Oliver Cross: Church needs to rise above the bishop issue

MY mother used to say that she didn't believe in God but she did like religion, specifically as expressed by the Church of England.

She liked 'proper' Victorian hymns, traditional choirs, the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible and verbally abusing vicars.

What she didn't like was the way the vicars, after she had harangued them about the non-existence of God, the uselessness of the modern prayer book and how hymns sung by drippy girls with tambourines made her want to vomit, would say they quite understood her point.

My mother didn't want understanding, she wanted a fight and the rational and reasonable wing of the C of E was entirely the wrong shop for her. She would have had more fun with the Taliban.

Being a radical atheist to the left of Richard Dawkins, I don't take sides in religious matters, but I was depressed by the news that three Anglican bishops, appalled by the possibility of women becoming bishops, have switched to being Catholic priests.

Firstly I find it baffling that, among all the wrongs of the world, the issue of bishops' genders should assume such importance – mind you, that's probably just me. I realise that if I were a narrow-minded sectarian bigot with no sense of perspective, I might see things differently.

But the worst thing is that this issue threatens to destroy the Church of England, or at least to diminish it until it becomes an irrelevance – well, OK, even more of an irrelevance.

We forget (probably because it all started about 500 years ago) that the Catholic-Protestant divide has provoked immeasurable slaughter, repression and misery and it was only relatively recently that relations between two branches of the same religion became anything like brotherly. It seems they quite forgot what they were fighting and burning people at the stake for and united in just being nasty to humanists.


Which is where my mother comes in; belligerence seems to be part of what it means to have a religious affiliation. I know that nobody's gospel instructs people to start fights, but fights get started all the time among – in that awful Blairite phrase which makes my fists twitch – the faith community.

Fortunately, this is England, where we've finished our slaughtering, rather than the Balkans, the Middle East, southern Asia or any of the many places where your pious neighbour might decide to blow your brains out on religious grounds, but really I think we should be rising above all that sort of thing; I would like to tell the rebel Anglican bishops, not that they'd listen: 'Grow up boys – and remember your history'.

I'm also very keen for the Church of England to survive, not because it's any of my business but because it offers a sloppy, soft-centred alternative to potentially murderous religious fundamentalism, which seems to be accelerating daily as if there's a competition on.

My sister, years ago, asked me to be godfather to my new nephew and I, being very dutiful though frequently misguided, felt obliged to tell the C of E vicar in a hesitant English way that I was, er, not really religious, in fact I was, um, a bit of an atheist really…sorry.

"No problem" said the vicar, explaining that there was nothing in the rules saying that godfathers had to be Christian, although, when I heard the baptism service, I realised this was only because it was so obviously central to the whole palaver that nobody had thought to spell it out.

Still, we didn't start a fight over it.

Use it or lose it

LAST week, I'm ashamed to admit, I joined the library... the shame coming from the fact that I was not already a member.

I used to love libraries more than anywhere; I found I could get through the drudgery of the weekly shopping round so much better if I knew my last call would be to the library.

Then, even before putting stuff in the freezer, I would spread my new books on the table and decide which order to read them in, although a lot of them never got read because you can afford to be wasteful when things are free.

I'm not sure how I lost the library habit. Charity shops, more money in my pocket and engaging bookshops like Waterstone's probably had something to do with it, but now, as a poor old early retiree, I'm back shuffling along the shelves while coughing consumptively and smiling in a non-threatening way at the nice young lady librarians.

Actually, the nice young lady librarian who dealt with my rejoining application caused a bit of a stir when she whispered something to me in such a confidential and professional manner that I didn't catch a word of it.

'Pardon', I said, my hearing impeded by a head cold, and she whispered it again…and again and again until it got loud enough for me to hear: 'ARE-YOU-A-PENSIONER!'

I mean, modern libraries are about dispelling that dry, fusty image and exchanging the latest information technology, but shouting in a library still gives quite a buzz, particularly if it's a librarian doing the shouting.

Another reason for joining your local library is the danger that you'll lose it. Like parks, libraries are a prime target for cuts because they are not, strictly speaking, essential and the rich don't need them. They are just civic treasures which enrich us all, but who cares about that?

It can't have been easy performing alongside Postlethwaite

ON Tuesday I went to see the very upsetting film In The Name of the Father at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds.

The showing was in tribute to the late Pete Postlethwaite, and was preceded by a short talk from Liz Rymer, former director of the Leeds film festival, who remembered him visiting the Picture House in the mid-1990s and winning everybody over with his friendliness and unpretentious charm.

Although the film, about the wrongful conviction of the Guilford Four in the 1970s, told a terrible and often violent story with a lot of shouting, Postlethwaite, as the gentle middle-aged innocent Guiseppe Conlon, didn't really do much apart from make himself achingly poignant and expressive while scarcely moving a muscle.

Poor Daniel Day Lewis, who gave a brilliant, energetic and highly-charged performance as Guiseppe's son Gerry, had to work twice as hard to make the same impact, which just shows that acting isn't fair, although I don't think that counts as one of the world's more pressing problems at the moment.


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