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Obsession with literal truth is backward

PUBLISHED: 09:00 17 April 2004 | UPDATED: 04:47 02 March 2010

TWENTY years ago the Church of England did a remarkable thing. A most extraordinary thing, considering the final decision lay with the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

TWENTY years ago the Church of England did a remarkable thing. A most extraordinary thing, considering the final decision lay with the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

It's bizarre enough, when you think about it, that the church is still so "established" that its top appointments are made in Downing Street.

Maggie obviously wasn't looking too closely - or simply didn't care much –when she allowed her office to pick David Jenkins as Bishop of Durham.

His appointment to the fourth highest position in the C of E hierarchy provided the church with an opportunity to grow up, move into the real world, have some meaning and relevance.

Instead, the forces of reaction threw up their hands, blustered loudly and chose to remain in the 17th century.

This column would very quickly run out of space if I attempted to quote much of the humane, intelligent, informed good sense spoken by Bishop Jenkins and rejected by the church at large.

Here, though, are a couple of instances to refresh your mind: "I cannot believe in a God who has no capacity for discovery, invention and creativity. If religious faith must be tied to authoritarian rejections of human development then it is hopelessly outmoded bigotry."

How eminently, straightforwardly sensible.

Or: "No statement about God is simply, literally true. God is far more than can be measured, described, defined in ordinary language, or pinned down to any particular happening."

Dr Jenkins cannot suppress a sad, disbelieving shake of the head when he considers people so simple as to believe that the words in the Bible are literally true.

People like George W Bush and millions of his supporters. People, let's not forget, like those Muslim fundamentalists Bush so demonises and who are so very like him.

People, sadly, like the present Bishop of Durham.

Bishop Tom Wright got probably his biggest congregation yet for his Channel 4 programme on Easter Monday, in which he set out to prove the historical truth of the resurrection.

He did this by visiting Jerusalem and using archaeology and "witness statements" from the gospels.

The first problem with this is that the gospels were not written by witnesses. As Bishop Jenkins pointed out, when a similar claim was made by Lord

Hailsham: "He has set aside the critical scholarship of the past 150 years about the authorship of the gospels."

More alarming, from a religious viewpoint, is Bishop Wright's assertion that if you don't believe in the literal truth of the resurrection, there's not much point being a Christian.

That's about a fifth of C of E clergy written off, for a start - including, of course, the bishop's more eminent predecessor.

There's also another danger to Christianity. If you set out to prove something, you must also accept the possibility of it being disproved.

Tie your faith to that and you run the risk of having the rug pulled out from under you.

Bishop Jenkins, with his more grown-up and intelligent faith, ran no such risk. It was the childish response of the rest of the Church to his comments that, as he puts it, brought him nearer to atheism than anything else in his life.

In the years between David Jenkins and Tom Wright the church has moved not forward, but backward.

It may be refreshing to hear one of its leader discussing a point of faith, rather than getting bogged down in bigotries against gay or women priests.

But put the whole lot together and it's no wonder England's church is now less popular or relevant than its cricket team.

AND speaking of cricket... England's Caribbean tour has surely been the most entertaining Test series since Botham's Ashes in 1981.

First the emergence of Steve Harmison as the leader of our best pace attack since the heyday of Willis and Snow.

Then three England victories as thrilling as they were unexpected.

And finally the astonishing, awe-inspiring feat of Brian Lara in reclaiming the world Test record by taming that re-born attack to the tune of 400 not out.

Phew!


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