Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary candidate for the City of Durham.
“I’m not a Christian, but thank God the church has stopped banning women from becoming bishops…” When an atheist makes ordination into a feminist issue, isn’t it a bit like a vegetarian choosing faux bacon-y bits in favour of a fresh insalata Caprese? If faith is so irrelevant these days, why does everyone care so much about it?
A recent Gallup poll suggested that 73 per cent of Britons consider religion unimportant in their daily lives. Christianity’s role as our national faith is evident in few places bar the UK’s Wikipedia page, and the Trollopey village fête. But it’s certainly not just churchgoers who’ve been jamming up the Twittersphere with Papal #Synod commentary, and joyous tears at the women bishops’ measure’s parliamentary progress.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with expressing views about something you eschew, but this level of interest is odd. Members of faith groups should rejoice when their leaders act responsibly – and complain when they don’t – but isn’t it hypocritical for atheists to get so heated? If you’re convinced that anything dependent on a god’s existence is built on a false premise, why care about religious teachings? Is it even possible to engage with them properly from a secular standpoint?
We’ve moved on since Tudor times; British Christianity is no longer a question of life and death. Our Rev-styled attitude towards the Church of England reflects the comfy teasing of a jolly, overweight cousin. Yet its very welcoming broadness and quiet strength is vulnerable to stronger attack. And confusion over the Church’s official role in our society doesn’t help. Is it because we have an established Anglican Church that we all want a say about it, regardless of our beliefs?
This establishment doesn’t mean much in practice. Yes, its bishops sit in the House of Lords, but Church viewpoints do not dictate legislation. And whilst certain ecclesiastical laws must journey through Parliament (as women bishops is this week), neither house has power to amend them – only to accept or reject, and no more than a handful have been rejected in the last century. A couple of very traditionalist priests told me in a gin bar the other night that they would consider supporting the disestablishment of the Church – but not because the state constantly dictates to them – rather because this might make their lives easier.
The Church of England works within a context bigger than our island: the wider Anglican communion and global Christianity. This can lend it the illusion of moving within a different time-zone to contemporary secular life – plodding along like some rhino, with ten rhinos on its back. And its decision-making is still tied to those rubbery old WWJD bracelets. The church attempts to reflect the light of Christ, not the fluorescence of modern society.
Women’s ordination isn’t a feminist issue. Yes, some priests and laity oppose it because they’re sexist. But it’s uninformed to suggest this is the only conscious reasoning behind opposition. Theologians have debated the topic for centuries; even if ordination was originally underpinned by the context of a misogynous age, this doesn’t leave it a simple case of prejudice in need of contemporary policing.
Interest in last week’s Papal Synod doesn’t have the excuse of establishment, and even with increased immigration from Eastern Europe, only 7 per cent of Britons identify themselves as Catholic. Catholicism might influence millions worldwide, but it’s not a totalitarian regime: it’s a faith people choose to follow. And we need to pick the right fights. Sexism and homophobia need confronting, but religious freedom is also important. We’re so quick to show our egalitarianism, that it can be hard to see past the freedom of secularity. Do people jump on the Pope’s views more than those of the leaders of countries where people are killed for being gay because the former should know better? Because his views affect people like us? Or could it be because the pull the sacred has over its followers’ lives still intrigues us?
The stridency of popular atheism cares too much about religion. There’s an atheist church with its own creed, and Dawkins’ books increasingly usurp the family bible. Do we quarrel with it because we envy the systemic way of thinking it offers its followers? Modernity leaves us so tied down in minutiae that the bigger picture is opaque. Yet most of us do want something to believe in – something to make it all make sense – like God offers the believer.
By recognising that faith doesn’t fit a secular frame, and that atheism doesn’t need to fight against it so hard – leaving the bacon for the carnivores – we can increase toleration to the point that reasonable religious teaching might not bother us so much.