Leading Article: Powell stirs but does not shake

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'YOU cannot be a Christian and quite grown up,' George Orwell once wrote. But he was not a Christian. One of the surprising things about the theological ructions of the past 30 years is that all the participants, Christians and spectators alike, have behaved as if Orwell were right. The charge brought against dissenting theologians, from John Robinson to David Jenkins, has not been that they were wrong, or speaking untruths, but that they had overstepped the boundaries of Christian piety.

The sophisticated attitude in these debates was to assume that Christian faith was an intoxicating blend of truth and piety in the same proportions as a Martini is a blend of vermouth and gin, and that too much bitter truth would wreck it.

The form of the ritual hardly changed over these years. Some Christian intellectual - preferably a bishop - says or writes something that seems incompatible with Christianity to unbelievers who have never thought what a Christian truth might entail. He is then pilloried by outsiders to whom the duty of a Christian intellectual is to believe (just in case they turn out to be true) the propositions that a grown-up is too sophisticated to entertain seriously.

Yet when Enoch Powell - a Christian intellectual if ever there was one - suggests that the crucifixion never happened, and that Jesus was buried in a common grave and not a tomb at all, the generally temperate reaction suggests that even in August the British can no longer get heated about the subject.

What has happened? The answer may be that Christianity is now discussed as if it might be true, and not as if it would wither like Tinkerbell in the face of disbelief. This is part of the gradual process of disestablishment in its wider sense. Mr Powell was born and raised in a Britain where Christianity was part of the nation's definition.

Christianity in modern Britain is very different. No one is forced to pretend an interest in the subject. It follows that those who do care about it do so as adults, attentive to reasonable criticism. In fact, their beliefs have been strengthened by criticism. Which now looks the more grown-up: Christianity, or Orwell's public-school stoicism?