As in roses, so in ex-Archbishops. The sweet smell of a rose, Shakespeare reassures us, will survive a name-change, and Lord Carey’s buffoonery has survived his ennoblement just as successfully. Today, in a ceremony as predictable as the feast it purports to defend, the provisional wing of the established church has once more trotted out its tired old message. Sounding just like my son’s Warcraft video game with its cry of, “We are under attack!”, the Lord Carey marshals his paranoid troops in the annual defence against an enemy every bit as mythological as the religion he so fervently believes to be the butt of sinister forces bent on its relegation to the sidelines of our national life.
With his causes célèbres of Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin, cruelly prevented by British Airways and the NHS respectively from wearing their crosses at work, and the odious Gary McFarlane who decided that his conscience was more important than the needs of his clients at Relate, the apoplectic bishop bemoans that Christianity is being treated as an irrelevance, and its dethronement irks him mightily. Along with these aggrieved individuals, we have the full panoply of all the rest of the “winter lights”, “Season’s Greetings”, and “watered down or non-existent Nativity plays”. He is wrong about all of it.
Wrong that cases such as the three individuals cited above have anything to do with “air-brushing” Christianity out of our public life. They have to do contractual obligations, uniforms, health and safety. In some cases, health and safety is applied too zealously, or uniforms are fetishised too strictly, but it’s got nothing to do with religion in general, and certainly nothing to do with Christianity in particular. At least Lord Carey seems to have refrained from the particularly pernicious lie that such restrictions “would never be applied to a Muslim”, although Mr McFarlane was unable to resist coming out with it on Radio 4 this morning.
Wrong that winter lights and festive trees have replaced the Christmas equivalents in town centres and municipal events. I’ve come this very evening from the turning-on of the Christmas tree lights in Manchester, the switch having been thrown by the Deputy Lord Mayor aided and abetted by the Cathedral’s Dean and a crowd of us freezing in the street after Choral Evensong.
Wrong that the secularising of Christmas is anything to do with his lurid conspiracy theories, and wrong that Christian individuals are persecuted and obliged to hide their faith under a bushel.
Of course, he’s not wrong that Britain is indeed now a Christian society only in a vague cultural and historical sense. And he’s perfectly entitled to regret that. I do myself. Just before going to the Cathedral this evening, I went looking for an Advent Calendar. All I could find were things called “Advents”, full of cheap chocolate on the inside, and Peppa Pig on the outside. Compared to the beautiful, glitter-encrusted Nativity scenes of my childhood, these tacky objects are debased indeed. But it’s idle for me to try and blame this on some conspiracy of politically correct zealots and new atheist storm-troopers. What Lord Carey and I have to accept is that we’ve lost the battle of the 20th and 21st centuries, and that our religious faith is not shared by the vast majority of our fellow citizens. It would behove us to look to ourselves, and our churches, for an explanation, and one indeed stares us in the face. It is our failure to demonstrate that the truths we believe to be “self-evident” can be re-stated in ways that resonate with our comrades in secular society.
And that would, actually, be the more Christian response. Lord Carey seems to have forgotten one of the basic tenets of the Good News he is supposed to be declaring. The churches are called to repentance, and the time for that is now. Stop pointing the finger, my Lord Archbishop, and instead examine your conscience.