Perhaps it is time for Professor Richard Dawkins to scale down his famous campaign on behalf of godlessness. His great enemy, religious faith, may not be defeated but, on recent evidence, the Church of England at least is developing a talent for self-sabotage.
That stock character of English life, the local vicar, is changing. Not so long ago parish vicars tended to be easy-going, kindly, somewhat anonymous figures. Their brand of Anglicanism was light on heaven and hell, fire and brimstone, rules and punishment. Indeed, it sometimes seemed that belief itself was optional; a muzzy sense that there was probably something beyond human life was enough. Those who criticised the Church of England for lacking fervour and precision were missing the point. It was precisely the lack of passionate certainty which appealed to the English.
Now a new type of vicar, representing a more aggressive and vigorous Anglicanism, is among us. He not only sees himself as a key member of the community, but expects to be treated as such. For him (women vicars are invariably less afflicted with ego), the churches where he presides are like a somewhat exclusive club where he makes and enforces the rules. Those occasions when religious floating voters turn to the church – weddings, baptisms, funerals, Christmas – are no longer moments for inclusiveness and quiet recruitment. They are an opportunity for triumphalism and division.
Propelled by a powerful sense of his own importance, this new kind of vicar is increasingly evident in the media. A few days ago, the Rev Ed Tomlinson from the parish of St Barnabas elected to post a few thoughts on what he called “the death of death” on his website. When his views were reported in the mainstream media, he first expressed his dismay that they had been publicised beyond his blog and then – of course – blamed the press.
His original complaint was that “priests are no longer in demand” and have been replaced at funerals by a “humanist provider or ancient crumbling cleric who will do as told”. Even when the Rev Ed was invited to take a funeral, the ceremony was often a disappointment. “I have then stood at the Crem like a lemon, wondering why on earth I am present at the funeral of somebody led in by the tunes of Tina Turner.” He found it sad that all that many could hope for was “a poem from nan combined with a saccharine message from a pop star before being popped in the oven with no hope of resurrection”.
The point here is not that the vicar is a tiny bit of a snob (nothing unusual there) but that every syllable he writes reveals an iron certainty in his own rightness, even a sort of contempt for the non-religious world.
This hard-eyed attitude towards those who have “no hope of resurrection” contrasts starkly with his own sense of moral superiority. Christians like him, he writes, “still have the gorgeous liturgy of the requiem mass to look forward to”.
Setting aside the weirdness of a man looking forward to hearing the music at his own funeral, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that a message of haughty exclusion is being broadcast here. “Whenever I consider humanist funerals (or hotel weddings, come to that), I am only ever reminded of these words from the scripture, ‘Forgive them for they know not what they do.'”
For a vicar, contemplating a funeral service of which he disapproves, to invoke Christ’s words on the cross no longer seems a surprise. The church to which he belongs, once a welcoming and inclusive faith, has become self-important, defensive and censorious.
A shared pleasure in pain
Not so long ago, the idea of human beings knocking each other around in the name of personal pleasure might have been regarded as something of a sophisticated taste – the kind of thing mostly enjoyed by night-of-shame Tory MPs. Last year’s High Court case involving Max Mosley helped to bring masochism into the mainstream. The judgement in favour of the plaintiff seemed to support his argument that his hobby was “harmless and private and even funny”.
Now two of our best-loved dysfunctionals seem to be taking a similar line. Announcing to the world’s press that he had written a song for Amy Winehouse while in jail, following a shackling case, Boy George revealed that the two singers share a taste in music. Their favourite song was “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)”, written in the early 1960s by Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Down the years, that song, with its pay-off line “He hit me, and it was good”, has been something of an anthem for domestic abusers, but it may have a rival when Boy George’s song for Amy is released. It is called “Your Pain Makes a Beautiful Sound”.
The scales have fallen from our plates
Aristocrats from the world of food – Michelin-starred restaurateurs, gastro-celebrities, food critics – like to make the right environmentally responsible noises in their public pronouncements. It turns out that, in the case of most of them, there is remarkably little substance beyond these green emissions.
To coincide with the TV premiere of The End of the Line, a haunting documentary about the decline of world fish stocks, the environmental writer Charles Clover, on whose book the film is based, has been looking into the attitude of top restaurants when it comes to endangered fish species. The website www.fish2fork.com reveals the sad truth. Nine out of 10 restaurants are still serving at least one “fish to avoid” from over-exploited stocks. Several Michelin-starred names were among the worst offenders, cheerfully serving up blue tuna, Atlantic halibut and caviar. Marked out for particular criticism was J Sheekey of the Caprice Group.
It seems the restaurant provided confusing information as to the sustainability of its fish and may have been serving endangered species.
As for the rest us, it seems that there is a lengthening list of fish we should avoid eating. At one of the launches for The End of the Line, Mr Clover was asked for how long it would be responsible to eat any kind of fish. Five years, he said. If there was no improvement by then, it should be off the menu. Depressingly, the European Union emerges as a far worse culprit when it comes to protecting fish stocks than America.