anglican Communion” intact, Rowan Williams abandoned his own humane, liberal instincts and threw in his lot with the worst elements of bigotry within his flock. They have now rewarded him by conniving with the “Holy Father” to pile on the humiliation.

Is this humane and liberal Rowan Williams the same Rowan Williams upon whose head Titus and his mates heap abuse on a regular basis? I believe it is.

The Catholic Church in Britain is dying on its feet. And rightly so. The Church of England is already on life support, but it continues to twitch.

I suspect some wishful thinking here, but go on…

Both institutions provide a playground for some of the most gruesome and horrible people you could ever wish to meet (particularly if you are a child).

There is, you know, a reason why Catholics feel a deep anger about abuses such as were detailed in the Ryan report. That is because of the breach of trust involved, and because the guilty parties acted in contravention of the ideals of the faith they were supposed to be representing. But Titus doesn’t understand, or care about, that anger. What is more, people who loudly proclaim that celibacy is perverse and sexual libertinism praiseworthy are not best placed to attack people who fail to abide by a vow of celibacy. And again, if Titus is really shocked at homosexual priests who have a liking for teenage boys, perhaps he should speak to his pals in OutRage! who want to lower the age of consent to fourteen, which at a stroke would decriminalise much of what he’s complaining about. Or is it only immoral when clergy do it?

They argue endlessly and violently over which bell to ring and which language to say their prayers in.

Evidently our friend hasn’t heard of the vernacular Mass.

They spend their lives bowing down to the bones of a dead girl and pretending that a biscuit is actual flesh and that wine is really (that is, literally) blood.

Nor does he understand the doctrine of transubstantiation, or what the veneration of saints is all about.

And yet, throughout history, the Vatican has managed to convince those in highest authority that it is entitled to unique and unquestioned respect. Politicians and diplomats bow down to these monsters and let them get away with murder (quite literally sometimes). Whatever corruption the Vatican is involved in (and it has been involved in every conceivable immorality in its time) no-one in high secular authority (the UN, for instance) dare point the finger and ask for an explanation.

Where does the UN come into this, pray tell?

Through forming alliances with some of the worst dictators and tyrants the world has ever seen, the Vatican has managed to gain for itself a small patch of land where no international law can intrude, where no inspections take place, where no questions have to be answered. And from that protected base it stretches its poisonous tentacles around the world.

Aha, now I get it. Evidently our Mr Angry has been reading the collected works of Dan Brown on his holidays. No UN inspections can take place in the Vatican, lest they discover that neutron bomb guarded by heavily armed Opus Dei monks, while Pope Benedict cackles maniacally and strokes a white cat.

We need to ensure that the bigots and reactionaries that infest those few acres in Rome do not get a grip on Britain.

Perhaps you could form an alliance on this issue with the DUP. Although Iris Robinson’s views on homosexuality might be too ripe for our friend.

I always thought the great thing about atheism was that it was about personal freedom and you didn’t need anyone to advocate for you. Perhaps that explains why I get wound up by evangelical atheists, and keep wondering why people like Titus don’t just get themselves a hobby. In any case, religious people may feel reassured that they aren’t the only ones who get doughheads representing them – militant secularist rationalists can be as moronic as anyone else.

Rud eile: I know some readers are dying to hear my take on what’s going on with the Swips. There may be something on this in due course, but for the meantime Red Maria has the scoop.

Rud eile fós: I don’t do Search of the Week as a regular feature any more, but I just want to give a shout out to the punter who came here googling “George Osborne in school uniform”. That’s an image that’ll take a while to shift…

Lay down your wreaths and drums


Apropos of this little discussion we’ve been having recently about matters religious, it is of course true that Marxist politics have some of the qualities of religion. There are gurus and hagiographies, theology (aka diamat) and demonology, complicated formulae that have grown up over the generations only to be handed down to bemused youths, and of course schisms. Indeed, at a conference not long ago I was delighted to hear a member of Socialist Appeal expound the doctrine of Apostolic Succession. It went like this: In the beginning there were Marx and Engels, who were brilliant. Then there were Lenin and Trotsky, who were brilliant. Then there was Ted Grant, who was brilliant. And now, carrying the torch of brilliance into the new millennium, were Hugo Chávez and Alan Woods.

Now, you may read this and think, “Blimey, that Alan Woods doesn’t go in much for false modesty, does he?” And you would be right, but you would have to follow that up by acknowledging that it’s a much broader phenomenon than just that one tendency. And you may also say that, while the official Communists of old were a bit like the Catholics, the Trots bear a remarkable likeness to the divers array of Calvinist sects. (Where the symmetry falls down here is that I can’t think off the top of my head of a denominational analogue for the Maoists.) And, by the way, when I read the polemics between the CWI and the Scottish ISM during their parting of the ways, the most serious difference I could think of was that the CWI still believed in the necessity of a priesthood, while the ISM were happy enough to settle for charismatic lay preachers – although that bit them in the arse in the end.

Anyway, what I wanted to come back to was this whole issue of church and state. Now, as already stated, my preference is for the formula laid down in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This has been muddied a good deal by the sort of strident nudniks who like to take cases to the Supreme Court trying to get “In God We Trust” removed from dollar bills, but the meaning is relatively straightforward. In revisiting Jesus’ injunction to render God and Caesar their respective due, it means that there is no established religion, nor does the state interfere in the religious sphere.

This, it seems to me, is a better reference point than the French concept of laïcité, rooted as it is in the Jacobins’ fondness for having the state dictate religious matters. It also has the edge over the distinction (though not radical separation) between church and state in Catholic political theology, sketched out by Augustine and elaborated by Aquinas, which consistently defends the church against state interference, but does in certain circumstances favour the existence of an established church, which is why de Valera’s 1937 constitution failed to win papal approval. (Orthodox political theology is different in origin, deriving from the history of the Byzantine Empire, but has ended up in a not dissimilar place.) You may think that the interference of the state in the church is something that belongs in the bygone era of the Tudors, as recounted in the classic Carry On Henry, or you might think of its residue in the English body politic as a quaint irrelevance, given that half the people in the Church of England don’t even believe in God. But it’s a more widespread issue than you’d think.

Take China. In mainland China, the Catholic Church as such isn’t allowed to operate legally. In its place, you have something called the Patriotic Catholic Association, which agrees with all the policies of the Chinese government. Moreover, its bishops are appointed by the Communist Party, in the exact same way that the Communist Party decides which Tibetan peasant child is going to be the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. The main difference is that the Chinese Catholics, lacking the sexy exoticism of the Tibetan Buddhists or their rock ‘n’ roll leader, have so far avoided the dubious pleasure of having their cause taken up by Richard Gere or Sharon Stone. As a result, it’s usually only readers of the Tablet who get to hear about their plight.

But surely that’s China, and you wouldn’t get something like that in a modern European democracy? Well, maybe Montenegro isn’t exactly your model European state, but Milo Djukanović’s pirate republic has been rather interesting on the ecclesiastical front. This results from Milo’s campaign, since he broke from his mentor Slobodan Milošević and sought out US-EU sponsorship, to prove that Montenegro is a totally distinct nation and nothing to do with Serbia, honest guv. The campaign, whose broad outlines will be familiar to students of JV Stalin’s nationalities policy in the 1920s, has ranged from the adoption of a swanky new flag to the promotion of pseudo-historical theories about a mediaeval kingdom of “Red Croatia”, to importing linguists from Zagreb (where else?) with the aim of codifying local dialectalisms into a separate Montenegrin language – a sort of Balkan equivalent of Ulster Scots. But one of the big obstacles in his way has been the total loyalty of the local Orthodox church, both clergy and active laity, under the leadership of the formidable Metropolitan Amfilohije, to the Serbian patriarchate.

On the other hand, there were a few handy precedents in the region. During the Second World War, the Nazi-Franciscan regime in Croatia created a “Croatian Orthodox Church”, with a defrocked Russian priest at its head, to try and create a sort of patriotic religious outlet for those of the troublesome Serb minority who resisted conversion to Catholicism, thus rebranding them as “Croats of Orthodox faith”. That the original initiative comprehensively failed to take off did not deter some of the more enthusiastic Croat nationalists of the 1990s from thinking the idea might be worth reviving. A much more respectable precedent is that of the Macedonian church, whose declaration of autocephaly in 1967 (after a little arm-twisting from the Yugoslav government) may have been of dubious canonicity but was at least proclaimed by the legitimate bishops of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia, and enjoyed broad popular support. And so, in the context of Djukanović’s Kulturkampf, it has been no surprise to see the emergence in recent years of a “Montenegrin Orthodox Church”, with a defrocked priest pressed into service as “Metropolitan” (not a single legal clergyman having been willing to defect), and a congregation composed, to the extent it exists at all, of communists, Muslims and Albanians. Nonetheless, the spurious organisation does seem to have plenty of money, and political and police protection for its various provocations. Note that all this is taking place, not in an Anthony Hope novel, but in a contemporary European country that’s being considered for EU accession.

Let’s return to the British context, and we can see that New Labour retains a positively Tudor liking for sticking its oar into matters spiritual. Mr Tony Blair’s declarations about how the Pope has to reform and modernise (evidently he’s never heard of the Catholic Modernists) is just the tip of the iceberg. One may also mention the Blair government, in correctly lifting legal barriers against gay adoption, further legislating to prevent Catholic adoption agencies from adhering to Catholic moral teaching – with the fulsome support of the Grauniad liberals, who are quite happy to use one (“progressive”) minority to bash another (“reactionary”) minority. And this, mind you, from a government that has handed over hundreds of state schools to faith groups – but then, that’s a popular move with those middle-class parents who are prepared to fake religious devotion in order to get little Jimmy into a good school. One could write a whole book on the confusion, dissimulation and hypocrisy involved. And the latest instalment is Hazel Blears touting around her ideas about how the Muslims should run their religious institutions – demanding, for instance, that imams should preach Friday sermons extolling the glories of British democracy. You don’t have to be a mad mullah, or any kind of Muslim, to find this sort of thing outrageous.

Well, Mr Tony parading his religiosity, when any real Christian would have some concept of acknowledging his sins, is one thing. Another thing entirely is this compulsion that militant secularists seem to have – not content with a separation of church and state, an awful lot of them seem driven to seek the church’s subordination to the state. And there’s a great deal of this on the left, amongst people who seem to think that the Roundheads, the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks represent some kind of best practice in terms of dealing with the religious. When I say there are a lot of puritans on the left, that’s not just a comment on sexual mores – there are not a few Puritans in the historical sense, people who would ban Christmas if they thought they could get away with it.

I think it’s about time the militant secularists learned to take a more relaxed view of things. Like I say, the secular programme, in the narrow sense of a separation of church and state, is something I have no problem with. What makes me a little nervous is the (dare one say religious?) zealotry some secularists have. It’s as if the very notion that people in this world hold differing beliefs from them drives them haywire – it’s not enough for them to simply be atheists, they can’t rest until any trace of religious influence is expunged from the earth. The results can be simply annoying, as when Professor Dawkins or Dude Hitchens indulge in rhetoric based on the premise that anyone who isn’t an atheist is irredeemably stupid. Or, in some cases, they would be worrying if these folks were on the verge of taking power. There are few enough people left, one hopes, who subscribe to the idea of the one-party state. Perhaps the conceit of the “atheist state”, with accompanying implications for those who don’t subscribe to atheism, should also be consigned to the circular file. You don’t need to be a master of dialectics to know that an exaggerated rationalism can easily turn into irrational fanaticism.

And you don’t even want to get me started on Decent rationalism. Then again…

Weird science at Stormont


Hullo Brian, hullo Sue. You know, in a very real sense, I’m slightly irritated by this campaign in the Grauniad to get secularists and atheists onto Thought for the Day. It may not be so bad, I suppose, if they were putting on serious thinkers with something to say who just happened to be atheists. But, all things being equal, opening the God slot to atheists means Radio 4 turning to whoever volunteers, which means evangelical atheists. And I would be not inconsiderably annoyed if those bozos at the National Secular Society managed to muscle in, since their whole purpose is to say “Religion! Boo!” They’re entitled to do that of course, as long as they do it on their own time. Trying to claim a quota of an already small amount of religious programming seems a bit off to me.

We’ve also got the Darwin anniversary at the moment. I really enjoyed Attenborough’s defence of Darwin the other week, but we can expect to see plenty of Professor Dawkins, who sort of encapsulates a lot of the problem I have with evangelical atheists. One thing that winds me up is his reliance on easy targets. I’ve never yet seen him debate a serious theologian, but he is extremely fond of heading over to Kentucky to wind up some inarticulate hillbillies. He also has this touching belief that the way to make the world a better place is to hector religious people and try to browbeat them into becoming atheists. Yeah, that really worked in the Soviet Union.

There’s also the evidential question, as in the vulgar materialist assumption that science has disproved religion. No it hasn’t. It may have made religion intellectually unnecessary, but as Attenborough understands and Dawkins doesn’t, science can’t prove or disprove a metaphysical assertion. No, where science does come into play, and where Dawkins is very good, is when religious fundamentalists make daft assertions about the physical world. This is trespassing on science’s territory, and science is perfectly within its rights to give the trespasser both barrels.

Which brings me to Stormont, where the occasional sighting of Jocko Homo should be of interest to evolutionary theorists. From today’s Tele:

A DUP Assemblyman has urged one of Northern Ireland’s biggest museums to ‘balance out’ a forthcoming exhibition on evolution with a display about creationism.

The Ulster Museum is to run a series later this year on evolution and fossils, which is expected to incorporate the work of naturalist Charles Darwin, whose birthday 200 years ago is currently being celebrated.

Darwin’s views on the theory of evolution and natural selection shocked the worlds of science and religion when first published.

However, North Antrim MLA Mervyn Storey has called for a creationist exhibition to be run alongside which explains the origin of life according to a literal reading of the Genesis account in the Bible.

“All I’m saying is that there should be a balance because there are other views out there,” Mr Storey said.

“There are people who have a different view to Darwin on creation.”

Mr Storey, himself a proponent of creationism, said that he was entitled to express his views on the subject.

“I believe in creationism and intelligent design, I don’t believe in the theory of evolution”, he said.

Mr Storey also said that a failure by the museum to reflect the views of “other people” could raise the possibility that a legal challenge may be launched under equality legislation.

The museum, which is due to reopen later this year following a major refurbishment programme, responded last night with a statement which read: “The Ulster Museum… will house galleries and exhibitions of international significance interpreted in line with excellent scholarship and research.

“Within the permanent science galleries we will explain the conventional scientific theories internationally accepted by scholars and scientists to describe life on earth from the earliest evidence of fossils.

“This is consistent with approaches taken by museums of renown across the world.”

Mervyn is chairman of the Assembly education committee.

In related news, the environment committee has passed a vote of no confidence in Sammy the Streaker, but the rules of the peace process mean the minister stays in situ until Robbo decides otherwise. But I’m very taken, not for the first time, with the comments boxes which are placed at the bottom of Telegraph articles and allow the Ulster populace to speak they’re brane. Here are a few genuine comments:

One day history will show us that ‘climate change’ and the whole CO2 bunkum is a farce. Bona fide science knows this already. Mr.Wilson is to be applauded for his views on the matter and for not following the morons who have fallen for the baised and skewed reporting of the true facts about the fallacy that is man-made climate changed which we have rammed down our throats by government.

At last a minister with a BRAIN, we should give him a medal as big as a frying pan.

Regardless of whether MMGW or AGW are fact (which I dont believe they are) Mr Wilson is to be commended. Why – well, for having the intellectual rigour and conviction to make a stand, for one. To me, the harsh reality is that these ‘climate’ issues are a stage for wanna-be communists, champange socialists and ultra-left liberals, who would like nothing more than to put severe restrictions on the daily lives of everyone, believers (of MMGW/AGW) and non-believers alike.

If we dont collectively waken up we may find ourselves under the cosh of a regime of our own making.

You disagree? Think about it, we’re already in a surveillance driven state, CCTV everywhere, fines for not having rubbish sorted, massive databases of personal information, an overbearing government, etc, etc, etc. Put the pieces together, what could be more perfect than the impending threat of climate carnage as a vehicle for society wide control, huh?

Think, think, think, people, or should that be sheople ?

On second thoughts, maybe we should bring Dawkins over here. Isn’t public understanding of science his job description?

Some more thoughts on Jesus-based government…

In keeping with our recent religious theme, and Iris Robinson’s stated belief that it’s the job of government to enforce the will of God, I couldn’t resist this column from Newton Emerson in the Irish News. Brilliant stuff. Preach on, brother:

Why is nobody playing Iris Robinson at her own game? Consider the alleged Word of God from Genesis 11:7 “Let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

This could easily be portrayed as biblical support for an Irish language act. A west Belfast Gaeltacht is also strongly suggested by Psalms 55:9 “Destroy, O Lord, and divide their tongues: for I have seen violence and strife in the city.”

A requirement for public sector bodies to communicate in Irish is even set out specifically in Esther 1:22 “For he sent letters into all the king’s provinces, into every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language, that every man should bear rule in his own house, and that it should be published according to the language of every people.”

Mrs Robinson might reply that these passages require equal funding for Ulster-Scots but that is certainly not the case according to Proverbs 20:23 “Divers weights are an abomination unto the Lord; and a false balance is not good.”

Would Mrs Robinson really defend an abomination? The following verse from Judges 16:25 is also worth quoting in full.

“And it came to pass, when their hearts were merry, that they said, Call for Samson, that he may make us sport. And they called for Samson out of the prison house; and he made them sport: and they placed him between the pillars.”

This obviously commands Stormont to build the Maze stadium, complete with its associated conflict transformation centre at the prison hospital. The reference to “Samson” could be misinterpreted to mean locating the stadium at the old Harland and Wolff Welders ground instead but a closer reading of the text (“they called for Samson out of the prison house”, “he made them sport” and “between the pillars”) reveals that God just wants the steelwork for the stadium to be fabricated in east Belfast. The scriptural parallel is so uncanny that you can almost see why some people believe this stuff, even if you cannot see why they then generally ignore it. Perhaps Mrs Robinson could enlighten us all on this question after she cuts the ribbon on that restored H-block.

For the faithful, the message of Isaiah 9:7 is similarly unambiguous “Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever.”

There could hardly be a plainer instruction to devolve policing and justice powers, except perhaps Exodus 18:26 “And they judged the people at all seasons: the hard causes they brought unto Moses, but every small matter they judged themselves.”

Mrs Robinson might find it equally difficult to support her party’s line on rural planning policy, unless she is prepared to dismiss Second Chronicles 2:9 “Prepare me timber in abundance: for the house which I am about to build shall be wonderful great.”

Jeremiah 29:5 is even more direct. “Build ye houses, and dwell in them.”

DUP opposition to an environmental protection agency could bring divine wrath down upon God’s chosen people, according to the warning in Exodus 7:18 “And the fish that is in the river shall die, and the river shall stink; and the Egyptians shall loathe to drink of the water of the river.” Is this what Mrs Robinson really wants for Ulster’s own lost tribe of Israel?

Worse still for the Strangford MP, academic selection appears to be damned by Deuteronomy 1:39 “Your children, which in that day had no knowledge between good and evil, they shall go in thither, and unto them will I give it.”

Mrs Robinson could face spiritual problems over her luxurious Castlereagh home, second London home and £86,000 Stormont and Westminster salary, as according to First Timothy 6:10 “The love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”

In a recent Sunday newspaper interview, Mrs Robinson revealed that she has a chandelier in every room, calling to mind Matthew 25:3 “They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them.”

However, it is First Timothy 2:12 which might give the first minister’s wife most pause for thought. “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” Amen.