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A Church at War by Stephen Bates

03 Nov

Guardian Unlimited Books | By genre | Review: A Church at War by Stephen Bates

I am now well into this, the second of last week’s borrowings from Surry Hills Library. Subtitled “Anglicans and Homosexuality”, it is a fascinating and generally judicious read. Occasionally Bates comes across as a touch snobbish, but also as totally humane. His account of the biblical and traditional view of the subject is very enlightening. He can be waspish, but in this case it is well-merited:

The Church of England was in an anxious state in 1987, still at war over women’s ordination… and under attack from Margaret Thatcher’s government, which appeared to see eye to eye with the Church of England over very little and was not afraid to say so. The prime minister, who had not volunteered in the Second World War herself, took umbrage at the behaviour of Robert Runcie, an Archbishop of Canterbury who had won the Military Cross, who insisted on praying for Argentinian dead after the Falklands War in 1982. His idea of Christian forgiveness was not hers.

Then when the church produced a report discussing the plight of the inner cities, another ministerial bruiser and his allies in the press could think of no better counter-argument ro its findings than to denounce it as a Marxist document. Its bishops were told in no uncertain terms that they should shut up about social issues, which were no concern of theirs, and stick to God, so long as He busied Himself only with non-contentious and preferably conservative matters of moral discipline…

John Howard is Margaret Thatcher in drag, as we know. The Guardian reviewer concludes:

It is not only the “unchurched’, who play no part in this often incomprehensible war, who will profit from this insightful account: it is also essential reading for the people in the pews. As Bates points out, many are unaware of what their self-appointed champions are doing in their name. In a way that some of the Old Testament prophets might have approved, he is lobbing his own hand grenades of straight-talking and historical fact into the fray. We will have to wait to see the full impact.

In The Age (Melbourne) Muriel Porter commends the book as “required reading for every thinking Anglican.” I would go further, and commend it to any thinking person interested in the role of religion in our society and in the destructive forces of reaction that so mar these first years of the 21st century. “The book bears all the hallmarks of the best of journalistic writing. It is carefully and clearly structured, from the pithy overview provided in the opening chapter, to the chronological unfolding of the key events in the story. A reader who may know little or nothing of Anglican polity, let alone the background to the current shameful battle, is drawn effortlessly into the narrative, buoyed by Bates’ crisp, uncluttered writing style.”

Yes, it is a very good read too.

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