Saint George Orwell would be better

Geoffrey Wheatcroft says the Church of England's list of those it deems holy borders on the absurd

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OF ALL CHURCHES or religious groups on earth at all times, has there ever been one as lovable as the Church of England? Or as absurd?

The dear old C of E's latest wheeze is an enlargement of the Anglican calendar, its quasi-equivalent of sainthood. A list of 70 names has been proposed to the General Synod. Strictly speaking (but then when has the C of E spoken strictly?) they won't be saints in the sense of St James or St Bartholomew so much as somewhat admirable people. The Bishop of Chichester, Dr Eric Kemp, put it well when he said that the chosen names represented "a comfortable, moderate standard of holiness" rather than heroic sanctity. For that very reason, the selection says a great deal about the Church of England today.

If the C of E has a guiding principle, it is even-handedness and a desperate eagerness to be fair, to "meet people where they are"; not to say an incurable tendency to be all things to all men. The list of would-be almost-saints reflects this to a fault. It includes churchmen (to use that word in its traditional sense of lay members or supporters of the Church of England) such as Samuel Johnson and CS Lewis. But it is also self-consciously ecumenical.

Cardinal Newman is there, perhaps the most famous defector from Canterbury to Rome since the Reformation, along with Pope John XXIII and the recently murdered Archbishop Romero of El Salvador. To balance them are representatives of Protestant dissent such as George Fox, the Quaker, and William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army. To round off we have English worthies such as Florence Nightingale and William Morris.

If this were the Roman Catholic Church, we would now embark on an elaborate and gruelling procedure. When someone is proposed for beatification as a "Blessed", which is rather like probationary membership of the MCC, and then for full canonisation as a saint, a department of the Curia swings into action. Quantities of submissions are sifted and evidence of miracles - a necessary condition - is tested.

None of which applies in the C of E. One of the defining tasks of the Reformation was to sweep away the great army of saints that the medieval Catholic church had accumulated, many of them of dubious sanctity, or even of reality, along with the superstitious cults which surrounded them. The Thirty Nine Articles specifically condemn "the Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration as well of Images as of Reliques, and also the invocation of Saints", as "a fond thing vainly invented".

The C of E reduced its calendar of saints to the bare minimum, the red- letter days associated with the earliest, scriptural age of the faith: Annunciation, Ascension, the Apostles. Later on, the Established Church did make some additions, but these were frankly political, and in terms of modern Anglicanism, frankly politically incorrect.

Days were set aside for King Charles the Martyr (that is Charles I) on 30 January, the day of his execution, for the Restoration of Charles II on 29 May, and, of course, for the defeat of the Papist Conspiracy on 5 November. Charles the Martyr was indeed the nearest the C of E came to canonising one of its own: there are two English parish churches dedicated to him. But now that ecumenicism is more in fashion than the divine right of kings, those won't do. But what to do instead?

Because it still canonises saints and martyrs, the Catholic church has encountered difficulties that may loom for the C of E. Edith Stein was a German Jewish girl who became a Catholic and then a nun and was murdered in Auschwitz. The proposal to canonise her has led to objections from some Jewish groups; in a scornful and unhappy phrase, a British rabbi has called her "a turncoat Jewess". With more justice, there have been Jewish objections to the canonisation of Queen Isabella, a heroine of Spanish conservatives and the woman who expelled the Jews from Spain.

Does this problem seem far-fetched in the context of the synodical lists? Taking traditional even-handedness beyond parody, two of its names are Ignatius Loyola and Martin Luther. Does it not seem just a little curious to choose Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, the Pope's "shock troops", leaders of the Counter Reformation against the Protestant movement?

And Martin Luther, inter alia, was the author of Against the Jews and their Lies, which described the Jews as "our plague, our pestilence, our misfortune!" and recommended that they should be driven out "like mad dogs". No, that doesn't sound like the sort of chap the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Oxford are looking for as a way of meeting people where they are. Perhaps the Synod was confusing him with Martin Luther King.

Other candidates show equal carelessness, or plain ignorance. Florence Nightingale rejected formal Christianity, and William Morris rejected religion altogether. Ecumenicism is all very well but, if the godless are to be represented, we may as well have Marx and Freud.

One of the saddest things about the poor old (or poor new) C of E is its lack of intellectual and literary distinction compared with its past. Think of Bishop Berkeley the philosopher; of Gilbert White the naturalist, and for light relief, though genius too, the Rev C L Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll. Clergy all of the Established Church, and a much more formidable selection than the Synod's choice.

But perhaps what we want nowadays is, in the phrase, secular saints. Even there, though, the C of E can do better than its rambling list of the good and great. The secular saint of our time par excellence was George Orwell. He is a byword for a certain sort of supposedly English decency, and is cited as suits them both by John Major and Tony Blair.

He was a free-thinker, it's true, and he hated the cruelty and mental tyranny too often associated with religion. But Orwell was also an incurable English sentimentalist, whose last wish was to be buried "according to the rites of the Church of England". Wouldn't Saint George be a better start than the Synod's limp and amorphous collection?

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