Why smugness is next to godliness

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The Independent Online
I have been looking at an advance copy of a new report from the Church of England, which I think is bound to arouse a great deal of controversy, even more so than the recent one which suggested that marriage may be on the way out. It's called Life without God? and suggests that in a very real sense Christians will be able to do without religion from now on.

Does it seem very radical? "Oh, it's not as revolutionary as you might think," says Jim Binding, Bishop of Radio 4's 'Thought For The Day' and one of the authors of the report. "After all, many vicars now in the Church of England lost their faith years ago, but it has not stopped them doing a useful job.

"Indeed, the report suggests that some of the vicars who have turned to agnosticism, or even atheism, carry out their secular duties much better as a result, as they don't waste a lot of time spraying holy water around and chanting Victorian hymns. The report also suggests that the reason they lost their faith is closely connected with their taking the cloth."

Does that mean they would have found it easier to stick to their religion if they had not become clergymen?

"Undoubtedly. The higher you rise in any profession, the harder it is to believe in its tenets. When you are a junior doctor, you are being taught ways of curing and healing every day. Senior physicians only learn how little they know after all, and how much is incurable, and how much is still to be done, and they lose their medical faith quickly. People at the top of the teaching profession have very little faith in education. And when you get to be bishop, and examine not just the nuts and bolts of religion, but also the main girders and supporting beams, you wonder how the whole thing stands up at all."

The report is not addressed to committed Christians who, the report makes clear, have a perfect right to believe in God if they choose. The target audience the Church is aiming at is that large minority in the Church, and majority in the country, who have no faith at all or who are beset by doubt. Doubt, thinks the bishop, is often healthier than belief.

"There is something static about belief and certainty, don't you think? Something rather smug and self-satisfied about a committed Christian? Of course, as a bishop, I don't meet many committed Christians, but there are plenty lower down in the Church. And I can't think of any other profession which says, We now know all we need to know and nobody can teach us anything! Well, English football has sometimes reached that state, and look what has happened to that! No, I really think that if a bunch of Christians sits around believing in God the whole time, they are doomed to extinction. They have to question their beliefs in a very real sense."

What does "in a very real sense" mean?

"Nothing. It's an expression which we senior churchmen use a lot to sound caring."

What other expressions are there like that which very senior churchmen use in order to sound involved?

"And we must never forget that. How very true. The truth wears many hats. We must keep an open mind. The church has many doors... "

Yes, well perhaps we shouldn't go down that cul-de-sac. The one thought that is going to strike many people when this report comes out is that if the Church is going to do without God, what on earth is it going to do instead? What is the justification for a church without God?

"Oh, come now," smiles the bishop in his best "Thought For The Day" manner. "Just because Rome is no longer the capital of the Roman Empire, is that a reason to pull it down? If people stop going to see films, do you pull cinemas down? No, you think of a better use for them. You adapt. God may be in a bad way, but the Church is flourishing. You may not believe in God, but there is no doubting the existence of the Church. Many of the Church's functions have nothing to do with faith at all. So we feel that it can survive without it altogether."

Even if one accepts the main drift of the report called Life without God?, there are some very curious passages in it. For instance, what about the passage attacking William Waldegrave for his part in the arms-to-Iraq affair? Is that really the business of a Church report?

"Oh, an old radio hand like me picks up a few things hanging round the Today studio to do 'Thought For The Day'," twinkles the bishop, "and one of the things you learn is that you must put in a few controversial soundbites to get any publicity. Ten to one the Today programme will be on the blower before you go."

At that very moment the phone rang. The bishop picked it up and said hello. He put one thumb up at me as I left and mouthed, World At One.

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