Justin Welby and now the Pope supporting gay rights: Trendy vicars, your time has come at last

Welby leads the way - but Pope Francis is taking baby steps in the right direction

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In case you haven’t read the fashion pull-out in the latest parish newsletter, let me be the first to pass on the good news: Trendy vicars are bang on trend. The energetic young clergyman or woman in a colourful woolly jumper was once a BBC sit-com trope or a bogeyman for conservative churchgoers. Now, apparently, they're running the show.

True, Justin Welby is yet to deliver a sermon in rap form, but in the months since he was installed as Archbishop, he’s rarely been off the ball. He’s offered opinions on every trending topic from welfare reform to City culture and now he’s taken a stand on payday lenders. This week Pope Francis, leader of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, took his own baby-steps into the 21st century when he told an informal press conference. “You should not discriminate against or marginalise [gay] people, and the Catechism says this as well.”

To many, Pope Francis’s words will be a maddeningly overdue statement of the obvious. Is it bad to discriminate against gay people? Is the Pope a Catholic? Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was unimpressed. He dismissed the statement as “a change of tone…but not a change in substance.”

It’s to be hoped a change in tone might signal a change in substance, but still, Tatchell’s cynicism is not unfounded. Most religious organisations keep time with an internal clock about four centuries behind GMT. This slow pace of modernisation goes a long way to explaining why 64 per cent of British 18-24 year-olds are not affiliated to any religion. It also suggests why it would be unfair to dismiss the views of church leaders as a merely superficial attempt to seem ‘with it’. Any decent comms manager would consider this too little, too late. And anyway, they didn’t have comms managers in the Middle Ages.

Politicians may consider a Church that comments on the welfare of the poor or City culture an unwelcome interference, but that’s not because the comments themselves are radical. Jesus’s thoughts on rich men, camels and needles are well-known. If they now seem even more relevant than they ever were in 1st century Galilee, that’s hardly Justin Welby’s doing.

The trendy vicar might fancy himself down with the kids, but his strength isn’t radicalism; it’s a determination to connect the Church, and all its members, with the outside world. Other vicars nibble victoria sponge during parish tea; trendy vicar gets his teeth stuck in to the issues of the day.

Why should Britain’s non-church goers care what religious leaders say on social and political matters? Because when no mainstream political party is willing to stick up for the poor and disenfranchised, here are a few major organisations that can step into the breach. So, godly and godless, let’s put aside our differences and hold hands for a verse or two of Kumbaya. Unlike the third Sunday after Pentecost, the trendy vicar’s ascendance is a church event we all have cause to celebrate. 

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