A quartet of notable fellows made headlines in England during January, each by staking out some interesting – and even eccentric – territories in the area of religion and society.
The Archbishop of York, Primate of England, is second (technically third) in command of the Church of England. His immediate earthly superior is the Archbishop of Canterbury. The ABC, of course, reports to the Queen who is technically the Head of the COE. Her son and heir, Charles, promises to restructure that royal role, preferring a more ecumenical position as the Head of all Faiths over his subjects, but I digress.
The current Archbishop of York is an unforgettable character. Dr. John Sentamu (pronounced: SEN-ta-moo) hails from a little village near Kampala, Uganda. He holds degrees in both divinity (a PhD) and the law. He became a refugee to the United Kingdom in 1974 after running afoul of and being imprisoned by the infamous Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
England proved not to be quite the refuge for which he had hoped. Sentamu has recounted at least eight instances, over eight years, when he was stopped and had his car searched by police (on suspicion of being black). He can also be highly amusing, as when he refers to three of England’s most prominent sweets manufacturers as “the Chocolate Trinity.” His services and special events at York Minster (it’s a Cathedral, but “minster” means that monks once lived there) are known for their contemporary aspects. He is instantly recognizable owing to his endearing gap toothed smile and colorful cutting edge clerical wardrobe.
Sentamu regularly pronounces on a variety of social and cultural issues from the need for the Church of England to reach out to black people (i.e. not to be so white and middle class), to why the young should avoid the moral pitfalls of premarital cohabitation (ref: Prince William and his now wife Kate), to the perils of removing Fathers from the process of creating and raising children (single women having artificial insemination, etc.).
His most recent public rant was on the topic of rebranding same sex civil partnerships as “marriages.” Sentamu’s position (echoed by many) is that marriage is forever theologically defined as being between a man and a woman (or several women in succession as in the case of Henry the 8th). He sides with those who believe that this sort of engrained social context cannot be changed overnight. Sentamu’s impetus for making a policy statement on shifting the language of same sex civil unions to marriage came after Prime Minister David Cameron hinted that he might be inclined to support this controversial change of terminology.
Primate Sentamu asserts that to impose a change in the language of such relationships would be a dictatorial act which amounted to overthrowing the Bible itself. He warned the Prime Minister that he would face “a rebellion” if Church of England clergy were forced to perform same sex civil unions under the category of marriage.
A marriage reform bill comes up for UK government “consultation” (translation committee hearings) in March. Civil partnerships were legalized by an Act of Parliament in 2004 without dispute from the Church of England bishops who sit in the House of Lords. File under “pending.”
The Former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, (1991- 2004) immediate predecessor to the current ABC, Rowan Williams, was ground breaking in his fashion. For a start, he attended neither Oxford, nor Cambridge (aka the old boys club). During his tenure, he had to deal with the ordination of women controversy and the reassessment of attitudes toward homosexuality. With an ear to the ground of today’s economic trends and human displacement, Carey emerged from retirement recently to speak up against the size of Britain’s national debt (£1 trillion) which he characterized as “immoral and feckless.” He rattled more cages when he declared that too many of the upper clerical classes were living in splendor while their congregations and communities too often were dealing with the realities of unemployment and its concomitant issues.
Categorizing Britain’s welfare system as irresponsible, Carey said that the UK’s benefit structure encouraged a culture of dependency which engendered a “poverty of aspiration”… “fueling vices and impoverishing us all.” Carey specifically spoke up against five Anglican (COE) bishops who are opposed to the government’s plan up to place a cap of £26,000 a year on annual benefit payments. According to best estimates, benefit cheats and fraudsters cost UK taxpayers £ 1.66 billion per year. One British pound is currently worth $1.58, so do the math.
Sir David Attenborough is internationally recognized and honored for his naturalist and environmental documentaries. His elder brother is Richard Attenborough of movie fame (Gandhi, Jurassic Park, The Great Escape). Now 85 years old, Sir David has long maintained that he is an agnostic, but he surprised the British public recently when he said that, even though he subscribes to the theory of evolution, he had to admit the existence of God is a possibility.
The Attenborough brothers have had more than their fair share of reasons to question the existence of God. Sir David’s wife died of a brain hemorrhage in 1997 and Sir Richard’s daughter and grand daughter were washed away in the 2004 Asian tsunami.
Sir David’s reputation took a bit of a hit when it was revealed that scenes of allegedly endangered polar bears, shown in his recent TV series Frozen Planet, were shot in a zoo, not the Arctic. One wonders how he was feeling after last Sunday’s (January 29th) Times of London (among many other news sources) reported that the planet was irrefutably heading for a mini ice age rather than toward Al Gore’s apocalyptic global warming scenario. The same goes for the Church of England which invested heavily in Gore’s carbon credit scheme. The moral of this story: Choose your higher powers wisely.
Alain de Botton (Religion for Atheists) is one of Britain’s famous surviving atheists. Their ranks were sadly thinned by the death late last year, from cancer, of the brilliant Christopher (God is Not Great) Hitchens. Another top British atheist is Richard (The God Delusion) Dawkins. Dawkins and de Botton have been engaged in a bit of a spat lately after de Botton characterized Dawkins’ approach to atheism as “aggressive and destructive.” In order to take atheism in a softer direction, de Botton unveiled his plan to build a 46 meter (150 foot) temple tower to celebrate atheism. Estimated to cost £1 million – half of which has already been raised – the temple would be erected in the heart of The City of London. He reckons that there is no reason for Christians to have all those beautiful cathedrals when there is no equivalent for non believers.
The planned design of the temple incorporates a timeline of life on earth (300 million years) with a roof open to the elements. Inside the tower, every 10 centimeters, there would a marker to designate the passage of one million years. A narrow band of gold toward the end of the timeline would represent the Johnny-come-lately appearance of human life on the planet. The exterior of the tower would feature a binary code which would illustrate the sequence of the human genome.
De Botton asserts that this structure would be awe inspiring and give people a better perspective on life. Dawkins says that atheists don’t need temples or other such foolish monuments. He advocates that the money for de Botton’s temple would be better spent on teaching kids to be more rational secularists. Permits are pending. If granted permission to build, construction could begin by 2013.
As these four news stories indicate, it not unusual for public figures in Britain to take a religious stand in the public square. After his years as Prime Minister of England, Tony Blair had a much publicized conversion to the Catholic faith practiced by his wife. In addition to consulting, speaking and his duties as the official Envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East, Blair has also established the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. His inspiration may explain why the British cannot seem to disengage from religion, even if they are atheists.
“Religious faith will be of the same significance to the 21st century as political ideology was to the 20th century. In an era of globalization, there is nothing more important than getting people of different faiths and cultures to understand each other better and live in peace and mutual respect, and to give faith itself its proper place in the future.”
Somebody say Amen.