Let’s start with the following statement of belief from the archbishop:
Despite all the attempts of Christians to scurry away when faith is equated with belief without evidence — in Boghossian’s terms, pretending to know things they don’t know — when push comes to shove religious faith is stated in terms of such belief. That’s why some things can contradict faith, and why churches and church leaders are waging a constant battle with those who govern. Sometimes, no doubt, they get it right, and oppose things that should be opposed in the name of justice and right; but, with the religious, this is only a chance occurrence, since their primary allegiance is to the basic religious beliefs upon which their faith is grounded. Whether faithfulness to such beliefs promotes justice or injustice is not much more likely to happen than the actions of the Mafia, who also have their codes of honour and sense of fair play.
This comes out clearly in the case of the present occupant of the See of York, the Primate of England, as he is sometimes called, to distinguish him from the Primate of All England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a curious historical contingency which we do not need to address here. The Archbishop of York may think that the kingdoms of the world will become the kingdoms of god and his christ, but meanwhile he is beavering away trying to undermine the kingdom of god and his christ from within by lying, which is against one of the commandments which the archbishop no doubt numbers one to ten, the ninth of those things prohibited by his god.
A few days ago the Archbishop, widely touted to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury, in an interview with the Telegraph (a portion of which you can listen to here), said that in the House of Lords the bishops supported civil partnerships. This claim, however, Iain McLean, over at the Guardian, has shown to be false. The custom amongst public figures is to court plausible deniability, and even this the archbishop cannot do. So, while Iain McLean may call the archbishop’s claim false, it would be more appropriate to state it without ceremony as a lie. But he doesn’t only lie, the archbishop deliberately downplays the significance of “civil partnerships,” saying rather blandly that he believes that “friendships are good for everybody,” while claiming not to do so. For one does not need a law to establish friendships. Laws governing relationships are meant to confer rights, and the archbishop, in his deceitful way, deliberately overlooks this question of rights, and speaks instead in riddles, obviously having thought about this carelessly, and with malice.
As he said in the interview, according to Martin Beckford, Religious Affairs Editor for the London Telegraph:
Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman … I don’t think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is. It is set in tradition and history and you can’t just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are.
We’ve seen dictators do it in different contexts and I don’t want to redefine very clear social structures that have been in existence for a long time and then overnight the state believes it could go in a particular way.
It’s almost like somebody telling you that the Church, whose job is to worship God [will be] an arm of the Armed Forces. They must take arms and fight. You’re completely changing tradition.
The analogy that the archbishop uses is unconscionably stupid. Nor is it obvious that an institution, governed by law, cannot be changed overnight by those responsible for keeping the laws up to date and just. Of course, it is completely changing tradition, but so what? When gay people were no longer criminalised: that was a complete change in the tradition. Nor is the propose change at all like making the church an arm of the armed forces. It is simply broadening the conception of intimate human relationship to include gay men and women, people who have been victimised by church and society for too long, and, as the archbishop’s prejudices clearly indicate, are still being victimised by the church, which, for reasons past understanding, is thought to be the guardian of morality. If Sentamu finds the intimate relationships of gay and lesbian people repulsive, he should just say so, instead of doing a song and dance about what it is possible to do with the word ‘marriage’.
Of course, the Roman Catholic Church is playing the same game of claiming that governments not only have no right to change the definition of marriage, but that it is impossible. Marriage means a relationship of a man and a woman, period, and the language itself prohibits change. But of course this is a palpable falsehood. Language does not prevent change. It is changing all the time, as should be very obvious to anyone who has followed the fortunes of the word ‘gay’ over the last few decades. Here’s Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, and head of the Catholic Church in England, on the subject:
(To be fair, this is an edited clip of the archbishop’s words, which may be followed in full here.) The important point, however, is the last one. It is simply untrue to claim, as Vincent Nichols implicitly does, that families composed of gay couples and their children are unfit places in which to bring up children. Put Nichols soft-spoken and apparently reasonable remarks in the context of the closure of Catholic adoption agencies, because of their unwillingness to place children with gay partners, and it will become much more clear why gay marriage is in fact necessary in order for gay people’s rights to be recognised. Civil partnership is not sufficient, because, by design, it excludes such relationships from the category of the family. They are, as Archbishop Sentamu so clearly states, friendships, not family partnerships, and it precisely this that Christians are denying when they claim the inability of the state to change the definition or meaning of the word ‘marriage’. The Catholic Church has all sorts of organisations devoted to marriage and the family, and it is the yoking of marriage and family that they want to deny to gay people, by denying the right of gay people to marry. By threatening David Cameron and the Tories with a Catholic revolt at the ballot-box (see here) the Catholic Church is getting involved in politics in a way that should be opposed by all those who oppose theocratic rule.
All of this is more fuel to my fire. At the back of my mind is the church’s constant opposition to assisted dying, and the continuing attempt by practically all religiosu institutions to mislead people by speaking in terms that make it seem as though supporters of assisted dying are commending the kind of flagrant disregard of human rights practiced by Hitler and the Nazis. The spokespersons (most of them spokesmen) of the church sometimes lie, as John Sentamu is shown to have done. More often the approach is subtler, but just as devious and deceitful. They say things such as words spoken by N.T. Wright when Bishop of Durham in his 2008 Easter Sermon when characterised “secularists” as cynical fantasists in this way:
We create our Brave New World here and now; so don’t tell us that God’s new world was born on Easter Sunday. Reduce such dangerous beliefs to abstract, timeless platitudes. The irony is that this secular utopianism is based on a belief in an unstoppable human ability to make a better world, while at the same time it believes that we (it’s interesting to ask who ‘we’ might be at this point) have the right to kill unborn children and surplus old people, and to play games with the humanity of those in between.
This is really just as dishonest as John Sentamu’s lie. No one supposes that progress is unstoppable. We see it stopped everyday by the religious and the greedy. Wright’s words get their purchase by belittling humanity and its attempts to make a better world, as well as from using emotion-laden terms like “unborn children” and “surplus old people”, when there are perfectly good English words that denote the stages that developing human life goes through before babies are born, and no one but people like Wright thinks of old people as surplus. That’s his idea, foisted cynically on those with whom he disagrees. Supporters of assistance in dying certainly think that old people as well as younger people have a right, in reasonably defined circumstances, and under controlled conditions, to bring their lives to an end — not because these people are surplus, but because they have a right to make this decision for themselves.
In other words, religious people don’t only pretend to know things that they cannot possibly know, they also base, on such pretences to knowledge, rules which they think should govern all of us in our living, and in our dying, believing that they have a prerogative right to claim what governments may and may not legislate, what is and what is not acceptably moral, what should and should not bind everyone, whether they are party to the religious pretence to knowledge or not. This is what I oppose with all my heart. I do not want to be governed by someone else’s pretence to knowledge. I want to be able to govern myself, and for others to be able to govern themselves, by our own best judgement about what is true and false. It is high time we got rid of these lying prelates, and that we told them, without equivocation, that they cannot know what they pretend to know, and that we do not want to be governed by their imaginative fancies about other worlds and the rewards or punishments that they imagine await us there. I recall as I write these closing words of this post that it was St. Bernard of Cluny who wrote the words to the hymn “Jerusalem the golden,” while at the same time denouncing the search for happiness in this world at a time when Europe was awakening from its long sleep of faith.
Jerusalem the golden,
with milk and honey blest,
beneath thy contemplation
sink heart and voice oppressed:
I know not, oh, I know not,
what joys await us there;
what radiancy of glory,
what bliss beyond compare!
Like an early N.T. Wright, Bernard condemned those who sought a richer life here and now, and bade us keep our eyes firmly fixed on the goal of the Christian, that Omega Point, as Teilhard de Chardin called it, when as Sentamu says, the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of god and his christ. We’ve been waiting too long for something that will never come, something that has misled us and misdirected us for centuries. And since the furtherance of this goal takes not only self-deception and pretence, but also lies, we are better off seeking to provide as much fulfilment as possible in this life, than to live our lives always in anticipation of a world of which we can have no knowledge, and from which only our own words can be parroted back to us, even as the religious pretend that they are divine.