ALL of us will have seen TV news stories logging the massive national demonstrations of support for the victims of the Orlando shootings. But how many of us were checking to see how more local vigils were organised, by whom, and how appropriate they were? Or, as in the example I outline below, how inappropriate, opportunistic and dominated by those whose views lead to such events in the first place?
A few days after the Orlando shootings, the local gay group sent supporters a picture of a rainbow flag at half-mast in the cathedral gardens, along with an invitation to a Saturday night Orlando vigil at the cathedral.
How nice to see professional Christians– for once – trying to do the right thing.
Or was it? And were they? I had my doubts, and forwarded the picture to my humanist group’s Facebook page with the quip “business as usual the other 364?”
Some discussion followed, in which the church worker who’d posted the original invitation (who turned out to be a pleasant, if naïve, bisexual activist) joined in, with some saying that we should give churches credit for doing something. I disagreed, passionately, citing the way the Anglicans, along with every other local religious organisation, had responded to a 2014 government consultation on equal marriage with bile that went way beyond the usual quoting of Leviticus and on to worries about spreading AIDS and paedophilia.
Incidentally, the following Monday, Robert Paterson, the bishop who presides over that cathedral, was at a General Synod held behind closed doors in York to sort out Anglican divisions over sexuality. It was held in such secrecy that only other participants know for sure what he said. But as one of three bishops appointed in 2011 to review the wording of the C of E “pastoral statement” on civil partnerships ( a little matter this usually voluble church leader completely forgot to share with his flock ), and a known opponent of same sex marriage, it is a safe bet that whatever he said would bring no comfort to the gay community. In addition, this was a clergyman who earlier in his career, according to a thread on the liberal Thinking Anglicans website, once sacked a celibate gay curate and was one of only two bishops in the C of E Synod to vote against extending pension rights of civil partnered clergy.
Knowing this, the sudden concern for the wholesale slaughter of gay people, while commendable, seemed a little dubious, and the knowledge that an openly gay person was now employed by an institution which had never been anything but homophobic was puzzling.
How could all this be?
Not being a “person of faith” I have not the foggiest how their funny little minds somehow reconcile the many outright contradictions of their church teachings. But if I worked for the organisation which campaigned for people of my sexual orientation in African countries to be executed (then condemned as “un-Christian” the presidents of those countries for blocking such legislation) I would think twice about organising an event to mourn the victims of some religious freelancer who couldn’t wait for a government to do the job.
But it has always been my contention that to understand any policy of any religious organisation then the last thing to do is trawl through their tortured, cod-philosophical public statements. All you have to do is follow the money and, as in this case, a more likely explanation reveals itself.
For a few years now the major Christian denominations have sought to deal with the loss of direct income from their dwindling customer base by jumping on the heritage bandwagon. They do have a lot of historically significant –possibly irreplaceable – buildings, which has allowed them to claim public funds to maintain them. A similar cash cow was the legal loophole which allowed churches to reclaim taxes on church repairs. But these funding sources can only be tapped once, and in addition there is growing public resentment at government money being used to prop up increasingly irrelevant, impractical and unused relics.
A newer solution has been to “re-invent” the church as a community hub. The official Anglican website even devotes considerable space to encouraging clergy and church parish councils to put in bids to run public or community amenities which are being privatised or closed. For example, there have been projects to run village post offices and shops – even pubs.
Governments have also positively encouraged religious groups to dominate the so-called “third sector” as social services facilities collapse. In my area the Methodist church now has a local government monopoly over support services for older people – with disastrous results. In effect, the only older people living at home with access to professional help are those referred by a fellow church-goer. Meanwhile, pensioners who do not go to church (ie the vast majority) have simply vanished from social service databases.
Similarly, having tapped every public fund going to be maintained as a “historic building”, the cathedral had the bright idea of simultaneously addressing cash flow problems and any public perception of it as the last bastion of social prejudice by rebranding itself as a 21st century local human rights education project. The plan was to create permanent and temporary exhibitions around themes like the Holocaust, which would become the focus of school trips.
Given the firm’s policies on human rights elsewhere, it seems to me the last place local kids might be bussed in for warnings about the dangers of genocide. Though unlike most locals, I actually research and worry about such things, so maybe I’m just biased.
For me, finally, this was opportunists treating a mass murder – inspired by their very belief system – as yet another chance to attract new members (and their wallets).
We are not monitoring the subtle ways in which churches slide their insidious views back onto the agenda under the pretence of “responding” to tragedies caused by prejudices rooted in their core beliefs and “helping communities to heal”. However hard professional Christians try to portray themselves as the “victims” of some wild-eyed international atheist conspiracy, however hard they try to misrepresent the term “secularism” as “anti-religious”, the fact remains that churches are still too close to governments, and use such contact to “suggest” new ways in which they can dominate (though they like to use the word “serve”) the communities who involuntarily fund them. This is a major problem.
We cannot wait for national campaigns to develop. We cannot even wait for national humanist groups to respond or give us a lead. We have to act ourselves, locally, continuously, here and now.