If you wonder why the Church of England is haemorrhaging communicants, look no further than its two most senior prelates.
I wrote about the Archbishop of Canterbury not so long ago, but Stephen Cottrell, the recently installed Archbishop of York, complements his ecclesiastical superior perfectly.
His background is newly typical for the hierarchy of our established church. His Grace describes himself as an “oik from Essex”, who was an atheist until age 19 or so, when he saw the TV series Jesus of Nazareth and consequently the light.
Now, many paths lead to Christ, but the box isn’t widely known for acting as the road to Damascus. However, the mysteries of faith are beyond the imaginings of poor mortals.
For this poor mortal, the greatest mystery isn’t so much His Grace’s teleconversion as his current belief that “Jesus was a black man”. After all, Robert Powell, who played the title role in Jesus of Nazareth, is unquestionably, irredeemably white.
On the positive side, His Grace doesn’t seem to believe that Jesus was a black lesbian woman or, if he does, he hasn’t yet made that insight public. However, I’m interested in the one he did vouchsafe to his flock.
The archbishop matriculated at the Polytechnic of Central London, and perhaps his perception of biblical demographics was affected by the racial mix at that institution. Or else a part of his revelatory TV experience was the ability to see beyond Robert Powell’s skin to find the black man inside.
Then of course it’s possible that he has studied the Bible, patristic sources and subsequent theological literature as deeply as his post requires, which is much more deeply than I have. In that case, I for one would be grateful if His Grace were to refer us to the source from which he learned of Jesus’s negritude.
To a layman like me, Jesus was a Jew, a race that’s depicted as diabolical by some, God-chosen by others, but hardly ever as black. Even Middle Eastern Jews, which Jesus was, can’t be readily confused with, say, Jamaicans.
Yet I’m sure His Grace goes beyond chromatic incidentals. He senses, as I do, that negritude is no longer a factor of mere race but one of ideology. Black equals good, worthy and ipso facto virtuous. The syllogism is unassailable: Black is good, Jesus was good, therefore Jesus was black.
If that’s how he sees it, then one can only hope His Grace won’t start celebrating Black Mass as an extension of his parallel faith in a black Jesus.
“The world is not how it’s meant to be,” says the archbishop. “I’ve always been a passionate person and I do want to change the world.”
Again I applaud: the world indeed leaves much room for improvement. However, in my experience, passionate people who openly state such an ameliorative intent, are usually mad.
Still, one man’s experience is always limited, and perhaps His Grace does have it in his power to make the world a better place. He intends to start from his own backyard, the church.
“One of the failings the church has made has been a form of tokenism without addressing the deep systemic issues of exclusion and prejudice.” As a curative, he wants to celebrate Black Lives Matter – one hopes in addition to, rather than instead of, mass.
More than that, His Grace plans to attack prejudice with the wrathful energy of the black Jesus chasing the money-changers from the Temple. “The leadership of the Church of England is still too white,” he says, “and I hope under my watch we’ll see further changes on that”.
Actually, the man he replaced was black, which sets the church way back on the road to equality. A penitent prayer to the black Jesus is in order: not only is His Grace shamefully white, but he also drove a black man out of a job.
His Grace expresses himself with so much eloquence that one is amazed he was educated at the Polytechnic of Central London and not, say, at the University of Paris when Albert the Great was teaching there.
To wit: “But one of the things I’ve seen change in my own time has been the inclusion of women. I am very frustrated often at the pace of change, but equally I’m not going to apologise much because actually there has been such a lot of change that has been so positive. The inclusion of women in leadership has made such a difference and I’m determined to continue that with the BAME community.”
And, as you could easily guess, he’s a great admirer of same-sex relationships. In that respect he differs from bishops who earlier this year made the faux pas of stating that civil partnerships, whether homosexual or straight, “fall short of God’s purpose for human beings”.
They were simply reiterating the scriptural teaching on this subject, expressed unequivocally in both Testaments. But unlike them, His Grace knows that the Bible is woefully obsolete.
While magnanimously allowing that people with traditional views shouldn’t yet be excommunicated, he is also “thinking of LGBTQ+ Christians and their experience; I don’t want them to be disenfranchised or excluded, so we’re going to have to find a way of living together with disagreement.”
His Grace is obviously unfamiliar with the concept of hating the sin while loving the sinner. Homosexual Christians shouldn’t be excluded; but that doesn’t mean that the church should countenance, say, homomarriage, which His Grace probably does.
Still, as a firm believer in upward mobility, I’m happy to see that a man of such humble background could rise not only to the second-highest position in the Anglican Church but also to deep musical insights.
“I’ve been listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations,” says His Grace, “and they’re really interesting because you start with a basic musical line, and then it’s almost like endless variation…” So that’s why the piece is called Variations? I’ve always wondered and now I know.
Looking at the hierarchy of the Church of England, I can’t help paraphrasing the old joke: “Will its last communicant to leave please turn off the lights and lock the door.”