I bumped into the Bishop of Oxford in the snack money queue at nursery the other day. You really do meet all sorts in Leith don’t you? In fact his grandson (3) has proposed to my daughter (5) so we’re practically related. Which is nice because he seems like a thoroughly good egg. The grandson. And the Bishop of Oxford for that matter. I had just been reading about him, and the illuminating incident where David Cameron’s constituency office called the police on him and Reverend Hebden, for trying to deliver a petition about the 163% increase in food bank usage in the UK. Lets just re-cap shall we? The Prime Minister, who has just made a point of saying how Christian he is, and what a Christian nation this is, calling the police on two bishops for attempting to point out that thousands of people were starving. It’s very like that bit in the Gospel isn’t it, where someone goes and tells Jesus that there are five thousand people to feed and only five loaves and two fishes, and Jesus pretends he is busy in a meeting and asks some soldiers to tell them to go away. Oh no, hang on, that didn’t ever happen did it? Deary me Dave, you’ve missed the point a bit haven’t you? But maybe it’s not entirely your fault…
Not long after I met my husband I asked how on earth people like his parents and their friends square their enormous wealth with what they sat and listened too in church every Sunday. My husband was quite firm with me that you can’t really go doubting people’s faith and questioning their conscience like that. Now, those of you who know my husband will know that he is pretty irrefutably one of the nicest men in the world. I mean it’s just a given (Is climate change happening? Some people say not. Is Jeremy Clarkson vile? Not everyone thinks so. Is Hugh Fraser one of the nicest men on earth? Why of course!). So when he speaks firmly about something, you listen. If he says its unfair to suggest that rich people who go to church are hypocrites, or they are just not listening to the same Bible readings as everyone else, then you pay attention. And so that was very much on my mind when I read David Cameron’s Easter message, i.e. I can’t just dismiss it outright, I can’t actually peer into David Cameron’s heart and soul and see what his conscience is or isn’t telling him, so I had better proceed with caution.
Long before I had ever even heard of Boarding School Survivors or given much thought to boarding school education, I remember watching QI where the question was ‘Why is it difficult for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle?’. At some stage comedian David Mitchell mentioned that the eye of a needle was a gate in Jerusalem, and the claxon sounded that goes off when someone has made an obvious, yet incorrect answer. I will insert a little of the transcripts of the programme which I found here:
Stephen: Obviously, what had happened is a lot of rich men read the Bible and thought, “That can’t be right. Surely.” So there are two get-out clauses. One was this idea that there was an Eye of the Needle gate in Jerusalem in the city walls –
David: Wasn’t it –
Stephen: – but there is absolutely no contemporary historical or archaeological evidence.
David: I thought –
Jimmy: Well, actually, in Biblical times, women’s hands were significantly bigger than they are today, so a needle’s eye could be forty or fifty foot across. They were enormous.
Stephen: You still want that rich man to get through, don’t you?
David: What someone told me, I might say, at my bloody school, which is still going, and it turns out, is talking bullshit…
Stephen: I’ll bet it was a private school –
David: It was a private school –
Stephen: – where they don’t like to get on the wrong side of rich people.
David Mitchell’s mind was blown, and so was mine. I can honestly say this may have been the incident which triggered my fascination with the whole public-school world. Such a blatant manipulation, such a big fat lie to cover up an inconvenient idea (on that theme, one day I will tell you about my mother-in-law’s cereal boxes, don’t let me forget). Public schools were telling boys that Jesus didn’t think it was that difficult for rich people to go to heaven. What else were they telling them about him?
Perhaps not a great deal. At the most extreme end of the spectrum the treatment of boys by men of supposed faith is so brutal that the whole of Christianity appeared as a sham, like when Roald Dahl describes violent beatings by the man who would go on to become Archbishop of Canterbury, or in the tragically countless examples of children poisoned against the Church for ever by their suffering at the hands of priests and brothers in Catholic boarding schools. If anything was going to make me believe in hell it would be the people who put young people off God and Jesus and all that goes with them in this way. But at the non-extreme end, in the blander middle bit, is an impression of a teaching of a religion which is all about order and tradition and patriarchy, a system built around the vague figure of a slightly fuddy-duddy and decidedly un-miraculous God. And so we find Evelyn Waugh telling us of a young man who ‘accepted Christianity in much the same way as he accepted the Conservative party’ as well as Mrs Hampden who ‘believed that God made the classes, and that the unemployed were always unemployable’. There are things that don’t add up, but this is a world where things are believed and disbelieved on different levels, because everyone is told that they are lucky and their parents love them very much and they are having a nice time, and if that’s only half-true then lots of other things can be half-true too.
And I do think a bit of this has filtered down to all of us. That Christianity has become part of our rather perverse brand of patriotism, along with Union Jack cushion covers from John Lewis, and the Great British Bake Off. Our national anthem is still God Save the Queen for goodness sake, as in ‘deity most of you don’t believe in save figurehead none of you elected’. But you would have to be a real lefty or weirdo to question that wouldn’t you, and who doesn’t like Bake Off, so really we are all de facto Christian in some way aren’t we? (And by the way, if you want to see someone really get to grips with Bake Off, see Charlie Brooker here – the fifth paragraph might be the best thing you read all year.) Just in a traditional, cosy, non-challenging sort of way, of course.
This is the Christian nation it appears Dave might be chatting about, and it is pants, because it overlooks the starvation and the hunger and the widows and orphans and all the things that were really rather important to Jesus. Jesus didn’t just didn’t go on about caring for the poor and feeing the hungry a bit. It was like his whole main thing. And it wasn’t just loving and caring, he expressly mentioned feeding. Do you love me? Yes. Feed my lambs. Don’t blame them for being hungry. Don’t suggest you are doing them a favour by letting them starve. Don’t allow them to work for such low wages and on such dreadful contracts that they cannot buy food, don’t let landlords charge them insane rents and energy providers take their precious salaries away, don’t do all this while making sure the nation looks the other way and blames immigrants. Feed them, Dave. You can do it lad. And the same goes for all of us, because when they went with the five loaves and two fishes and Jesus said he would sort it out for them, there was a proviso that they had to share and believe there would be enough. They didn’t say, there were five loaves and two fishes, but a couple of us ate three of the rolls and one of the fish, so do you think you could lash something together with the rest of it for the other four thousand nine hundred and ninety-six?
But that is the point of faith, you have to take a bit of a punt, be willing to share and put yourself out a bit. And I know all this seems a bit scary, but do please remember that other thing that Jesus said over and over again, in fact the thing he said more often than anything else, was do not be afraid. But how can I risk disturbance to the social hierarchy when my wealthy family has depended on it for centuries? Do not be afraid. How can I risk not having millions of pounds in the bank when I understand nothing about money because I grew up in an institution and the whole notion of earning and spending is alien to me? Do not be afraid. How can I share more with poor people when it means I might not have enough money to buy Union Jack cushions and Bake-Off ingredients? Do not be afraid. How can I love my neighbour when they are poor and yucky and foreign and make food that smells funny? Do not be afraid. If this is to be a Christian nation, Dave, this is how it needs to be, and you need to lead by example.
The other thing that Jesus made very clear was the importance of children. Let the children come and bother me, he said. They are important. In fact, he said we had to be like them to get to know him. So if we are building a society where children are raised in institutions, or in childcare from eight in the morning until six at night, or in formal education from the age of two, we are not, I suggest, doing What Jesus Would Do. Or at least we are missing something.
So how do children know God? I overheard my son ask my daughter who God was the other day, and she told him that God ‘is someone you can’t see, but he’s cuddling all of us all of the time’. Did you get that, Dave? All of us. Even you. And might I be so bold as to suggest you could use a few cuddles. Those cuddles are waiting for you, for all of us whenever we want. Although maybe that’s the scariest bit of all.