theohobsonpicture-full3binit_Theo Hobson has an interesting piece in today’s Guardian newspaper. I have met Theo only once – doing a joint interview with the Today programme at the beginning of the Lambeth Conference in July 2008 – and I liked him. I have read some of his writing, but wondered at him being profiled as a ‘theologian’. He comments on religious (particularly Christian) culture, but the theological critique does not seem always to be consistent. Given his claim to liberalism, I am sure he won’t mind me questioning a series of statements he makes in today’s Face to Faith piece.

Right at the beginning, and without any supporting evidence or illustration, he makes this unequivocal statement: ‘…churches seem to gravitate to authoritarianism, and they seem unable to grasp that secular liberalism is a good thing.’ Does ‘authoritarianism’ mean ‘the wrongful imposition of authority/power in order to control’ – or does it really mean ‘churches believe things that are not always fluid and won’t change them to suit me’? Secondly, what is it about ‘secular liberalism’ (undefined) that is unarguably ‘good’ and that churches cannot grasp? Thirdly, does he not see the illiberal irony of categorising all churches as monolithic, centralised and monocultural? And we are still only on the third sentence of the first paragraph. So, let’s press on…

‘We dislike the fact that Christianity is assumed to take institutional form. If you are a Christian, the assumption is, then you will be in favour of policies that defend the interests of these institutions, the churches, which run Christian culture. This ties Christianity to illiberalism in a way we can’t accept.’ Theo, please explain the logic behind these assumptions. It seems to me it is you (not ‘the churches’ as institutions) who is setting up the churches in a way I don’t recognise as being universally true. Just take the Church of England (as just one of, and uniquely different from, thousands of other manifestations of Christian ‘institution’): aren’t the current debates in the Church happening precisely because your statement is false and your assumptions awry? If you were right, the ‘institutional church’ would have slapped down its internal ‘heretics’ and prevented other denominations or ‘churches’ from setting themselves up in the first place. (In South London new churches – mainly, but not exclusively, black majority or ethnically defined – are being established almost every week.)

And please explain how a ‘Christian church’ can define itself in a way it pleases, even if it departs from the nature of the one whose name it bears. The call for a ‘church made in my own image’ is like asking for Marxism without the dictatorship of the proletariat, the common ownership of the means of production or an uncritical acceptance of the Hegelian dialectic.

The then goes on to cite ‘faith schools’ to support his complaint. But he can only do so by caricaturing ‘faith schools’, ignoring the rationale behind them, avoiding any cognisance of how (for example) Church of England schools behave and actually understand their role. Has he ever been into one? (Come to Croydon and I’ll arrange meetings with headteachers…) Or is this just the simplistic reflex we have become used to in the schools debate where the basis of ‘church’ schools is either misunderstood or ignored because it is inconvenient?  ‘But some of us Christians are deeply uneasy about the way in which churches use education to bolster their power, and encourage phoney church attendance among pushy parents. This is horribly at odds with the sort of Christian culture we want to see.’ Not a shred of evidence: just propagation of a tired but unassailable myth.

‘The loudest voices, almost the only voices, seem to belong to atheists on one hand, and conservative church leaders on the other… People now face a starker choice of identity between “secular liberal” and “institutional Christian”. Really? So, why all the complaints from elsewhere that church spokespeople are too liberal or wishy-washy? It is clearly nonsense to say that only particular voices are heard in the public discourse – perhaps this is just the common complaint most bishops face: ‘If you didn’t write it in headlines in the newspaper I read, then you are not saying anything at all.’

Theo goes on to ‘demand’ (!) a new and alternative sort of ‘church’ capable of engaging with liberal culture. He maintains that the established (and other) churches cannot do this. Claiming (without evidence or support) that ‘all churches itch for social control’, he states that ‘a new sort of Christian culture must be attempted, away from the churches’ before admitting that he has no idea what this might look like. He also seems ignorant of the huge numbers of Christian communities now meeting outside of church buildings and opening up contexts in which Christians of all sorts of complexions engage openly with ‘liberal’ (and every other sort of) culture.

And so to Theo’s conclusion – a rallying cry to those who share his muddled ignorance and personal fed-up-ness.  ‘What do we want? We demand a new way of proclaiming Jesus Christ, one that feels authentic, contemporary. We hope that, by accepting the truth of secular freedom, Christianity can enter a new phase, in which communication with liberal people is possible, and new cultural forms emerge. Maybe, with such a new direction, this religion can recapture the imagination of the culture.’ I am speechless. Get out more and see what churches are already doing.

I hope that this article might lead to a greater debate – not about ‘institutional’ churches (what other sort can there be?), but about why the Theo Hobsons of this world are so illiberal and irrational in the assumptions they make and claims they state.

If I as a bishop made such claims – even in a newspaper article of limited length and space – without evidence or further reference – I would be castigated as arrogant, unthinking and arbitrary. So, what is it that allows others to write such unsubstantiated stuff without hearing that same charge?