George Austin on friends like these

The former editor of the Today programme, Ron Liddle, was recently ‘outed’ by the Daily Mail. As a journalist and feature writer, he said he had often received hate mail, but none so vehement as that which he received after this experience. But ‘outed’ as what? Gay? A closet Blairite? No, much more serious, for it was for the ‘love that dare not speak its name’ in liberated society – he is an active Anglican churchgoer.

The BBC’s four-part series called Some of My Best Friends are… was a brief but enlightening look at how members of various religions deal with the difficulties of membership in their community of faith.

A young Catholic, committed but with problems concerning the conflict between the Church’s moral demands and his own desire to be a good and faithful Catholic, was dealt sympathetically and with understanding by the priests with whom he spoke.

For the Muslim woman, a journalist – westernized and liberated – there were difficulties about dress and about the place of women within that faith, but in the end she wept with emotion. For the Jewish woman, Anita Land, it was a search for an answer to the question, ‘What does being Jewish mean?’

With a Jewish father and a mother who converted, she was brought up as a Jewish believer, and she worships at a progressive synagogue. So far as she is concerned she is a practising Jew. Her problem was that although her branch of Judaism recognizes a converted mother as providing the necessary ‘Jewish mother’, not all do and to other Jews, more orthodox, she was not Jewish at all. It was all very confusing to an Anglican.

The best moment came when she asked an ultra-orthodox woman if she minded the strict rules. It was what she had chosen – ‘and sometimes some of them make sense.’ Nor was the segregation of men and women in the synagogue a problem. ‘It’s a boy’s game – synagogue doesn’t matter much’, humouring the men as a Masonic wife might. ‘Our religion is in the home.’

It was Some of My Best Friends are… Anglican that provided the really disturbing picture. Ron Liddle was shown worshipping with his wife and children and he explained why he did so. ‘I go,’ he said, ‘because I believe in God – more or less.’ And it was part his English heritage that he wanted to pass on to his children, and it was a community activity.

But he felt that the declining CofE was not at all sure of itself. Quite unlike other faith communities it didn’t make demands – at least so far as its liberal wing was concerned. ‘I could cheerfully sodomize a complete stranger while swigging a bottle of gin, checking my usury on the stock market, and eating a bacon sandwich.’

He could express a ‘profound disbelief in the existence of God’ without any real problems as a member of the Church of England. To illustrate the point, he interviewed a rather languid priest, the Reverend David Hart, a vicar and lecturer in religious studies, asking him if he believed there was ‘something out there’ called God.

Hart thought that there might be – ‘but I no longer believe it literally to be the case.’ He went on to reject the core beliefs of the Christian faith as myths, not meant to be taken as serious theological truths. I wondered why he stayed in the job and how he taught classes in religious studies.

Bishop David Jenkins too was of little help, and it brought to mind an archbishop’s wry comment to me that often those who have most to say have least to say. I suspect that afterwards Liddle was feeling more confused than before he spoke to this particular guardian of the faith.

Liddle commented that the direction the liberal wing was moving might mean that in rejecting everything as myth and legend, it ‘might end up by killing God.’ Given the apparent Gadarene rush by that part of his church towards secularism, Liddle decided to go straight to the horse’s mouth by interviewing that guru of humanism, Richard Dawkins.

And here it became very enlightening. Asked if he thought there might be ‘something’ out there, the atheist Dawkins was suddenly the antithesis of Hart and Jenkins. He wanted there to be ‘something’ else, and when it is found it ‘will be mind-blowing’ – a ‘Something’ much greater than the Christian God or the Muslim God. It was the most extraordinary moment of an excellent programme.

After Fr Peter Geldard, who emphasized that the Catholic core is firm not fluffy (and whose face was somehow familiar), where else for Liddle now to go but to the high priest of the Evangelical revival, Nicky Gumbel? He was impressed by Gumbel’s conviction and charm but unconvinced, and so he attended an Alpha evening.

He was tongue-in-cheek about the vegetarian food but commented afterwards – admitting it might be unfair – that the whole thing made his flesh creep. He didn’t like the relentless happiness and could not accept Gumbel’s certainty any more than he was helped by the confused rejection of the faith of his earlier interviewees.

He ended by attending a session of the General Synod, without saying who had suggested he might find the Christian faith there. Standing in the foyer of Church House, he had his final conversation – with none other than the Bishop of St Albans, who appeared ready to welcome all views! (I don’t like exclamation marks in what I write, but think there I just cannot avoid it.)

Herbert was absolutely charming and friendly, and said he was proud of the Church of England’s openness to change and development in its theology. He liked John Betjeman’s description of the Church as having a ‘faint conviction’, a phrase that Liddle had earlier called an ‘oxymoron’ – a good word since in Greek it means ‘pointedly foolish’.

It was only after Bishop Herbert had ended that one realized he had in reality said nothing at all. And that is surely a major part of the problem the Church of England now faces, dominated as it is by a strongly liberal and revisionist leadership.

Ron Liddle pointed more than once to the declining numbers of practising Anglicans and to the possibility that the end was nigh. I was left with the feeling that orthodox mainstream members face the duty to which Shakespeare pointed:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

The time for a cautious silence has long gone, hoping against hope that it may never happen. It is happening and the faithful must speak up whatever the cost.